The annual literary event brings together renowned authors and inspiring stories to benefit a women’s nonprofit groupBy Lisa Leigh Connors • Photography by Michael and Suz Karchmer
As three women stood up separately to share stories of how WE CAN helped them through everything from spousal abuse to financially tough times, audience members were told to hold their applause until the very end. Best-selling author Karen Joy Fowler found herself sitting on her hands to prevent herself from clapping after each inspiring story.
“We all need and deserve a safety net,” said Fowler after the annual event in June.“We have watched over the years the safety nets being shredded. Every community needs a group like WE CAN.
”WE CAN’s “A Day of Words, Wit and Wisdom,” which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, consistently sells out. Nearly 500 people attended the event at the Wychmere Beach Club in Harwichport, and for the first time, tents were set up to handle the overflow of attendees. Local author Anne LeClaire entertained audiences as the emcee. The nonprofit organization also honored former U.S. Federal Judge Nancy Gertner as 2014 Woman of the Year for her significant contributions to women’s rights as a criminal defense attorney and civil rights activist. “It epitomized the notion that this could happen to any of us,” says Gertner, referring to the women undergoing challenging life transitions.
The highlight of the annual literary event featured three renowned authors who touched on similar themes: the influence of their parents, finding humor in dealing with a parent’s dementia, and the loss of a parent. Despite the serious subject matter, the authors weaved in many humorous stories from childhood to adulthood and provided insights into the lives of writers.
Jill McCorkle, the author of six novels, including her latest, “Life After Life,” poignantly spoke of her interest in the beginning and ending of life, the takeoff and the landing. “I have been fascinated by this place where we circle back around,” says McCorkle. “I wanted to write a novel to celebrate joy and living right until the end.” She said the pieces began accumulating for “Life after Life” when her dad died 20 years ago, long before she was ready to write it. “I wrote how strange it was that I was able to sit and pay bills, feed my children and do all sorts of everyday tasks in the midst of it. Somehow, I had always thought as a young person, when hard times come, life would yield. Not true.”
Wally Lamb, the award-winning author of five New York Times best-selling novels, including “I Know This Much is True” and “She’s Come Undone,” spoke candidly about his early success and the pressure to keep writing top-selling novels. After his first two books were picked by Oprah Winfrey, he suddenly had millions of readers—and a bigger contract for a third novel, “which scared the hell out of me,” says Lamb, adding that he shut down completely. But after visiting the city of New Orleans, he became inspired to write “The Hour I First Believed.” What helped him the most is remembering this advice: “Never predetermine who your audience is going to be,” says Lamb. “Write it for yourself, have the faith and whoever is meant to find it, will find it.”
Fowler, the author of seven best-selling novels, including “The Jane Austen Book Club,” discussed her childhood and talked about how moving from Bloomington, Ind., to Palo Alto, Calif., when she was 11, changed her life forever. “The move was very hard on me. I do believe I would not be a writer today if I hadn’t been forcibly removed from the lush utopia of Bloomington,” says Fowler. She recently received the PEN/Faulkner Award for “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” a novel for which she researched psychological experiments on animals. Frequently during her talk, she referenced her father, who was an animal behaviorist. “It seems very clear, dad, that we have underestimated the creatures that we share a planet with at every opportunity,” says Fowler, whose father died many years ago. “They are a lot smarter than we have allowed ourselves to imagine.”
What are your thoughts on the e-book movement?
Jill McCorkle: I seem to spend more money now because I love to have the hardbacks and I also download the books as well if I am going on a trip. In the past couple of years, I have bought the same book twice.
Karen Joy Fowler: The bookstores that have survived this long have a great base in the community and are thriving. I think we are going to see a lot more self-publishing. I suspect that people will then be hired to point you to where they think the quality is—for better or worse.
Anne LeClaire: I feel optimistic about publishing because of the crowds here today.
Wally Lamb: Publishers don’t know how it’s going to play out. I know that when Amazon tried to publish professional writers, that’s been pretty much a failure. There’s some push back going on right now. The brick-and-mortar stores are not going to lie down and play dead.
How has social media affected how you interact with your readers?
McCorkle: I find it pretty scary. I love those moments where you connect with someone in a meaningful way. I find it like the rabbit hole. If I stay in there too much, what I am really longing for is a day of silence. The world was kind of chaos enough even before social media. And now it seems even louder than ever before.
Fowler: I am not on Facebook. I have agreed to a blog, on which the weeds are now growing. I do enjoy hearing from readers. I have a bit of an Internet addiction. I try to explain to my publishers that if they put me on Facebook, I would never come out.
Lamb: I resisted Facebook for years. Then my agent called me up and told me, “This is how things are done now.” Now I love it too much. I am a big procrastinator. You gotta check out what those people are having for dinner (on Facebook)! It’s very much a part of the way authors and readers now interact. Writing can be pretty lonely and I like the interconnectedness to it.
What is a typical day for a writer?
McCorkle: In the South, I am always fixin’ to get ready. Much of the process has become scattered notetaking process. When my children were young, I realized if I ever said to my kids, “OK, I am going to go in this room and close the door because I want to be myself,” it wouldn’t work. But I learned a long time ago, if I said, “I am going to the grocery store,” they don’t bat an eye. I have written many things in the supermarket parking lot. I would just sit in my car and work a little bit. I have become a very sneaky writer.
