The Widget Factory: Lian Dolan Talks Book Tours While Social Distancing

Lian Dolan talks about releasing her newest book during a pandemic and what she’ll miss most.

My small business banker Jason called me in late March. It was a surprise, mainly because I didn’t know I had a banker. I knew I had a very small business and a very small business bank account, but apparently there’s a person attached and his name is Jason. As the economy and public health crisis crashed down around us, Jason wanted to know how it was going. Instead of sobbing I said, “Well, I’m a writer and my new novel is coming out in the middle of a pandemic when the bookstores are closed, the giant shippers are only shipping medical supplies, and I can’t leave my house, so it’s not going that great, Jason.”
I went on to explain that being a writer is like running your own little content factory except instead of mass production, you crank out one very special widget every couple of years. That’s the entirety of the output—one widget, every couple of years.

And my widget is screwed.

There was silence on the other end of the phone from my banker, probably because he was wishing that his courtesy call had gone to voicemail like he had intended. But hey Jason, I’m in lockdown. I’m going to answer any call, even one from Unknown Caller.
After a bit, Jason said, “Can you pivot to digital?” And that’s when I wept. Because Jason cared.

Now, let me take a break in this column to explain that I understand this whole debacle is bigger than my widget. So much bigger and so much more screwed. As a novelist, my situation can be characterized by two words: terrible timing. But for doctors, nurses, hospital staff, EMTs, police officers and firefighters, grocery store employees, warehouse warriors, journalists, scientists, government employees in the supply chain, delivery people, third grade teachers yelling math lessons via Zoom, and wine distributors everywhere, your situation can be described in one word: heroes. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Now back to me, because Jason had a point. Moving my scheduled appearances to Facebook Live or some other video platform is a good idea. Of course I’ll do that because it’s the law now that every citizen is required to go live on social media at least once a week, preferably while deejaying, guiding a healing meditation, making giant cocktails, or demonstrating how to bake sourdough bread. A warning to all of you purveyors of feel-good, free internet content: once you start giving it away, you’ll never get paid for it again. Amirite, Huffington Post contributors circa 2005?

But the truth is that I’ll miss the people. Most writers hate people—at least, people who are strangers. These folks became writers to avoid human contact; it’s one of the perks of the job in their eyes. Nothing more terrifying for some writers than to emerge from their cocoons and interact with the book-buying public on a 10-city book tour. I know because they complain about it all the time on Twitter with the hashtag #WahPoorMe or #NeverWantToLeaveBrooklyn.

But not me. After a year of solitude cranking out my 100,000-word widget, I like being with the people. Book tours are a tsunami of hugging, hand shaking, close talking and posing for selfies, all verboten in the New America. Every event feels like a party hosted by me and for me, starring old friends, new friends, family and random readers who show up because they heard there would be cookies. I love visiting cherished indie bookstores, big chain shopping centers, beautiful old libraries, even country clubs set up for a tasteful ladies’ luncheon. I enjoy talking to booksellers near and far, but especially near at Vroman’s. I plan my outfits, I work on my material, and I hit the road because that’s one of the perks of the job in my eyes. There’s no way pivoting to digital can replace the laughter and, because I usually cry at these events, the tears—because people are awesome.
So, I’m going to stage my own one-woman book tour, live and in person, from my front porch called The Widget Factory. Thanks to COVID-19, there is a constant stream of walkers, runners, cyclists, babies and Doodles going by from morning until night. I’m thinking three shows: Kaffeeklatsch, After Your Second Lunch, and Happy Hour (which seems to be starting around 3 p.m. these days.) I’ll stand on the porch and yell things from my book at unsuspecting passersby. Copies of The Sweeney Sisters will be available in a no-contact sales format, like a pile on the front lawn. People can put small donations into my small business tip jar that I’ll deposit into my small business account. Think small.

I’m going to call Jason and tell him the good news. Things are going great.

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