Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Gift of Interacting with Readers

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Many years ago I finished reading a book that resonated for me. The characters in it and their struggles felt real. I lived with them for a while, found pain in their sorrows, amusement in their foibles, joy in their triumphs. The writer was living nearby and I chose to write a letter via his publisher to say thank you for writing this book. He wrote back, with a few kind words, then went on to talk about how miserable publication had made him, book sales were disappointing, the publisher was a letdown, people just didn’t get it, etc…

I wrote back to him, asking wasn’t it still worthwhile to have produced such a good book?

Clearly not. I’d stepped over some invisible line, his next note made clear. In it he challenged me to write back and call him a lousy-ingrate-good-for-nothing-crybaby...

I ended the correspondence.

I enjoy discussing authors’ works with them, whether the writer in question receives me as a reader or as a peer, but it’s understandably not something that every author is open to, and for good reason. There’s no telling where the discussion will go, or if opening the door to a discussion will soon lead to Uncle Ned telling you what you “should really write about.” Or, for some genre writers (some horror titles come to mind) meeting some of your most ardent fans may draw you into some awkward social exchanges.

Nobody needs the conversation with Uncle Ned, except for amusement, self-flagellation, or perhaps to take notes on Uncle Ned as inspiration for fictional character.

But there is room for thoughtful discussion, and I’ve discovered that I welcome it.

The other day I received a beautiful note from a friend who had read my book, Eulogy. What struck me was not only what he had to say, but the care and thought he put into it. I’ll state unashamedly that it was a moving experience to read his note. More than this, I learned something about my own writing from him, and for me, that can only be accepted as a gift. His note would have been equally insightful to me if I didn’t know the guy who sent it but, coming from a friend, it was all the more powerful.

We live in a time where common courtesy has been removed from many interactions, particularly online.

We, fiction writers, may have been at the forefront of this, as our work requires that we be readily capable of creating characters to whom we will do as we please, and to whom we can subject unending torture and calamity. We use and abuse our fictional characters to our own ends.

But the rest of the world, that one we call real, is made up of people who are, thankfully, beyond our reach and control. And not all fiction writers are ready for them.

I’ve heard authors lament the inter-connectivity of our time, with a sense that it threatens their solitude. I don’t share this view. It’s wonderful that a reader can easily contact with a writer if they choose, and I know how to turn off my phone and computer when I want to focus on my own work.

I like to think of a book not just as a conversation unto itself, but also interacting with other books, and further interacting with the reader – the one who takes the story and by reading it makes it their own. It’s energizing to hear from the reader, particularly when the reader brings insights to my work that I have not yet seen.

Writers do not live in isolation from the rest of the world nor do our books, nor do we from our readers.

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There’s no telling where the discussion will go, or if opening the door to a discussion will soon lead.

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The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Ken Murray

Ken Murray lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario. He teaches creative writing at Haliburton School of the Arts and at the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto. His fiction and non-fiction have been published in journals, newspapers and magazines in both Canada and the United States. An avid athletic amateur, he likes kiteboarding, skiing, snowboarding, running and cycling. He is a volunteer broadcaster in community radio and dabbles in several sports. Eulogy is his first novel.

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