Something really neat happened to me. I mean REALLY neat, like in the Top Ten Coolest Surprises In My life neat. I won a debut novel from GoodReads First Reads Giveaway last December (that’s just plain neat, not the super neat part) called The Witch of Little Italy by Suzanne Palmieri. I received the book in February, read it, then reviewed it on the site, as suggested in the contest rules. I tried to be a little more concise than usual, a little better at expressing my opinion in a normal-person way, but, as always, I was honest and I gave the ARC a 3-star rating and that was that.
Until February 9th when I got a message from the author. She wrote to thank me for my review and said that I’d picked up on the things she’d had the most trouble with when writing the book. She was enthusiastic and seemed genuinely happy with both my praise and criticism. This has never happened to me. Well, ok, once I gave a local band’s album a terrible review and they put it up on their MySpace page apparently under the belief that there is no such thing as bad press, but that’s not quite the same. I was…well, a little floored, actually. An author wrote to thank me for pretty much saying, Yes, I liked this book but it wasn’t great and here’s why, though here are the parts I enjoyed. Who even DOES that? Well, Suzanne Palmieri does because she’s a genius who must understand the concept of fan loyalty because she was making fans before she was even on the market. (She says she values honesty and constructive criticism because it makes her better at her craft, but I suspect brilliant marketing because no one is really that introspective and appreciative. Come on.)
Here’s what happened next:
I wrote her back to thank her for responding. I told her I appreciated her not sending a face-stabber after me and from there a conversation started, one that led to her asking if I might have time to read the manuscript for her second book. I tried to be all non-chalant in my, “OH HELL YES!” reply and I think I nearly pulled it off. On my side of the computer, though, I was all giddy and I probably fainted. Several times. I mean, seriously, an author just asked me to read her manuscript and give it my evil, critical eye! MY HONESTY WAS NEEDED! Wow.
I thought maybe she was being nice and wasn’t really going to send me a real manuscript because isn’t that dangerous or something? Apparently not since a couple of days later, she e-mailed me the first part. I fainted a few more times and then stayed up til 2:00 am for 2 days reading it. It was really hard at first – I wanted to make sure I said the right things for the right reasons. I wanted to not be fawning but I also didn’t want to be my normal brusque, mean, critical self. I edited and re-edited my comments over and over to make them fit into those narrow parameters. And then that just got too exhausting and I said, “Eh, screw it. I’m just going to say what I think because that is what is easiest and it’s what I’m good at,” so I did. I sent that first part back to her, never expecting to hear back due to my bizarre running commentary throughout her draft. And yet, a couple of days later, I did hear back and she did not even tell me go gouge my own heart out with a rusty nail file! No, in fact, she was gushing with even more enthusiasm, if that was possible, and she promised me part 2 ASAP. Part 2 came and I plowed through that both because it was the best-written part and because I’d found my rhythm and felt comfortable spewing my comments all over the place. When finally I got part 3, I read it all in one sitting, happy to suffer at work the next day in a zombie-like haze because getting to the end of the story was much more important than getting to sleep. And besides, sleep was unnecessary since I was left feeling incredibly lucky, special and also inspired.
I felt special because I had been hand-picked to read a manuscript with a reader’s eye and to give feedback. I’ve edited ten bajillion school papers and some articles and too many technical documents but that was always for school, for friends and family, or for my job. This time, it was solely for my honest opinion. For once, my unhumble self was finally not in trouble for shooting off at the mouth and it was an amazing feeling. More important, however, is that I was inspired. I’ve always said I want to be a writer someday and that day started on my 40th birthday when I became serious. And then I ran into ten thousand and one stumbling blocks, many of my own creation (I can edit the hell out of a paragraph over and over and then forget to write the rest of the story) so to see an actual manuscript, one that would be sent over to an actual editor and would eventually be made into an actual book made me realize that I can probably do that, too. I recognized that manuscript as something that looked very similar to things I’ve written. It was not formal, it did not have secret codes that only REAL authors know, there were mistakes, it was a work in progress JUST LIKE MINE!
This experience left me with three things:
1) The knowledge that I can finish a book, regardless of whether or not it ever gets published. I know I can make it from the beginning to the end, now, because I know what that looks like. Such a strange little realization but one of such magnitude that it changed everything.
2) A sense of purpose. I don’t know how long it has been since I’ve felt I’ve done something that has made a difference. Thanks to Suzy (I call her that, now; we’re tight), I felt like I had helped someone with something very important and that I was good at it. I may not have been good at it at all but because Suzy was so supportive and encouraging and seemed to appreciate all my thoughts, I wound up feeling positive about what I’d done. It made me think that I would love to be an editor.
3) Someone to look up to. I don’t know if Suzy’s just a brilliant strategist, though, honestly, it’s probably more true she’s a naturally magnetic personality, but she has made one loyal fan via a simple gesture and a truckload of trust (because giving your baby to a stranger is crazy). She has unknowingly inspired me, knowingly encouraged me, and has made me feel like I belong in her world, the world she writes about, like she’s writing me stories about people we know and now I will always buy her books, always push her books, and even if she writes something that disappoints me, I will not stop supporting her. I think I’ve just become a fangirl. Well, a fanoldlady, at least.
Her work is being compared to Alice Hoffman’s or Sarah Addison Allen’s; I find it closer to the latter but am even more reminded of Adriana Trigiani’s Big Stone Gap series only with more magic. If you like any of those authors, go pick up The Witch of Little Italy. Seriously, do that. Because it’s important to get prepped for her next book (not the one coming out in May that she co-authored, but the NEXT one) because, dude! I helped with that one! Oh, I’m going to faint again. Excuse me.
Authors are amazing people. In my line of work, I’ve been able to meet several and beyond my line of work, I’ve met even more. Some have been nasty creatures, most have been lovely, but a few stand out and shine. Suzanne Palmieri is on the top of my Shiny Pile. Also? I’m going to continue to be honest about things because that was one sweet reward.
April 30, 2013: This just in! A book trailer for The Witch of Little Italy!