Despite the fact that all writers like to think of themselves as unique, we Open Door writers can’t call ourselves a special breed. In common with writers everywhere we share the following characteristics: We love books—reading them as well as writing them—and we crave readers. This means we’re always looking for new ways to tell stories and new audiences to tell them to. But what’s the attraction to writing novels aimed at new or reluctant readers?
I’ve written about my own motives for becoming an Open Door author here, but I was curious to find out what other writers in the series think. The Possibility of Lions appears this month in a frisky litter with two gorgeous siblings: Everyday Ghosts by James Morrison, and The Playgroup by Elizabeth Mosier. Both Mosier and Morrison are established writers with long careers of publishing and teaching in a variety of contexts. I asked them what made them sign up as Open Door authors. For both, the imagined reader was the key.
school earlier in their lives and were struggling to earn a degree. They were a remarkable group of people, ambitious and perseverant, who had already achieved a kind of triumph simply by making their way into those classrooms. Yet many continued to struggle with reading and writing.
The remedial courses I taught were split between students who needed to be convinced of the value of literacy skills (since they had gotten through most of their lives without them) and students who felt a sense of shame and inadequacy due to their need for more learning.
Most of my students, though, were tough-minded and sharp-witted with a keen sense of their own dignity and a quick eye for condescension. Once when I assigned an essay by E.B.White a student asked skeptically, “Isn’t he a children’s writer?” It became clear very quickly that they would not allow themselves to be treated like children so I had to re-think my own impulses to simplify constantly. I chose readings that had a particular kind of rigorous formal simplicity with an underlying complexity of thought and feeling, from Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Death of a Moth’ to E.M. Forster’s ‘What I Believe’. This was the kind of audience I had in mind while writing Everyday Ghosts.”
Elizabeth Mosier came to Open Door from a different background. Unlike Morrison or me, she’s never worked directly with foreign students or ones struggling with literacy, so she turned to experienced professionals for advice on how to approach what appeared to be a new audience.
“Before I signed on to writing The Playgroup for Open Door, I talked to English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers and reading specialists and adjunct professors who teach evening courses at area community colleges. I began to see that, in the US, the market for books aimed at so-called reluctant readers might be wider than simply ESL students. It might include the working adult going back to school or the college student who is less fluent with the printed word than with images.”
Mosier’s research made her expand her sense of an audience to include capable readers whose lives leave little time or energy for reading—readers, in fact, who resemble herself. “There have been times in my own life, such as when my children were small, when I had little patience for fiction. I was too exhausted,” she admits. “I wrote The Playgroup partly in an attempt to reach the sleep-deprived parent I once was, wanting to read Tolstoy when I only had time and attention for short articles in parenting magazines.”
It may surprise readers of this blog to learn that the Open Door editorial team doesn’t tell series authors who we should be writing for. They don’t dictate our audience any more than they limit our vocabulary or choke us with guidelines. They leave it up to us to decide, which is why the series boasts such a wonderful variety of of authors and topics.
Yet for all of us Open Door litter-mates of the season—Morrison, Mosier and me—and perhaps for all Open Door authors—the sense of a reader is key. In every case, our ideas of who that reader is are formed by our own varied experiences as writers, teachers, students and, yes, readers. And in every case, the reader we imagine has a profound influence on the way we write our books. As Elizabeth Mosier puts it, “Writing for the Open Door series is the first time, as a writer, I’ve been aware of not only opening the door into a story, but trying to coax the reader inside.” Exactly how does this sense of a reader shape the writing process for Open Door authors? More on that topic in an upcoming post. Stay tuned.