Shelf Awareness for Friday, August 19, 2022

Little Brown and Company: This Bird Has Flown by Susanna Hoffs

St. Martin's Press: Hello Stranger by Katherine Center

Dundurn Press: Chasing the Black Eagle by Bruce Geddes

W by Wattpad Books: Hazel Fine Sings Along by Katie Wicks

St. Martin's Press: The Girls of Summer by Katie Bishop

Soho Crime: The Rope Artist by Fuminori Nakamura, transl. by Sam Bett

Flatiron Books: Once Upon a Prime: The Wondrous Connections Between Mathematics and Literature by Sarah Hart

Grand Central Publishing: Goodbye Earl: A Revenge Novel by Leesa Cross-Smith


Red Fern Booksellers Coming to Salina, Kan., Next Year

"It was kind of maybe a mid-life crisis," said Harley Hamilton, a former pharmacist and consultant who's opening Red Fern Booksellers in Salina, Kan., early next year. "Instead of getting a convertible, I'll open a bookstore."

Hamilton is eyeing a February or March opening for Red Fern Booksellers, which will be located two doors down from the busiest corner on Main Street in a building dating back to the 1880s. There will be about 2,500 square feet of retail space, along with a fireplace and comfortable seats. He intends to make the store a "good place to come hang out."

The store will sell new titles for all ages, and Hamilton hopes to have "something for everybody." He noted that Salina is a small, family-oriented town, so Red Fern will have a "really strong" children's section; Hamilton reported that local teachers are already "so excited," and they've been happily texting him about which books children are reading. There will be wide range of genres of adult fiction, and he plans to have a robust selection of nonfiction, particularly anything nature and science related.

The future home of Red Fern Books

His nonbook inventory will include stationery, greeting cards, gift wrap, office supplies and leather goods. Hamilton said he wants to emphasize the benefits of in-store shopping and particularly the ability to see and feel the goods on display. He's also looking to work with artisans and makers around Kansas for things like prints and cards.

Asked about his event plans, Hamilton said there will be storytime sessions for children and he's happy to host book clubs. Salina is also a college town, and he knows a number of professors in the area as well as a university president; he's interested in bringing writers to town to speak at the bookstore and having professors lead a discussion or interview. The topics could range anywhere from history and political science to creative writing.

Hamilton added that he lives a few miles from the Land Institute, a nonprofit organization in Salina that has studied sustainable agriculture since 1976. They "bring in researchers from all over the world," and he'd be happy to host those researchers for talks and lectures.

He is also on the board of a local performing arts theater, and Hamilton mentioned that some visits with major writers have fallen through in the past because of the lack of an indie bookseller partner for the event. That won't be an issue once Red Fern opens, and he looks forward to collaborating with the 1,200-seat theater.

While Hamilton has no prior experience in retail or bookselling, he is an avid reader and a lover of bookstores. On vacation he always manages to "end up in a bookstore first," and over the years he's gotten tired of driving long distances to get to his favorite indie bookstores. He noted that Salina's downtown is undergoing a resurgence, with private citizens "throwing in tons of money" to help revitalize the downtown. His consultancy job also kept him on the road more often than he liked.

"Last November I just decided to go for it," Hamilton said. "It seemed like the best time to do it."

Hamilton put in his notice back in March, and his last day of work at his previous job was May 31. To learn the indie bookselling ropes, he took the Paz & Associates workshop and reached out to a number of established booksellers. He also knows a few business professors who have been "so kind and generous" with helping him stay on track and on his timeline. He waited to spread the news about his bookstore until after he left his previous job, and so far, "everybody is so excited." --Alex Mutter

Parallax Press: Radical Love: From Separation to Connection with the Earth, Each Other, and Ourselves by Satish Kumar

AAP Sales: Off 0.2% in June; Down 1.6% for the First Half of the Year

Total net book sales in June in the U.S. slipped 0.2%, to $895 million, compared to June 2021, representing sales of 1,368 publishers and distributed clients as reported to the Association of American Publishers. (Figures do not include pre-K-12, because of delays in data collection.) For the first half of the year, total net book sales were down 1.6%, to $5.53 billion.

