Roberta F. King

Author site for the memoir, He Plays a Harp

Archive for the 'Books and Readings' Category

13 January
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Book Grouping

Through people I know or people who know people, I’ve been invited to talk with a few book groups over the last half year. I’d envisioned book groups as part of my author’s role and believe that if there’s six or so people who have all bought or borrowed my book, I should make an effort to be present with them. The relational nature of He Plays a Harp also lends itself to intimate discussions like those in a book group.

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My boss Diana and her friend Jeanne.

My boss hosted an elaborate dinner party for her book group. There were eight women at her house and they asked thoughtful and probing questions, before, during and after dinner. It was a little bit like Trivial Pursuit, I sat with them working my memory hard to recall the specific chapters or sections they were talking about and my motivation and thought process for the choices I made some five years ago. A book group isn’t a place where you can dodge a response or give the short answer, your audience is right next to you on the sofa or across the dining room table. When things got quiet among the members, I offered to read, picking one of the book’s short chapters.

My high school English teacher, Mr. Schelhaas suggested my book to a group he knew that had been reading together for more than 30 years. Five older ladies and I drank wine and snacked on cheese before a soup and bread lunch. We played Dutch BINGO to see who knew who and how. I learned that a few of the women lived a street away from my childhood home, one taught choir at my former high school and most were family friends, Aunts or neighbors of kids I went to school with. I enjoyed the connection. They told me they were grateful for the honesty of my book and appreciated that I didn’t hide any of the bad and ugly parts of Noah’s life and death. The readers specifically mentioned the strength of my relationship with Mike. It was wonderful to know that even without writing it purposefully, I’d shown the depth of our marriage and Mike’s personal character. I read them a chapter I’d never read aloud before, that was mostly about Mike and I tried not to choke. It made me proud that they could see what a great dad he had been to Noah. The ladies and I talked about faith and loss. I said books and stories where people are hurt, pray and magically recover seem fake to me. “Maybe I’m not a believer in the quick fix.” I don’t know if they agreed.

Must Love Dogs Book Group

Must Love Dogs book group

My friend Juanita’s group consisted of writers around my same age—like me, they were public relations and marketing types. We met in a noisy restaurant over supper and half off wine. We talked about motivation, finding time to write and read; process, publication challenges, writing classes vs. groups, platforms and all that writerly minutiae that authors love to talk about. Several of the women had books in progress or almost completed projects that sounded worthy of publication. It was fun to pretend I was an expert as I shared the story of how He Plays a Harp came to be a book, but I didn’t read for them.

 

If you are in a book group and would like to read and discuss He Plays a Harp, please contact me at: he.plays.a.harp@gmail.com

26 October
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Days of the Dead

Papier mache skull for Noah’s shrine.

I made my first shrine for Noah on a Sunday afternoon ten months after his death. At Mass that All Saints Day morning, I was shaken from my reverie when our priest read the names of parishioners who’d died that year. “Noah William Miesch,” he said. Noah was included on a list of people I only vaguely knew, older people mostly shut-ins and the very ill whose names I’d seen week after week in the parish bulletin. That day we were urged to remember our dead loved ones, so I came home from church and built a shrine on the kitchen cupboard with a box of pasta, a photograph of Noah and a SpongeBob toy.

Over the last eight years, I’ve created increasingly elaborate shrines for Noah and incorporated some traditional Dias de los Muertos objects—mostly skulls and skeletons—which Noah liked. Oddly, the last Halloween Noah was alive we were at Mackinac Island and he dressed as a skeleton for the festivities there. I place that ironic photograph on the shrine each year. Day of the Dead celebrates the lives of people who have died, not that they are dead. This is the message I tell people who are interested in my book, too.

I’m careful to not commandeer this holiday, being sensitive that my ethnic heritage is mostly Swedish, not Mexican. I think respectful cultural appropriation is okay—it’s part of being a citizen of the world and forming relationships with people who are different than me. Adopting cultural traditions is part of being inclusive and being included.

