DEADWOOD — This year’s South Dakota Book Festival literary feast held Friday at the Martin & Mason ballroom was a literary reveal, figuratively featuring three open books: although the life of an author is intrinsically an individual journey, in order to remain relevant, connecting with others is good for the soul and subsequently good for the reading public who ingest the written word.
“I love writing, but the candy part of this job is getting out and meeting other people and that’s what we love,” said author Tosca Lee.
“The cake is to meet folks,” said author Kimberly Stuart. “It’s super, super fun.”
“Shoulder to Shoulder: How We Work Together to Connect with Readers, Booksellers & Communities,” featuring Lee, Stuart, and Nicole Baart, also known as “The Traveling Pens,” afforded those in attendance a rare glimpse at life between the lines.
“One of the things we love to do is to connect with people through books,” said Stuart. “We read and we write to feel like we’re not alone. So if you’re one of the nerds who’s felt embarrassed in science class because you’re reading beyond your years or you’re weeping in an airport about a middle grade novel, you’re among friends here. And we have found our friendship to be something that helps us to not feel like we’re alone.”
In addition to the solitary life of a writer, what connects these three women is their rural and remote residences.
“This Midwestern divide thing is another thing that unites us,” Stuart said. “We are all three Midwestern girls and we love the Midwest and sometimes we feel in our industry that that is maybe not the most popular place to be from. We often feel like we’re having to say over and over again, there’s a rich history of literary thought here and also, there are a lot of readers here that are reading books and so, we can write for them.”
Case in point: the front cover of Stuart’s “Heart Land,” which features a man and a woman walking down a dirt road and a star-filled sky on the back.
“My editor got back to me and said, ‘We’re really concerned about a couple things.’ First of all, the beta readers, all of them live in Manhattan, were really worried about these two people. They said, ‘Why are they walking alone on a road at night?’ It was confusing to them and ominous. And then, the back of the book still has this sky that’s littered with stars and the front of the book had that same kind of image and they were worried about that too. They said, ‘We’re confused about the lights. And it looks like’ And you’re going to think I’m making this up. These are the exact words: ‘All of the lights in the sky look like an imminent demon alien invasion.’ And so I had to write this email and say, ‘Those are stars. And we see them on gravel roads at night and we don’t feel fear.’”
The cover was then changed to feature a moon.
“It just says ‘Nighttime. Don’t be scared,’” Stuart joked, adding that stories such as those are friendship fodder in the highly competitive writing world. “It has been so fantastic to go shoulder-to-shoulder and to join forces. A lot of book events are solitary exercises and you hope that someone will show up … and to just have a place where we can talk about just such a strange job.”
Taking the mic, Baart, who most recently penned “You Were Always Mine” explained that between the three of them, the Traveling Pens have been in the publishing industry, combined for more than 40 years, written more than 30 books, and have a dozen children.
“We’ve just found it incredibly busy and it’s hard to focus on your career and hard to focus on what you’re doing when there’s so much going on around you,” Baart said. “Tosca and I have known each other for quite awhile and I called her up and I said, ‘I can’t do this alone anymore.’ I love meeting readers. I love meeting booksellers. I love meeting librarians. This is my heartbeat. We write stories to connect. I don’t write it so that it’s read in a vacuum and we never interact. I love it when my readers reach out to me.”
And that’s how the Traveling Pens was formed.
“Our mission is very simple. It’s ‘Love on Readers, love on writers, love on booksellers.’ Because these are our people and we write stories to connect,” Lee said during her address to the audience. “We write stories to let people know they’re not alone and we write stories as a service also, to help people escape. Because we like fiction because it allows us to step out of this life for a time. Because we need that escape.”
Just prior to closing and a question and answer session, the three shared “Things I Didn’t Know.”
“I didn’t know that we wouldn’t have very much control,” Stuart said. “I didn’t know we had no control over the cover, the alien invasion. No control over titles … And I sure didn’t know that after handing off my book to a publisher, I was still absolutely required to do so much of the marketing and promotion … it turns out the onus is on us to get the word out both on social media and in newsletters and speaking engagements and I’ve found a lot of joy in that, but I sure didn’t know that that’s what I was getting into.”
“I didn’t know that when you wrote a book, you were automatically a public speaker,” Baart said. “Who knew? I am a bit of an introvert. I am a self-proclaimed nerd … and I will always be that way and I thought that I could be very literary and write my books in quiet and the world would rejoice and then I could retreat to my writing cave and do it again and that’s not the case at all. I found that very eye-opening but incredibly rewarding, too.”
Lee said she found her first rejection letter recently and didn’t realize how many mistakes she made.
“Especially when I re-read the rejection letter and it read, ‘Even after reading the 23-page synopsis, we’re still not sure what this novel is about,” Lee said. “About 22 pages too many. I didn’t know how many mistakes I was making, but somehow, I fumbled my way through. And I would sure like to spare other people some of those mistakes.”
Alchemy Writers Workshop and Retreat June 12-14 in Sioux Falls is an outgrowth of the collaboration between the three and is a boutique writing experience for aspiring writers. For more information, go to alchemywriter.com.
“We all three have backgrounds in teaching,” Lee said. “And we want to see other writers succeed or people who have this dream of writing succeed. That’s very important to us.”
“If you’re in this gig and you’re in this room, we really, heartily encourage you to find people to do this with,” Stuart said. “We do it all better together, I think.”
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