In June, trade book sales rose 0.4%, to $652.7 million. Hardcovers in all trade categories had sales drops, while almost all trade paperback categories had sales gains. Trade hardcover and special bindings sales were down, 10.9%, to $181.3 million, and 23.8%, to $11 million, respectively. By contrast, trade paperbacks and mass market sales rose 9%, to $253.9 million, and 16.9%, to $21.4 million, respectively. Total e-book sales were down 5.7%, to $82.5 million.

Sales by category in June 2022 compared to June 2021:

William Morrow & Company: The God of Good Looks by Breanne Mc Ivor

Rushdie: Today's Rally & Reading at NYPL; Statement from ABA Board

Salman Rushdie

This morning at 11 a.m. Eastern, a reading of Salman Rushdie's works will be held on the steps of the New York Public Library on Fifth Ave. Called "Stand with Salman: Defend the Freedom to Write," the event has been organized by PEN America (Rushdie is a past president), his publisher Penguin Random House, the NYPL and House of SpeakEasy. It will feature readings by authors who are close to Rushdie, including Paul Auster, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Tina Brown, Kiran Desai, Andrea Elliott, Amanda Foreman, Roya Hakakian, A.M. Homes, Siri Hustvedt, Hari Kunzru, Colum McCann, Andrew Solomon, Gay Talese and others. The event will be livestreamed.

Organizers are encouraging others to host public readings around the globe as well as online with the hashtag #StandWithSalman "to remind Rushdie of both the affection that writers and readers have for him and their solidarity with his unrelenting belief in the right of writers to create without fear of reprisal."

In a statement released yesterday, the American Booksellers Association's board of directors said: "We want to express our shock, outrage and deep concern for novelist Salman Rushdie and Henry Reese, co-founder of City of Asylum Bookstore and a fellow bookseller and colleague. We send our personal wishes for healing and strength to Rushdie, Reese, their families and communities. Like many of you, we are alarmed and we are sad. In chorus with ABA's letter to membership this week and the statement from ABFE yesterday in BTW, our Board wants to respond personally to this horrific event and acknowledge the real danger to our industry that it represents. Anytime one of our own is attacked it affects each of us, deeply and profoundly. We stand with you and wish you nothing but the very best. We are proud of the work we, as booksellers, do every day to bring books and conversations to our communities.

"We remain determined to continue championing and protecting the voices, such as Rushdie's, that others are attempting to silence. These are times for compassion and courage, which we know the independent bookselling community has in multitudes."

Shelf Awareness Job Board: Click Here to Post Your Job

Leadership Change at Kensington Publishing

Lynn Cully
Jackie Dinas

At Kensington Publishing, Lynn Cully, who has been publisher since 2015, has become v-p, director of business relations, a new position. At the same time, Jacqueline Dinas, who has been associate publisher, is now publisher.

Dinas started at Kensington in 2009 in the subrights department. Following five years as director of subrights, she became associate publisher in 2020 and continued to manage domestic and audio rights. She said, "I couldn't be more proud of the work Kensington does as an independent publisher with a dynamic, developing program and an amazing family of authors. I am thrilled to work closely with our team as we produce the kinds of entertaining, compelling books that readers look forward to cracking open at the end of a long day."

Cully worked at Kensington from 1990 to 2000 as sales director and publisher before leaving for 15 years to raise her children. She returned to Kensington in 2015 as publisher. In her new role, Cully will continue to guide the company's acquisitions and internal coordination, while developing the company's market presence through relationships with accounts and serving as liaison between sales teams at Kensington and the company's distributor, Penguin Random House Publisher Services.

Kensington president and CEO Steven Zacharius said, "Lynn and Jackie have been working closely as a leadership team for over two years, and in that time we have the seen the benefits of having two people focused on ways to grow our business, as well as our publishing program. This change helps to maximize their talents and allows them both more time to work on individual projects, instead of duplicating efforts."