I’m happy to share that I’ve created a shrine for Noah that will be on view at Grand Rapids Public Library starting October 29. There are a lot of shrines at the library each year and I hope you’ll take the time to stop by to see them. On Saturday, November 1 at 1:30 PM, I’ll talk about my altar along with with other altar-makers and I’ll be reading a bit from my memoir He Plays a Harp, too. Come celebrate.

Photo of Noah as a skeleton. He’s with Mike and Tasha.

23 September
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The Right Fit

I like finding signs in life. It pleases me when the cosmos give me a hint that things are aligned, or not. A year ago today, I designated September 23 as “Manuscript Pitch Day.” It would have been Noah’s 25th birthday and I took the day off from work. The day was to be devoted to sending my manuscript to the world, in hopes of publication.

When He Plays a Harp was published, Principia brought me a box.

When He Plays a Harp was published, Principia brought me a box.

I’d long prepared for this day: revising, editing, engaging pre-readers and reading dozens of literary agent and small press blogs. I dove deep into tips and editor/agent interviews in publications like Poets & Writers and Writer’s Digest. I created a list of 50 literary agents and made a spreadsheet of their query requirements. I wrote pitch letters that were personalized and charming. All along in this process, I held onto an article I’d read a year earlier in The Grand Rapids Press. It was about a local publishing company, a start up, called Principia Media. I read the company’s blog and was a Facebook follower. I felt a connection—they were politically progressive and our values were closely aligned. I hoped my book was for them.

The day I sent out my pitches, I braced myself for the onslaught of rejection that the magazines promised me would come. I kept hoping, though, that Principia would want to read my full manuscript, they just seemed right to me. While a New York agent and publisher would have been fine and the idea of fame was fun, I really wanted a company with whom I could form a long-term, genuine relationship. Someone who understood He Plays a Harp wasn’t a transactional book and while making money and selling books was important to me; connecting with readers was just as important.

We celebrated Noah’s 25th birthday that night by sending off a sky lantern. As the lantern blew across Muskegon Lake, I made a quick wish that my manuscript would find a home and become a book. It knew it would be the best way to honor Noah’s life.

The following days I obsessively checked my email for responses—and sure enough—rejections were coming in. Within a week though, I’d heard from two agents who was interested and one publisher—Principia. As soon as the manuscript was accepted by Principia, I contacted the agents who were still considering and told them I’d found a publisher. I’ve always felt it was better to reject before you’re rejected. I have no regrets about my decision to use a local small press publisher.

Working with Principia has brought some great people into my life. CEO Vern Jones and his wife Irene are as kind and compassionate as any two people I know; Dirk Wierenga brought a significant amount of book design, publishing and book distribution knowledge to the table and public relations director, Julie Hurley worked with local bookstores and wrote my first press release for me.

Everyone at Principia worked hard from the start to make sure He Plays a Harp was well edited, proofed, beautifully designed and readily available to readers. They’ve supported me with their presence and their commitment to me as an author. I feel a bond with them that I don’t think would exist if I’d found a publisher outside of Michigan or one who was more interested in making money than sharing Noah’s story.

29 June
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Up North Book Tour

Okay, so it wasn’t the greatest idea to schedule a book tour around the Fourth of July holiday.

At the time, it made sense. I wanted to be in the town of Big Bay for the Independence Day parade that Bay Cliff Health Camp sponsors. The campers dress up and make elaborate costumes for the parade that celebrates their independence. Noah was in the parade when he was a camper and Big Cliff was an important part of his life. One chapter is about Bay Cliff and his camp experience is woven throughout He Plays a Harp. Combining a book event or two with the parade and visiting Bay Cliff seemed easy.

Noah dressed as mashed potatoes for the Independence Day parade in Big Bay.

Noah dressed as mashed potatoes for the Independence Day parade in Big Bay.

