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Spring is the perfect time of year for a book launch—usually. For D.C. writers long-awaiting their 2020 book publications, it’s been a season of heartbreak. All public events, from launch parties to monthly readings, have been canceled due to the stateside outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Writers had plans to share their new work at Politics and Prose, Capitol Hill Books, Busboys and Poets, and many more indie booksellers, and now they’re at home like the rest of us, wondering what lies ahead.
Authors and poets work for years on their novels and collections, and the events they attend to publicize their books are necessary for sales and name recognition. It’s how they ensure their words get read, their agents stay excited, and their publishers continue promoting their art. But what happens when all events get canceled, when buzz can’t be generated for anyone, no matter how prolific, and when all that hard work gets muted in the face of a pandemic?
Amber Sparks, one of D.C.’s best-known writers of short stories and essays, launched her new collection And I Do Not Forgive You on February 11 at Politics and Prose with high hopes and incredible reviews. For NPR, writer Ilana Masad described her stories as “full of vivid language, compelling imagery, sharp wit, and an abiding tenderness.” Author John Domini said of the book in The Washington Post, “I was so won over I pressed the book on strangers on public transportation.” And they’re right. Sparks’ stories sing, a mixture of humor and a deep ache for something better. She writes about women and their relationships, their choices, their complicated lives. She captures moments like no other writer.
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After her February 11 launch, most of her winter-spring tour was canceled, and with that went the chance to sell copies of her book. She has found that many bookstores are moving to an online event format, however, and it does offer some light to an otherwise dark launch scenario.
“A lot of events and even some of my festivals are getting set to do online versions, so I really have hope that they’ll keep the book alive,” she says.
She also struggles with some guilt about her disappointment, and even her joy in her achievement.
“I’m really proud of this book,” says Sparks. “It’s my best work, and I’m worried people will forget about it before it’s time for best-ofs and awards. But then I feel like an ass even thinking that, when people I know are so sick and so many people are dying.”
Courtney LeBlanc and Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn feel her pain. LeBlanc is an Arlington poet whose first full collection Beautiful & Full of Monsters, came out March 10. It’s a stunning debut, addressing identity and personal violence with brutal honesty. Sawchyn is an Arlington essayist whose new collection A Fish Growing Lungs: Essays will be published on June 9. Sawchyn’s work is nuanced and bold, a deeply personal story about her own mental health misdiagnosis and its profound repercussions. It’s a memoir in essay form, moving and compelling. Both collections have garnered rave reviews, with LeBlanc and Sawchyn planning events all over the country to support sales. And like Sparks, LeBlanc and Sawchyn now have to look to the virtual world to get the word out about their books.
“I’ve been a bit blue overall,” says LeBlanc. “I’m excited about my book but not able to celebrate it or share it the way I envisioned I would. The day of my canceled book launch party I took my dog for a long hike and allowed myself to feel sad, I allowed myself to cry.”
Sawchyn is staying optimistic, and had planned her launch party for the fall, to coincide with universities starting back up. But it’s still been disappointing.
“I was hoping to travel,” she says. “It wasn’t a full-on book tour, but I was scheduled to do a few readings and attend some programs that have since been canceled for the summer. And it seems like the fall is very up in the air right now.”
Both LeBlanc and Sawchyn are already immersing themselves in online events. Local bookstores, like Politics and Prose, Busboys and Poets, Old Town Books, and One More Page Books, are virtually hosting many author events, including those originally scheduled to be in-store, and some are offering online workshops and classes, and promoting new publications through their websites and delivery sales options. Now, more than ever, it’s critical to support these small businesses and the writers who’ve given us their hearts on the page.
Many area reading series and festivals are offering online readings and discussions, and literary journals and organizations like The Writer’s Center are also hosting similar opportunities for writers to share their words. For extroverts like LeBlanc, however, it’s been a challenge to feel connected to her readers.
“I’m trying to do things online—readings and posting about my book—but it feels very self-serving,” she says. “I just wanted to be able to celebrate my first full-length collection. I wanted to read the poems and sign books for people, I wanted to share this collection with them.”
One positive that many newly published authors have discovered is the power of community. Writers with new books out in 2020 are coming together in an entirely new way, supporting each other and offering virtual cheerleading when spirits flag.
“All these writers with new books out have formed this informal support network for each other that’s been wonderful and heartening to see,” says Sparks. “And the virtual events have honestly been life-affirming, just to hear readers again and see their faces.”
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