International Update: French Book Trade Protests Proposed Editis Sale; Swansea Waterstones Store Flooded

Hundreds of publishers, booksellers and authors issued a joint statement "stressing their concern over the sale of Editis, France's second-largest publishing group, after parent company Vivendi takes over Lagardère, which owns French market leader Hachette Livre," the Bookseller reported.

Although the statement welcomed the decision of multibillionaire Vincent Bolloré, Vivendi's main shareholder, to sell Editis, the opponents remain "mobilized and extremely vigilant" about his planned procedure and the risk that Hachette will strengthen its market position after the merger.

"Fears are that the Editis buyer would seek a short-term return on investment by focusing on bestsellers to the detriment of editorial diversity," the Bookseller noted. "This could lead to aggressive marketing campaigns to booksellers and the transformation of 'our cultural industry into an entertainment industry.' " 

The statement was issued on behalf of the organizations and companies that have told the Brussels authorities why they oppose the deal, including an umbrella organization of 16 authors' societies (Conseil Permanent des Ecrivains, CPE), the children's authors society Charte des Auteurs et Illustrateurs Jeunesse, independent French publishers Actes Sud and L'Ecole des Loisirs, the French booksellers association (Syndicat de la Librairie Française, SLF), the French cultural product chain distributors (Syndicat des Distributeurs de Loisirs Culturels, SDLC), the Belgian Francophone booksellers association (Syndicat des Librairies Francophones de Belgique, SLFB), and a group of 15 independent booksellers from across France.


In Wales, a Waterstones store in Swansea was forced to close temporarily after suffering water damage due to severe rainfall on Tuesday. The Bookseller reported that branch's staff "shared a video of rain pouring through the ceiling, empty shelves and dozens of wet books on the floor." 

The store tweeted: "With sincere apologies, we are now closed. For reasons. A lovely moment amongst the carnage--loads of customers rushing over to help us save the books (which we had to refuse for safety reasons, but thank you!) Normal service will (hopefully) be resumed soon." 

"The clean-up is underway, and roofers are on site to swiftly repair any damage," a spokesperson for Waterstones said. "We hope to be able to open our doors to customers again very soon." 

On Wedneday the shop tweeted an update: "We have good news--we are OPEN! The ground floor and cafe are open as normal, but the books area on the first floor is currently closed to the public. We can still fetch books for you, though.

The Swansea branch "is based in a art nouveau Grade II-listed ex-cinema, and includes a coffee shop. It has been victim to water damage on several occasions," the Bookseller noted. "A burst pipe was reported in the ceiling last September, causing a large leak near the travel section. In 2019 it was hit by heavy rain, ruining a 'significant' amount of books."


The Australian Booksellers Association trained its spotlight on member store Lulu and Jazz Children's Bookshop, an online bookseller created by twin sisters Nat and Rose. Among the highlights of the q&a:

Tell us about some of your fondest experiences relating to the industry.
For us, it is absolutely not possible to walk in and out of a bookshop without purchasing, usually multiple books, so imagine the joy of selecting our very own stock! We love the passion of booksellers who go that little bit further for their customers to source a book, to share their love and knowledge of particular books, and in providing access to less familiar titles that are every bit wonderful, surprising, stunning and diverse in their perspectives. These are what we hope to emulate. There's nothing more exciting than connecting with readers and encouraging them in their pursuits. We love making connections with authors and never pass up a chance for a book signing event.

What are your goals for the next few years with your business?
We are in awe of some of our absolute favorite children's bookshops and have been wonderfully inspired by their expertise. Our goals are to build our range within our chosen field, to develop connections with our customers, provide reviews for each of our titles as well as other recommendations. Eventually we want to have our own bricks and mortar store which could be a social hub hosting author talks and book clubs among other events. --Robert Gray

Obituary Note: Paul Schoomer

Paul Schoomer

Paul Schoomer, former bookseller who co-owned Paul's Books in St. Louis, Mo., for more than 20 years, died on August 13 at the age of 82. 

