Authors Releasing Books
Clockwise, from top left: Melanie Abrams, Phyllis Grant, Wendy Lesser, Bonnie Tsui, Johanna Silver and Emily Pilloton. Photos: Courtesy authors

What should be a time of public celebration of a project completed after years of hard work — the release of a new book — has become, for many authors, a succession of dashed expectations in the wake of the pandemic. Bookstores across the Bay Area abruptly closed, book tours and festivals were canceled, and writers in every literary genre found it difficult to alert a scattered readership to the fruits of their labor.

Now that some of the initial shock has worn off, local writers and their supporters are finding innovative ways to promote their work, through podcasts, video conferences and other methods. Whether they write memoirs, novels, creative nonfiction, literary criticism or how-to guides, Berkeley authors are using their imaginations and skills to keep culture alive.

Melanie Abrams teaches writing at UC Berkeley. Her new novel, Meadowlark, explores childhood trauma inflicted by cults and communal living experiments. The novel focuses on Simrin, an award-winning photojournalist, who finds herself pulled back to the kind of spiritual living situation from which she ran away as a teenager. Arjun, a long-lost friend who runs a commune in Nevada, wants her to be a witness to whatever happens when local authorities want entry into the compound. Told from multiple perspectives, Meadowlark is a literary novel with the pace of a thriller, a suspenseful narrative about what makes children “special.”

Phyllis Grant writes a blog, Dash and Bella, and has cooked in world-renowned restaurants, including Nobu, Michael’s and Bouley. Her new book, Everything Is Under Control, is both a memoir and a cookbook. In short, punchy chapters, she recounts many of the most significant times of her life: as a dance student at Juilliard, as a cook in high-pressure New York kitchens, as a first-time mother experiencing postpartum depression. Candid, savvy and passionate, Everything Is Under Control also features recipes, including lamb popsicles and strawberry balsamic tarts.

Novelist, critic and essayist Wendy Lesser mixes travelogue and literary criticism in Scandinavian Noir a tour of a real and imagined northern Europe. Lesser tells of being entranced by the work of married crime writers Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, authors of the 10-volume Martin Beck series. That led to an interest in Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson, and a whole host of other Nordic crime novelists, on the page and on the screen. Lesser also travels to Scandinavia, interviewing real police officers and law enforcement officials along the way, to understand how far fiction strays from fact.

Journalist Bonnie Tsui travels even farther afield with Why We Swim, a nonfiction account of swimming, as an activity and as a sport, from Iceland to Australia to Japan to San Francisco. Tsui conjures the lure of the open sea and the comforting communities of hot-springs enthusiasts. She returns to competitive swimming after decades away and re-discovers the mental and physical benefits of moving through water. Tsui also talks with swimmers with incredible stories of survival and healing. Why We Swim is an invigorating and vivid discussion of an activity often taken for granted.

Growing Weed in the Garden by Johanna Silver has the insider information on a complex enterprise: the small-scale cultivation of cannabis. Through her own research and experimentation, she presents practical tips, fascinating history, useful resources and illuminating interviews with growers of all sorts. There is even a glossary of pot lingo. Lavishly illustrated by photographer Rachel Weill, Growing Weed in the Garden is a feel-good guide to a frequently misunderstood plant with many possible applications to medicine and recreation. Although no longer a stoner, Silver dedicates the book to her high-school self, who indulged during high school lunch period.

Emily Pilloton is the founder and executive director of Girls Garage in Berkeley, the US’s first design and workspace just for girls. Her new book, Girls Garage: How to Use Any Tool, Tackle Any Project, and Build The World You Want to See, is a hands-on guide with 11 how-to projects, 175 illustrated tool guides, and inspiring stories by girls.

All six of these Berkeley-based writers had ambitious marketing plans for their new books. Then COVID-19 happened. For one author, the recent massive protests around the killing of George Floyd also made her reevaluate her plans.

“Everything was canceled,” Silver said. “I had a whole assortment of in-person events planned up and down the state. I was going to fly to New York to participate in the Jewish Book Council. Signings, garden clubs — 100% of them  were canceled.”

Lesser canceled events in New York and Berkeley. Tsui canceled a national tour. Abrams also canceled all in-person events, though she noted she, like many authors, continues to place essays in various blogs and periodicals and maintain an online presence.

“In theory, that drives traffic to the book,” said Abrams.

Pilloton’s book was published on June 2 and “Good Morning America” did a segment on it, exposing the book to hundreds of thousands of people. But, as protests against police violence against Black Americans and white supremacy continued around the country. Pilloton pulled back. “We were on Good Morning America, but other than that, we postponed all of our planned celebratory announcements to support Blackout Tuesday, the protests, and to give space for our girls’ voices to be heard,” she said.

