The Cocktail Party of Writers

Back when I was sending out query letters to agents and pining for publication, I felt as though I had my nose pressed to the windows of a giant room. On the other side of the glass, writers were engaged in the lively conversation of a cocktail party. Dickens chatted with Helprin, McEwan with Austen, Lorrie Moore with Howard Norman (because I first came across their work at the same time). All I wanted was to be let into that room, the room of books of all kinds speaking to each other over the centuries. I didn’t care if I had to stand by the door to the kitchen, straining to hear over the noise of dishes clattering. As long as I was inside. Being in the room would be enough.

In the nearly two years since my first novel came out, I’ve learned that the conversations among books are slightly different than what I expected--because the participants are greater in number, more varied in kind. What I’ve joyfully discovered is that publishing a book takes you into a room where readers are engaged in dynamic conversation, not just writers. And the best part of all is that readers weave their own stories into the mix. Publishing a book doesn’t just let you send your own story out into the world; it allows you to hear the stories of other people around you.

At a recent book event at a Greek Orthodox church in North Carolina, I spoke about nostalgia and about the uniquely Greek experience of exile and dislocation. The discussion afterwards yielded two powerful stories from men in the audience--of a man whose father who had stayed away from his native Greece so long that his return left him feeling homeless both there and here, and of a native Greek who had returned to his village for the first time in more than a decade and been welcomed by old school friends, and wound up playing the accordion with friends as he had done years before. I keep thinking about these men and their tales, and about the group’s response, particularly as the Greek-born man told his story through smiles and tears. I can’t believe how fortunate I was that my novel gave me the opportunity to hear what they had to say.

We often think of promotion as the unpleasant necessity of the writing life, and we cringe, too, at the seemingly relentless self-centeredness promotion entails. I think it’s useful to remember that our books can serve as keys or levers (pick your metaphor). They can unlock or pry open the experiences of our readers whose stories become rare gifts.

So, if your nose is pressed to the glass, turn around and look behind you. There are conversations going on already outside that writers’ room. Listen to them. And if you’re in the room, don’t forget to open the door. Let the readers in.

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About the Author

Henriette Lazaridis' debut novel The Clover House was published by Ballantine Books in April 2013 and was a Boston Globe best-seller and a Target Emerging Authors pick. Her work has appeared in publications including ELLE, Narrative Magazine, Forge, Salamander, the New England Review, The Millions, The New York Times online, and the Huffington Post and has earned her a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Grant. She has degrees in English from Middlebury College, Oxford University where she was a Rhodes Scholar, and the University of Pennsylvania where she earned a Ph.D. She taught at Harvard for ten years before leaving academia to turn to writing. In the summers, she runs the Krouna Writing Workshop in northern Greece (www.krounawritingworkshop.com).

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