From 1973 until 1996, he and his wife, Suzanne Schoomer, owned and operated Paul's Books in the Delmar Loop in St. Louis's University City neighborhood. Schoomer was "instrumental in building the Delmar Loop into a viable commercial district through his work establishing and then acting as the initial president of the Special Benefit Taxing District." He also served on the city council of University City for 20 years.

Paul's Books was "right down the street" from the original location of Left Bank Books, and Kris Kleindienst, owner of Left Bank Books, remembered Schoomer as a "serious booklover" and his store as a "serious booklover's dream." Schoomer "was an avid reader of history and knowledgeable about numerous topics from the arcane to the present day."

Schoomer also exemplified "what a good bookstore owner should be: community-minded, involved in civic affairs, passionate about books and supportive of their bookselling colleagues in the area. I don't think I appreciated his influence at the time, but I certainly do now."

The Schoomers closed their bookstore after big-box stores "invaded" St. Louis, Kleindienst recalled, and subsequently became Left Bank customers. "It was always wonderful to see them."

G.L.O.W. - Galley Love of the Week
Be the first to have an advance copy!
The Wisdom of Morrie:
Living and Aging Creatively and Joyfully
by Morrie Schwartz, edited by Rob Schwartz
GLOW: Blackstone Publishing: The Wisdom of Morrie: Living and Aging Creatively and Joyfully by Morrie Schwartz, edited by Rob Schwartz

Twenty-five years ago, Mitch Albom immortalized his former college professor in Tuesdays with Morrie, the blockbuster memoir that shared Morrie Schwartz's profound insights about life as he was dying of ALS. In The Wisdom of Morrie, Rob Schwartz, Morrie's son, resurrects his father's voice, sharing Morrie's philosophical wisdom and humor about the aging process--what can be an emboldening period filled with meaning and purpose. "This book is invaluable to anyone interested in improving their quality of life," says Rick Bleiweiss, head of new business development at Blackstone Publishing. "Readers who enjoy[ed] The Last Lecture and When Breath Becomes Air will expand their awareness and find new ideas and insights into living more fully." Schwartz's musings are timeless, and inspirational for readers of all ages. --Kathleen Gerard

(Blackstone Publishing, $25.99 hardcover, 9798200813452,
April 18, 2023)


Shelf vetted, publisher supported


Image of the Day: Lisa Jewell at McIntyre's Books

McIntyre's Books, Fearrington Village, N.C., hosted a crowd of more than 200 people at the Fearrington Barn for an appearance by Lisa Jewell for her new novel, The Family Remains (Atria). Another of her novels, Invisible Girl, is a previous winner of McIntyre's Beltie Prize for the best in crime fiction.

Personnel Changes at HarperCollins

Katie Boni has joined HarperCollins Children's Books as publicist. She was most recently at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Media and Movies

TV: The Decameron

Netflix has given an eight-episode series order to The Decameron, which is "loosely inspired" by the collection of tales about love in the 14th-century by Giovanni Boccaccio. Deadline reported that the project is from Kathleen Jordan (Teenage Bounty Hunters) and Jenji Kohan (Orange Is the New Black), who executive produced the teen drama alongside her. 

Created by Jordan, who serves as showrunner, The Decameron is "set in 1348 when the Black Death, the deadliest pandemic in human history which killed as many as 200 million people, strikes hard in the city of Florence," Deadline noted, adding: "A handful of nobles are invited to retreat with their servants to a grand villa in the Italian countryside and wait out the pestilence with a lavish holiday. But as social rules wear thin, what starts as a wine-soaked sex romp in the hills of Tuscany descends into an all-out scramble for survival."

"Kathleen Jordan is the real freakin' deal," said Kohan, who exec produces. "I am so excited and grateful that I get to work with her and we get to make this awesome, funny, timely, weird show together for Netflix."