In reality, making a Fourth of July book tour was a bit more challenging than I expected–some libraries and stores were already set with events for the summer–though I was working on this in early May. Some claimed to be too busy at this time of year, while others said they were too slow. This made me ponder, where do people who live Up North go in the summer? Do Yoopers come downstate to Muskegon, Grand Rapids or Detroit.  Do they go further north, to places like Winnipeg or Moosejaw? I’ll be finding out the answer to these and other vexing questions next week!
In the end, I secured FOUR book events:

Les Cheneaux Community Library 1:30 PM, on Tuesday, July 1. The library is in Cedarville. I’ll be reading and signing books.

Falling Rock Cafe and Bookstore 5-7 PM on Wednesday, July 2 The store is in Munising. I’ll be talking with readers and signing books.

We’ll be at the SAIL benefit concert at the Ore Dock Brewing Company in Marquette 6-9 PM on July 3. This benefit will help Upper Michigan citizens with disabilities. They’ll have books on hand before I arrive. A portion the proceeds from book sales will help SAIL with its programs.

Private reading for teen campers and staff at Bay Cliff Health Camp, July 5 after lunch.

If you’re a Yooper or a troll like me just up for a visit, stop in to the library or bookstore and say hello.

PS: If you subscribe to the St. Ignace News, there was a great article about the camp, book tour and Noah. Can’t wait to get my paper copy!

29 May
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Connectioning

I’ve found that one of the joys of reading He Plays a Harp is talking with people who come to my book events. I haven’t had that many events (yet) but at each, I meet people who have connected with my writing or my story.

Open

Open

Recently at Schuler Books, a young woman came for the reading and brought me a book to be signed. She was a bit teary and I asked her if she’d lost a child. “No,” she said, “but my son Colin has CP.” I asked her to stay after the signing so we could talk. Her son is 2 ½ years old and is in Grand Rapids for a session at the Conductive Learning Center. The six-week program of intense physical and occupational therapy helps kids with CP and other conditions gain strength and mobility. The mom was from California, her husband had just flown back home and she was staying for the therapy program. During the event I read a couple of stories about the severity of Noah’s disability—one about reading to him throughout his life because he never learned to read and another about an incident when Noah, despite his poor hand coordination, pulled a fire alarm at school. These stories perhaps foreshadowed her future with her son. She’s still coming the grips with the idea that she is raising a son with a severe disability—an emotional and heart-ripping situation when you don’t know what the future holds. Even with a non-disabled child, there is no sure and smooth path to the future, but that path is more stable and steady. Some kids with disabilities require constant care and attention and I think she knows that’s what her son will need. It is a heavy burden to carry—knowing that your child’s future is full of complications and physical, mental and social barriers physical.

I didn’t have any words of advice—other than you meet each moment as it comes and just do your best for you and your child. The fact that she was in Michigan from California for a six-week program showed me that whatever the future for Colin might hold, it was certain to be filled with tender care and motherly love.

Could anyone ask for anything more?

03 May
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A Second Goodbye

Broken

Broken

After four years of writing, revising and editing; making photo choices and reviewing page proofs I have a book in hand.

I love the feel of its soft touch paper cover, the typography is pleasing and the stories delight me as I re-read them. I have a handful of events planned and people seem excited to read it. This is what I worked for, right?

And I wonder why I don’t feel better, happier about this moment in time. I reached out to another author, Christine O’Hagen. She wrote The Book of Kehls, about the death of her son Jamie from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy at the age of 24. After her book was published she had similar feelings. She wrote this to me: “The reason why you are not happier now is because you had Noah with you during the writing of the book, and now he is gone again. It took me a while to figure this out. The whole catharsis thing everyone in the world promised would happen – didn’t happen at all.”

Christine was right. For four years I held Noah close as I wrote. I thought about him hard, recalling scenes and moments that would help me create his character for the book. I held him closer than I had in many years and in the writing he became alive to me again.  Then, the writing ended. I had a sweet book on the way and I focused on other things. I felt emptiness return and the ongoing grief that had been tempered by writing was back. I’m missing Noah like I did in the early years after his death.

In the next few weeks I’m doing several readings and book signing events. I’m hoping to feel Noah’s presence as I introduce him to people that never knew him and share memories of him with our old friends.