Fowler: If I am being completely honest, a typical day looks like this: I get up, I take a long walk, I am supposed to get in 10,000 steps a day and I am supposed to eat five vegetables a day. I like to have this all done by 10 in the morning. Then the rest of the day is my own. I turn on my computer and check my email. I am a very political person. I have about seven political websites I check out to make sure while I slept the world didn’t go to hell in a handbasket.
Lamb: I get up at about 5:30 and I go to the gym first. I like the combination of physical exercise, I eat breakfast and do the email thing. Then all of a sudden, the story takes hold, and I can’t wait to get there. That takes about seven years. I have always been an early riser. My brain just shuts down at 2 p.m. And on a bad day, at 1 p.m., I go upstairs and watch “Days of Our Lives.”
When was your first taste of success?
McCorkle: It was my first time in Boston and I called to get a taxi at 6 in the morning. And the dispatcher said, “The writer?” That was pretty good.
Lamb: My moment was when the Oprah stuff happened. But when I came home from the first Oprah book tour, I was having a quiet moment on the couch and reading The New York Times. At the very moment, my son Justin comes walking by me and he has one of those Magic 8 balls. ‘Is my dad a dork?’ Then he shakes it, and looks up and says, ‘My sources say “Yes.” There went my moment.
LeClaire: I was cleaning cottages and I was cleaning toilets and I’m not 20. I am thinking, “What is wrong with my life?” Then a bookstore on Martha’s Vineyard called and said Bill Clinton was just in and he saw your book (“Sideshow”) and said this is the best book he has read all summer. And then another time, when I was at the airport, I got to the gate and handed my ticket over to the attendant and she looked at me and said, “Anne LeClaire, there’s a writer by that name. And I went, “That’s me!”
Karen, what was your experience like when they turned “The Jane Austen Book Club” into a movie?
Fowler: I generally don’t like the movies made from books. I thought Hollywood and I had a comfortable understanding that they would option my books, but they would not make them into movies. My goal was to put option after option together and never have a movie.
In typical Hollywood fashion, they were so concerned that I might have opinions, so they did not tell me they were moving on the option. It was cast, they were ready to start shooting in two months. They were scared of me. I thought it was a charming movie; it just wasn’t my book.
Is there pressure to always try and top yourself and produce that next big novel?
McCorkle: I just always think, we will just try this out. If I don’t like it, I can just go burn it and no one will know I wrote this. If I start thinking about what anybody will think at the other end, I am just completely stunted.
Fowler: It’s deadly to feel that pressure. We were talking about how horrible that first draft is. It’s badly written, it’s uninventive. Everything I like about my books I put in later. Every day when I sit down to work, I let go of the idea that it might be good.
Lamb: I struggled after that second book was picked by Oprah. It was very intimidating for me to have to write a third novel and I shut down. It wasn’t until I was literally able to get up from my desk and open up my office door and chase all those imagined people who weren’t going to like it. I have gotten beyond that now and try not to put that pressure on myself.
Tales from the Road
From Wally Lamb:
I had an ambitious book tour with “We Are Water.” I am riding toward No. 43 of my 47th stop. My driver drops me off in front of the store. It’s the grand opening of a suburban Illinois Costco. Because of traffic, I am 10 minutes late, full of apologies, but none of the door greeters knows what I am talking about. “Book signings?” says the manager. “I don’t think we do those, but maybe if you write to the company.” Several people with clipboards approach me and try to sign me up for a Costco membership. I then ask for directions to the men’s room and the book department. All of the employees know where the bathrooms are, nobody knows where they keep the books. The restrooms are Spartan clean, brand new. Then I wander a store that is the approximate size of Delaware. Eight minutes later, I found the books. “We Are Water” is stacked next to Bill O’Reilly’s book, “Killing Jesus.” A young manager stops by my table and asks if he can get me anything. I think to myself, “How about some book enthusiasts?” But I just ask for some water. Twenty minutes in, a customer approaches the table. It’s a little girl, about 6. “How much are these?” she asks, pointing to the Sharpies. I tell her they are not for sale. She blinks back her tears and wanders back to her mom. I glance at my watch, I have about two more hours to go. A woman comes up to the book table, “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! You are like my favorite author of all time.” She asks me to sign her arm. After it is over, I go outside to wait for my driver. It is cold and snowing. I have forgotten my scarf inside, but I am afraid I will never find the book section again.
From Karen Joy Fowler:
The best advice I got as an early writer came from a friend: Whenever you go off to do a reading, put $20 in your pocket and if the number of people who show up can be taken out for drinks on $20, cancel the reading and take them out for drinks. I have followed this advice very carefully.
At a reading in Bellingham, Wash., a sea of chairs has been put out. They are obviously expecting at least 50, possibly 500 people. Only one of the chairs is occupied, which is the worst thing that can happen. If nobody is there, then you can swing home. But if one person is there, it is tricky. So I said to the woman: “I am so flattered that you came, but obviously, you’re the only one. What I would like to do is retire next door where we can have a cup of tea or a glass of wine, on me, and we will just talk.” Then she got this stricken look on her face, and she said, “You can’t do that. You can’t cancel the reading. I have a paper due tomorrow and my assignment was to go to an event and assess the theatricality of the presentation.” So not only did I have to read, I had to read with theatricality,” for this audience of one. All the while, thinking, there will be no drink in this for you young lady!”
On a later occasion, I was doing a book signing with a much more famous writer. We were in a fairly small store, so the line went out the door, into the parking lot. The store owner had a bullhorn, and in intervals, he would go out into the parking lot and I would hear him saying, “No waiting for Ms. Fowler. No waiting for Ms. Fowler.” And even so, no one came in!