Jordan added: "I'm absolutely thrilled that I get to work with Jenji, Tara, Blake, and Netflix again. I can't wait for people to meet this ridiculous group of characters. I'm sure Giovanni Boccaccio would be... confused?"

Books & Authors

Awards: Heartland Booksellers Finalists

Finalists have been announced for the Heartland Booksellers Award, a prize given jointly by the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association and the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association to celebrate literature in the Great Lakes and Midwest, with content either about the region, or an author from the region. The winners will be honored on opening night of this year's Heartland Fall Forum in St. Louis, Mo. The finalists are: 

Chevy in the Hole by Kelsey Ronan (Holt)
The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang (Norton)
Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor (Riverhead)
The Sentence by Louise Erdrich (Harper)

Gichigami Hearts by Linda LeGarde Grover (University of Minnesota Press)
In Praise of Good Bookstores by Jeff Deutsch (Princeton University Press)
The Midwest Survival Guide by Charlie Berens (Morrow)
The Way She Feels by Courtney Cook (Tin House)

Dear God, Dear Bones, Dear Yellow by Noor Hindi (Haymarket Books)
A Peculiar People by Steven Willis (Button Poetry)
The Renunciations by Donika Kelly (Graywolf Press)
There Are Trans People Here by H. Melt (Haymarket Books)

YA/Middle Grade
The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick Press)
I Must Betray You by Ruth Sepetys (Philomel)
Maya and the Robot by Eve L. Ewing (Kokila)
The Shape of Thunder by Jasmine Warga (Balzer + Bray)

Children's Picture Book
Chang Sings by Amanda Gorman, illustrated by Loren Long (Viking Children's Books)
Little Loon Finds His Voice by Yvonne Pearson, illustrated by Regina Shklovsky (The Collective Book Studio)
Out of a Jar by Deborah Marcero (Putnam Books for Young Readers)
The Year We Learned to Fly by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Rafael López (Nancy Paulsen Books)

Reading with... Miriam Parker

photo: Shannon Carpenter

Miriam Parker lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., has worked in book publishing for more than 20 years and is the author of the novel The Shortest Way Home. Her second novel, Room and Board (Dutton, August 16, 2022), is a charming and redemptive story of unexpected second chances.

Handsell readers your book in 25 words or less:

An escapist read about a celebrity publicist who returns to her high school alma mater, a boarding school in California, as a dorm mom.

On your nightstand now:

Just digging into Like a Sister by Kellye Garrett. It's a great ripped-from-the-headlines thriller/sister story.

Favorite book when you were a child:

My favorite was Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I think I liked the optics of carrying around a giant book with me, but I have to admit that the book I think about most and am most excited to read to my daughter is From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. That book just captured my imagination as a kid. I still kind of want to run away to the Met with just my French horn's case as a suitcase.

Your top five authors:

This is a truly impossible question for me to answer, but I think the authors that influenced my brain the most are Isabel Allende, Aimee Bender, Kevin Wilson, Donna Tartt and Elizabeth McCracken.

Book you've faked reading:

Sort of a loaded question when every day of your life is a book club, but I will admit to reading in high school the CliffsNotes for Billy Budd by Herman Melville. I just did not even remotely understand that book, and reading the CliffsNotes felt like a very good use of my time. I still think it was the right call. Why on earth were they making us read that book?

Book you're an evangelist for:

I know I'm not the first to read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, but it is one of those books that does it all. It is rich with characters that you will miss when you're finished reading, will teach you something about American history that you need to know and also explains why our country is the way it is now. In my opinion, it should be required reading for every American.

Book you've bought for the cover:

I'm currently obsessed with the cover for Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou.

Book you hid from your parents:

My only real memory of this is that I really wanted to watch the movie Cocktail and it was rated R, so I was not allowed to see it. But they had a mass-market novelization of the movie at the local library that had Tom Cruise on the cover. I don't know if I hid that book from my parents, but I really felt excited to find a loophole that allowed me to find out what that movie was about without actually watching it.

