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Authors navigate strange chapter as book releases go virtual in pandemic

  • Writer Matt Hongoltz-Hetling, of Vershire, left, talks with Mike Boutin, of Claremont, right, about alternative medicine, the subject of his next book, at Ziggy’s Pizza in West Lebanon, N.H., Friday, Sept. 11, 2020. Boutin overheard Hongoltz-Hetling discussing the subject and approached him to share information about a friend’s health food business. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Writer Matt Hongoltz-Hetling, of Vershire, is the author of A Libertarian Walks into a Bear, about the town of Grafton, N.H., chosen by a group of Libertarians for their Free Town Project. Hongoltz-Hetling was photographed at the table in Ziggy’s Pizza where he regularly writes in West Lebanon, N.H., Friday, Sept. 11, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Writer Matt Hongoltz-Hetling, of Vershire, chats with Kathryn Hayes, left, after she assembled his usual order at Ziggy’s Pizza in West Lebanon, N.H., Friday, Sept. 11, 2020. Hongoltz-Hetling works frequently at the restaurant where he can avoid the distractions and responsibilities of home. “This is loud and there’s busyness around me, but I’don’t really find any of that distracting because it doesn’t have anything to do with me,” he said. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Writer Matt Hongoltz-Hetling, of Vershire, arrives at Ziggy’s Pizza in West Lebanon, N.H., for several hours of work as he prepares for the release of his book A Libertarian Walks into a Bear Friday, Sept. 11, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Makenna Goodman (photo by Suzanne Opton)

  • Gretchen Cherington

  • Sarah Stewart Taylor

  • William Noble (photo Roger Foley)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/13/2020 7:26:58 PM
Modified: 9/14/2020 10:13:31 AM

One of the joys of putting a book out is that once the long hours of sitting alone writing are over, the finished book draws the author back out into the world. Readings, literary festivals, book signings, a book launch party, interviews for newspapers and magazines, reviews and conversations with fellow writers at events, all are part of the reward for having gone through what Virginia Woolf called the “breathless anguish” of writing a book.

Well, to borrow another literary reference, good-bye to all that. Author tours, cocktail parties, anything surrounding the publication of a new book are off the table thanks to the pandemic.

“Initially, it was going to be a big disappointment,” said Makenna Goodman, whose first novel, The Shame, came out last month. She had been looking forward to the social whirl of meeting people and building her network as a new author.

Instead, the book launch was held virtually, under the auspices of Hanover’s Still North Books and the website Literary North, and every other event will be virtual, too. With book events canceled far and wide, other Upper Valley authors have had similar experiences, and while all of them said that they miss the in-person interactions, there is a uniform silver lining.

The online events reach more people, and are less disruptive of their lives at home. And this transformation of how writers interact with the public is likely to be permanent.

“Maybe the publicity through Zoom has created even more readers than what I otherwise would have had,” Goodman said in a phone interview. In virtual events, Goodman, who lives in Vershire, has been paired with other writers she likely wouldn’t have interacted with otherwise, because they live too far apart, and people have tuned into talks sponsored by bookstores hours away from where they live.

Hartland author Sarah Stewart Taylor came out with a new mystery novel, The Mountains Wild, this summer after having dropped the genre several years ago. She had plans to do some events in Texas and perhaps in California. “It was amazing how quickly publicists changed to doing Zoom events,” she said in a phone interview. She did 14 such events, mostly in June and July, and has 10 more planned for the fall. The events included one at Poisoned Pen Bookstore, in Scottsdale, Ariz., which specializes in mysteries. That event had “many multiples” of the number of people who could have participated in a live event, she said.

The new reality has meant authors have had to be even more assiduous in building up an online presence, usually in the form of social media, something Matt Hongoltz-Hetling has been working on in advance of the publication Tuesday of his first book, A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears).

The “American town” of this nonfiction book’s title is Grafton. Hongoltz-Hetling, like Taylor a former Valley News reporter, has not only ramped up his social media presence, but is holding a songwriting contest, titled “A Musician Walk Into a Bear,” that continues through the launch of the book.

“My hope is that the book will bask in some of the reflected glory of the song contest,” he said in a phone interview from Ziggy’s, the West Lebanon pizzeria where he writes most days. A virtual book launch is planned for Wednesday at 7 p.m. under the auspices of Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord.

