Publishing a book can mean a lot of things. You might, for example, find yourself at a book club meeting where an elderly gentleman confesses that he didn’t think he’d be able to finish your novel but he nonetheless managed to “struggle through it” (true story). You might, on the other hand, achieve a staggering level of success that allows you to quit your day job (unfortunately not a true story). Or, more likely, you’ll probably have to give a reading.
This was the part of being a published author that I was dreading the most. Like many writers, I’m an introvert, not at all comfortable with public speaking or standing in the spotlight; at forty-nine years of age (yes, I’m a “debut” author who’s on the cusp of fifty), I still blush when I’m the focus of attention, cursing the redness in my cheeks that I can’t control.
But, much to my surprise, I didn’t completely suck at reading from my novel in front of a crowd of people. And at some point during my first book tour—on a plane, in an airport, staring at a hotel ceiling, writing notes and scenes for my next novel—it dawned on me why: I’d been reading out loud to my kids for the past ten years.
Always get the last word.
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Every night my wife and I read to our three children. Often, especially when they were younger (my oldest son is now ten and my twins, a boy and a girl, are seven), the books were the same. Goodnight Moon. The Giving Tree. The Mitten. The Runaway Bunny. Harold and the Purple Crayon. Corduroy. Are You My Mother?
As I read, I found myself trying to be more animated, less monotoned—to make the story come alive and feel fresh with each reading. I searched for rhythms, the right pacing, the musicality of the language and the narratives. I began to anticipate where I’d pause, the words I’d want to emphasize and linger on. Make it new, make it seem like it was the first time I was reading the story and the first time my kids were hearing it—that was my goal.
Despite the repetition, I was having fun and discovering the importance of how writing sounded, how it felt and what the impact was when spoken out loud. (And of course, it was time with my kids, a respite at the end of the long, busy day, a way to share my love of stories and writing with them.)
One standout from the early years was Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman. The illustrations and the language—especially the language—charmed me. I can still quote from memory one of my favorite passages:
An itty-bitty mouse,
Creep-crawls in the cave,
From the fluff-cold snow.
For several weeks, I looked forward to reading that line every night. Saying it reminded me, daily, of the possibility, the playfulness and the power of language. When spoken aloud, it was further transformed on my tongue by the hyphenated adjectives and verbs, the alliteration, the vividness. The fluff-cold snow. As I recited the line, I could see my children shiver a little, as if the description actually chilled them.
And so, without really noticing it, I grew more and more comfortable with reading out loud. Doing this with my children gave me safe practice and the stirrings of confidence. It also gave me some much-needed endurance. I’d done readings of short stories before, and after just a few minutes in, I usually started to mispronounce and skip words. As my children got older, the stories changed (the Magic Tree House series, Al Capone Does My Shirts, Fantastic Mr. Fox, A Wrinkle in Time, Wonder), but my reading continued—and continued to improve.
With a book tour behind me (including panels and interviews, as well as readings from my book), I still get nervous when I have to read. I still stress out and strategize about ways to keep calm and focus. But it’s getting better, in large part because of all those nights reading to my kids, and I’m now starting to enjoy it, more than I thought I ever would.
Andrew Roe’s first novel, The Miracle Girl, a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize (the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction), recently came out in paperback from Algonquin Books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Tin House, The Sun, One Story, Writer’s Digest, and elsewhere. He lives in Oceanside, California. You can find him at andrewroeauthor.com.