Book that changed your life:

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender was a book that did things with storytelling that I had never seen before. It was probably the book that sent me on my writing journey. And then probably The Blue Bistro by Elin Hilderbrand, which was my entry into a love of escapist fiction.

Favorite line from a book:

"Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls." --from Ulysses by James Joyce

Five books you'll never part with:

Ulysses by James Joyce: annotated by me during the course I took in college.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: annotated in different colors during multiple college readings.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: my original copy that I read as a kid.

Martin Sloane by Michael Redhill: the first book I worked on in publishing that I felt really passionate about.

The Ex by Alafair Burke: signed to me by the author, who is a dear friend.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

I have such a visceral memory of reading Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. I read it over a Thanksgiving weekend, and it just was the most immersive, joyous weekend of reading. I loved the epic story so much and the way you just fall into it and how it carries you along.

An audiobook you have loved recently:

I recently listened to Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, and I was so glad I listened to it as an audiobook. Her descriptions specifically about nature and trees were things that I might have skimmed over as a reader, but the way she narrates them just makes the trees come alive--like, she tells a story about how willow trees learn from one another and fight off disease. How cool is that?

Book Review

Review: Bad Vibes Only (And Other Things I Bring to the Table)

Bad Vibes Only: (And Other Things I Bring to the Table) by Nora McInerny (One Signal/Atria, $27 hardcover, 224p., 9781982186715, October 11, 2022)

Nora McInerny's fifth book, Bad Vibes Only, is a witty, insightful set of essays about self-worth and parenting in the social media era. Those familiar with the author's previous autobiographical works will remember that within a few weeks in 2014, her father and first husband, Aaron, both died of cancer. After several years as a single mother, she married Matthew and they blended their families.

Even when dealing with serious topics like anxiety and narrow escapes, McInerny (Bad Moms) has a consistently light touch. "I have always been the saddest happy person I know (or maybe the happiest sad person I know)," she jests. She likens finding a therapist to online dating, while "Competitive Parenting Association" issues a satirical welcome pack of guidelines. Channeling humorists like Nora Ephron, she writes about her extreme homebody nature, her surprise at learning a college friend became a nun, and recounts taking a recreational drug to get through her 20th high school reunion.

McInerny is endearingly honest, aware of her privilege and open about her contradictions. She refers to herself as "proudly middle-aged," but admits she gets regular facial injections. Addictive behaviors run in the family--her father was an alcoholic and she had an eating disorder in college--and she also acknowledges her addiction to her phone. She links her schoolgirl academic perfectionism to her current zeal for likes and comments on social media.

The then-and-now focus compares pre-Internet childhood with the challenges of raising kids with a constant online presence. The author remembers canoeing miles into town with a cousin from their grandparents' lake cabin one summer. No one noticed they'd gone. The standout essay, "Privacy Settings," voices regret over documenting every moment of her first son's early years online--whereas her mother made her a baby book only when McInerny was 37.

McInerny's podcast, Terrible, Thanks for Asking, has established her as a public expert on grief, yet she is uncomfortable with the "influencer" designation. "Anyone Can Do It" articulates her distaste for personal branding. Having barely broken even with her own ventures, she is dubious about claims that millions can be made through Instagram. Her uncle Denny, who has never used the Internet, emerges as an unlikely hero, the depth of their renewed connection exposing the superficiality of online exchanges.

There may be no nuance on the Internet, but there's plenty in these 19 funny, bittersweet essays. --Rebecca Foster, freelance reviewer, proofreader and blogger at Bookish Beck

Shelf Talker: Nora McInerny's 19 witty autobiographical essays examine identity, connection and parenthood through the lens of the Internet.

