One of the great honors of my life happened in 2017, when my debut novel, No One Is Coming to Save Us, was selected as the inaugural pick for ALA’s Book Club Central by the honorary chair, Sarah Jessica Parker.
I had learned about the selection weeks before the public announcement. I knew that I would actually meet Sarah Jessica Parker and that there would be a presentation and interview in front of hundreds, maybe thousands, at ALA’s Annual Conference, in Chicago. But I had been sworn to secrecy about the selection, and I could tell no one except my husband—not my parents, not my four brothers, not my best friends, and especially not my seven-year-old son, who would have told anyone who would listen. That June day was thrilling. I waited behind the scenes with SJP (that’s what we close friends call her). She is just like you imagine her: charming and beautiful but also genuine and passionately committed to libraries and literacy. I have had great introductions at events for this book, but SJP’s is still the best, most comprehensive, most sensitive to the many aims and ambitions I had for my work. After this event, librarians and booksellers across the country chose my book for community reads, book clubs, and public readings and events. The excitement had just begun.
I have had a number of pleasures and privileges on this book tour, but the most gratifying has to be meeting and talking with readers across the country. I’ve talked with people in signing lines, question-and-answer sessions, and at meals. We hear all the time about the many divides in this country that keep us apart. Those divides are real. I don’t mean to minimize them. But I am convinced, from meeting people from Kirkwood, Missouri, to Los Angeles, California, to Wilmington, North Carolina, that Americans value each other and believe in a common good. Though we have differences, we have a great deal to say to each other, and we want to talk. We want to bridge the distances.
The people I met on my book tour had come looking for connection. In Iowa, a man told me about the search for his missing father. In Baltimore, a woman told me about being alone for the first time in 32 years after her divorce. Another woman told me about her incarcerated brother in Georgia, who killed himself rather than face years of prison time. In Florida, a man told me about the people he loved from a southern town much like the one I described in the novel. In New York, a woman told me about the death of her stepchild and the looming, sometimes-menacing silence in her house. In Cullowhee, North Carolina, another woman told me that one of her first memories was the last day of her grandmother’s life, when her own mother told her not to flinch at what she would see and smell when they entered the sick room. In New Jersey, a woman told me she loved reading about mothers and daughters because she and her daughter had not spoken to each other in a generation. So many stories. So much life. So much need for connection.
I have thought a lot this past year about the ways that people connect, how they reach out and touch someone (as the television jingle used to say). Though we can contact each other from anywhere with our many forms of technology and social-media platforms, we often find ourselves more isolated and alone than ever. In Great Britain, the government has appointed a Minister of Loneliness, an official charged with stemming the tides of epidemic loneliness in the country. I imagine this official with her Sgt. Pepper jacket on, baton in hand, leading them all—Pied Piper style—to a gathering place. They are a community there. Everyone belongs.
I am sure book clubs fill some of this void. These meetings give us room to acknowledge our shared truths through the literature of our time. Then we can plant the seeds of our own most important stories. The stories we long to tell. The revelations we must experience. Give us space, and we will tell you of our greatest desires, our terrible suffering and disappointments. People need that space to relieve the burden of their hearts. What a life—to be part of the effort to bring people a little bit closer, to let them know that whatever they have felt in those desolate spaces of their hearts, we have felt it, too! I am thrilled and humbled to be part of this movement. What a good life.
Stephanie Powell Watts is a recipient of the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work; her’ short story collection, We Are Taking Only What We Need (2012), won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, and her novel, No One Is Coming to Save Us (2017), was chosen as the inaugural SJP Pick for Book Club Central.