Nov 3, 2020
By Suzanne Van Atten, For the AJC
Bookshelf: Bestselling authors create a virtual community of writers and readers
"Success of Friends and Fiction takes Mary Kay Andrews, Patti Callahan Henry by surprise."
Some of the best ideas are borne from a combination of wine and desperation.
In March, New York Times bestselling author Mary Kay Andrews was preparing for a 20-city book tour to promote her latest summer blockbuster, “Hello, Summer,” but she was grounded by the coronavirus pandemic.
Trying to promote a new book and attract customers to independent book stores is a challenge in the best of times, but during the era of social distancing and crowd restrictions it seemed near impossible.
But then Andrews had a wine-fueled Zoom conversation with a cadre of like-minded Southern authors including Patti Callahan Henry, and they hit upon an idea. They would start a weekly Facebook Live conversation among authors to talk about the books they’ve written and the books they’re reading. It would be a chance to promote their work and engage with readers.
Most happy hour ideas are forgotten as soon as the buzz fades, but this one stuck. Launched in April, Friends and Fiction has amassed 22,000 Facebook followers so far, and its growing archive of weekly author interviews have been viewed by tens of thousands of people at FriendsandFiction.com. There’s also a newsletter, a podcast and occasional Sunday bonus episodes.
“It’s been such a pleasure and an enriching experience to realize the reading community is really out there,” says Henry. “And they were looking for community as much as we were.”
Every Wednesday at 7 p.m., the founding authors — which include Kristin Harmel, Kristy Woodson Harvey and Mary Alice Monroe — alternate hosting the conversation with a guest author such as Lisa Wingate, Kristin Hannah or Delia Owens. The dialogue is casual and intimate, affording readers the opportunity to witness, for instance, Karin Slaughter’s bawdy humor or Emily Giffin’s vulnerability. And each session includes a writing tip from the visiting luminary.
In addition, each week a different independent bookstore is promoted.
“One of the first things we said was, we’ve got to find a way to keep these indie bookstores alive,” says Andrews. “They’re the life blood of authors like us. Certainly, Amazon and Barnes and Noble don’t need us. We need those indies, and the indies need us. That was a big part of it.”
An added benefit of the endeavor is that it helped solidify a supportive alliance between the authors. When the pandemic first hit, lack of focus was a common complaint among writers, but not the founders of Friends and Fiction. They initiated what they called “writing sprints,” a daily email prompt that challenged everyone to write every day. As a result, Andrews, who boasts a streak of 130 uninterrupted writing days, says she turned in her next book before deadline for the first time in her career.
When asked what she attributes her productivity to, Andrews says, “I think, honestly, there’s nothing else to do. I have a concentration I haven’t had before because I can’t go anywhere and also having the support of the others, too.”
Her next book, “The Newcomer,” which comes out May 2021, follows the adventures of a woman whose quest to solve her sister’s murder leads her to a rundown motel on the Florida Gulf Coast.
Andrews isn’t the only one who’s been burning up the computer keyboard.
Henry’s next book is “Surviving Savannah,” a historical novel about a luxury steamship that sank off the coast of North Carolina in 1838. It comes out March 2021.
“Between us we’ve all completed and handed in books,” Andrews says. “Kristin Harmel is in final throes of her first draft. When she hands that book in next week, all five of us will have completed books for summer 2021.”
Andrews and Henry admit that Friends and Fiction is a lot of work, but it’s a passion project they’re committed to producing through summer 2021 at least.
“It’s a true labor of love,” says Henry.
FF Fall Schedule
Upcoming guests include Caroline Leavitt (“With or Without You”) Nov. 11; J.T. Ellison (“Good Girls Lie") and Hank Phillippi Ryan (“The First to Lie”) Nov. 18; Sue Monk Kidd (“The Book of Longings”) Nov. 25; and Nathalie Dupree ("Nathalie Dupree’s Shrimp and Grits”) Nov. 29.
Fannie Flagg FF Event
And although it’s not technically a Friends and Fiction event, the authors will interview Fannie Flagg for the book launch of her “Fried Green Tomatoes” sequel “The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop” at 7 p.m. Nov. 12. Page and Palette bookstore in Fairhope, Alabama, hosts, and tickets are $28, including a copy of the book. For details to go www.pageandpalette.com or call 251-928-5295.
“We’re just as stunned as anybody else,” Andrews says about the success of Friends and Fiction. “All we wanted to do in the beginning was figure out a way to get our books out into the world. To think it all started with a rosé happy hour.”