The abrupt ending of live literary events has left Hongoltz-Hetling with mixed feelings. He’s not all that comfortable a public speaker, but maybe the challenge of talking to bookstore audiences would have been new and exciting. “I’m a little bit sorry that I’ve missed out on that end of it,” he said.

Not all authors have had to forego in-person events. Norwich garden designer and preservationist Bill Noble produced his first “and probably only” book, Spirit of Place: The Making of a New England Garden, at the end of June. The book details how Noble developed his home garden.

“I’m one of the lucky ones,” he said. “I think the timing of the book was unintentionally really supportive of getting the book out there, and I think the topic was of greater interest than it would have been a year or two ago.” Gardening was among the many home-based activities that got a lift from the pandemic, and the lavish photographs and descriptions of Noble’s work emerged as an inspiration. His online talk to the Hanover Garden Club had 170 attendees, he said.

The garden also enabled him to hold several outdoor events in conjunction with Norwich Bookstore. Once in June and twice in both July and August, Noble was able to invite 25 people at a time to his garden, with masks and social distancing required. The ticketed events required a purchase of Spirit of Place through the bookstore. He’d been forced by the pandemic to cancel an event organized by the Garden Conservancy, where Noble had been the longtime director of preservation, “but I was determined to invite people into the garden, one way or another,” he said.

“Those events were really the high point of my summer,” he added.

They were good events for Norwich Bookstore, too. Taylor said the Zoom events are good for authors, but bookstores, which remain tethered to their communities, are another matter. “I think the hard thing is how do you make it work for the bookstores,” she said.

So far, the Norwich Bookstore has been weathering the pandemic, partly because of its longevity. There’s a social contract at work between the 25-year-old shop and its patrons. “I think people get that if they want to have these local events,” they have to reciprocate and buy books at the shop, co-owner Liza Bernard said.

The shop remains closed for browsing, but open for orders over the phone. Events are continuing via Zoom, which in some ways are easier to pull off. There’s no need to set up and then put away 60 chairs, for example. Still, “it’s a lot of work to be pivoting on a daily basis,” Bernard said.

Another bright side, though, is that events can now exceed the bookstore’s capacity and bring in audiences from far and wide. A Zoom gathering for Gretchen Cherington, a first-time author from Meriden, fit that description, with 70 people in attendance, Cherington said.

“They couldn’t have all come if it had been in their shop,” she said. She’s also had friends join her events from California.

As with Noble’s book, Cherington’s memoir, Poetic License, has met a surprising moment for its subject. Her book centers on her long silence after childhood trauma involving her father, the celebrated poet and Dartmouth professor Richard Eberhart, a theme that intersects with the #metoo movement. It took her almost 20 years to write Poetic License, much of which was written in workshops at the Writer’s Center, in White River Junction.

“It does fit in the public narrative of women having secrets about what happened to them, and the world not wanting to listen to them,” she said.

Having her story out in the world has brought her a measure of peace. “I feel lighter and more resolved about working on these issues,” she said. She has a virtual event planned in conjunction with WISE at 7 p.m. on Sept. 28.

In preparing to publicize the book, Cherington had hoped to do more virtual events, a wish the pandemic was able to fulfill.

For many writers, the ease of speaking with readers online has compensated for not being about to travel and meet people face to face. Taylor described being able to put dinner in front of her kids then sequester herself for an hour for a bookstore event, often with another writer or two involved. At the end, she can tuck her kids into bed.

“I suspect that authors will pick out a few important in-person events and then do others virtually,” Taylor said.

“I don’t think we’ll ever go back to where we were,” Bernard said.

Goodman, the debut author from Vershire, worked as a book editor before writing her own novel. Even then, only big name authors were going on book tours.

“I think it’s changed the way literary events are going to be done in the future,” she said.

It’s also going to change how readers see authors. All of these Zoom events stay online, Goodman said. “There’s always the possibility that you’ll say something you regret and you’ll never be able to get rid of it,” she said.

But a writer could also “adjust the lens” on how a book is read, by speaking about it in a certain way in bookstore events, she noted. The in-person events were ephemeral, but the online events exist forever.

“It’s enlivening and opening to put a book out during a pandemic,” Goodman said, “and it’s also alienating and limiting in other ways.”

For writers and readers alike, this is just an opening chapter in a new way to experience literature. There is much yet to write.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207. 

Correction

Gretchen Cherington’s memoir, Poetic License, recounts her upbringing with her father, the poet Richard Eberhart. His last name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.




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