Deeper Understanding

Robert Gray: Frederick Buechner's 'Magic Kingdom'

In the opening lines of one of my favorite books, The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found (1999), author Frederick Buechner summons a ghost to his personal library: "I bring Naya into the Magic Kingdom. Naya is my grandmother, my mother's mother, who died in 1961 in her ninety-fourth year. She walks across the green library carpet and stands at the window looking out across the stream toward my wife's vegetable garden and the rising meadow behind it with a dirt track running through it up into the sugar woods on the hillside."

When I learned that Fred had died last Monday, I thought immediately of the Magic Kingdom, his "haven and sanctuary, the place where I do my work, the place of my dreams and of my dreaming. It consists of the small room you enter through, where the family archives are, the office, where my desk and writing paraphernalia are, and the library.... There are such wonderful books in it that I expect people to tremble with excitement, as I would, on entering it for the first time, but few of them do so because they don't know or care enough about books to have any idea what they are seeing."

Frederick Buechner

Fred was 96 and I hadn't seen him for nearly 15 years, but I've been his reader for three decades. I had also, on occasion, been his bookseller. Fred was, and will remain, a subtle yet important presence in my Magic Kingdom. 

He lived not far from the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt., where I worked as a bookseller for many years. News of his passing conjured up a memory from the early 2000s, when I was about to introduce him at an event (for Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC's of Faith, I think). Just before showtime, as we sat together "backstage" at a small church next to the bookstore--where a couple hundred people were waiting for him to speak--our casual conversation became momentarily poignant when he said his writing life might be over, that the words weren't coming to him as they once had. 

My response was, I'm sure, insufficient, though he wasn't really looking for consolation, much less advice. He was considering the dilemma as if it were a curious object held to the light, an admittedly dispiriting, yet still kind of fascinating, alteration in his perception of what living meant.  

Fred's New York Times obituary described him as "a Presbyterian minister who never held a church pastorate but found his calling writing a prodigious quantity of novels, memoirs and essays that explored the human condition from inspirational and often humorous religious perspectives.... Drawing on literary and theological credentials over six decades, Mr. Buechner (pronounced BEEK-ner) published 39 books." That pronunciation key is quite amusing if you'd heard as many botched attempts at his name as we fielded in the bookstore. 

The Times highlighted the success of his debut novel, A Long Day's Dying, in 1950; of his 10th novel, Godric, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1981; of Lion Country, a National Book Award finalist in 1972; and noted that he "also wrote poetry, literary reviews, essays on secular subjects and 'meditations' on religious matters." 

In The Sacred Journey, the first of four memoirs (followed by Now and Then, Telling Secrets and The Eyes of the Heart), Buechner wrote: "More as a novelist than as a theologian, more concretely than abstractly, I determined to try to describe my own life as evocatively and candidly as I could in the hope that such glimmers of theological truth as I believed I had glimpsed in it would shine through my description more or less on their own."

At the bookstore I encountered Fred as a customer, a reader. We had brief, engaging conversations. I recall a dinner party where I had the chance to watch him interact with a small, disparate group. There was at once nothing, and everything, of the minister in his presence. He asked questions more than he made statements, but when he did offer an anecdote or opinion, you listened closely because it felt like a gift. He wore his spirituality lightly, but you always knew it was there. 

Fred often wrote and talked about doubt. His response to questions regarding the church or God would not infrequently be answered with "Who knows? Who knows?" In a 2006 PBS interview, he observed: "I think the audience I try to reach are people who wouldn't be caught dead going to church. Who wouldn't touch religion with a 10-foot pole and yet deep within themselves, like everybody I think, hungers for it, hungers for some source of meaning strength and comfort. They're the ones I try to reach."

Is Fred in Heaven now? Who knows? If he's anywhere, I suspect it's in some cosmic version of his beloved Magic Kingdom, which "is magically still." In The Eyes of the Heart, which he wrote when he was about my age now, Fred "sees" his grandmother Naya standing by the window, with one finger on the glass pane, saying: "You ask me to rattle on about death. That is like my asking you to rattle on about life. Where would you begin? Where would you end? What could you compare life to when life is all you know?"

--Robert Gray, contributing editor

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