Grant said, “This global pandemic has been so huge and so devastating that there was really no room for any sadness about things changing about my book. What happened really quickly was that everyone pivoted and started doing online book events.”

Book clubs, libraries, various writing and community organizations and some bookstores began hosting online literary discussions that have proven practical and popular while in-person gatherings are not possible. One group of Bay Area authors organized #WeLoveBookstores Zoom readings that serve both as fundraisers for local independent booksellers and as discussion venues for recently released books. Lockdown Literature, a collective of more than 80 authors releasing books during the pandemic, has teamed with San Francisco bookstore The Booksmith and literary magazine ZYZZYVA to host the Lockdown Lit @ Lunch series of author discussions streamed on Facebook Live.

Some authors have been slower to jump into online book events – Silver has done a small community Instagram chat, and Lesser is still discussing online events with her publisher – though Abrams, Grant and Tsui dove right in.

“I’ve probably had more events online than I would have had in person,” said Abrams.

Similarly, Grant said: “I’ve reached way more people than I could have going to bookstores. Part of that is I’ve said yes to all the Zoom calls.”

Tsui noted, “I feel really lucky we’ve been able to have a lot of virtual events, but it’s obviously not the same. You can’t really look at people in the eye. Zoom is limited.”

Abrams has engaged in podcasts, as well as Zoom meet-ups. “I’ve actually found podcasts to be more disconcerting,” she said. “At least with Zoom you’re having conversation and can see people. But with the podcasts, you’re just recording (audio). You can’t really gauge reaction.”

Despite the challenges, authors are not complaining about selling books during a pandemic. And the authors are able to see at least the edge of a silver lining to selling a book during the shut-down.

“I do think people are reading more (during stay home orders),” said Lesser. “And given that even noir mysteries are escapist fiction of a kind, I think people will be interested in that kind of escape over the summer.”

“It’s quite timely to have a book on growing weed,” said Silver. “We’re all stuck at home; we’re all gardening more. [Cannabis] is a plant that grows super-fast and is really fun to grow.”

Grant said, “Many more people are now cooking in their kitchens. It’s not so easy to get certain ingredients right now and people are becoming more playful cooks because of that. The style of recipe I write lends itself to that kind of cooking.”

Tsui agreed people seem to be reading more, and that her book’s content is timely, even if aquatic exercise is hard to get.

“In the book, I talk about what research has found when it comes to psychological and emotional well-being from swimming, from immersion, from just exposure to water,” Tsui said.

Tsui said she felt lucky being able to swim in the Bay, from Keller Beach in Richmond. “Water promotes certain kinds of brain activity that are associated with calm, relaxation and creativity. More of us could really use that now.”

With regard to Scandinavian Noir, Lesser said that is more than just an analysis of a particular literary genre.

“The book is also about life in the three Scandinavian countries I visited –  Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. I think they have a lot to teach us about belonging to a civilized, communitarian, well-run society.”

Writing has always been a lonely business. For selling a book during a pandemic, however, maintaining a connection with communities of readers and fellow writers is especially important, according to the authors.

Tsui is a long-time member of The Writers Grotto, a co-working space and creative community in downtown San Francisco. She worked on Why We Swim while a member.

“I’m so grateful to that community,” Tsui said. “Everyone’s trying, as much as they can, to support the books being published now by Grotto authors.”

Abrams and Grant say they’ve particularly appreciated participating with the Lockdown Literature group of authors. Grant said, “We’re all supporting each other and getting the word out about our books. There’s a great community building there.” Abrams concurred and added, “We have an Instagram page now.”

Silver said that she appreciates how her book seems to speak to two different supportive communities. “I have been received wonderfully in the cannabis community, which I was expecting because they are so grateful for anyone working to normalize the plant. But what has been really surprising and wonderful is feeling welcomed by the traditional gardening community.”

No one knows exactly how, when or if bookselling will return to something recognizably normal. In Berkeley, customers can order books over the phone and swing by a store for curbside pick-up. In the meantime, perhaps it is best to remember that, nowadays, life after a book’s publication date can be unpredictable.

As Abrams said, “You don’t get to choose when you come into this world. You just get to deal with it the way it is.”

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A New Hampshire native, freelancer Michael Berry has been a resident of Berkeley since the early 1980s. A long-time reviewer of science fiction and fantasy for the San Francisco Chronicle, he has written...