Sydney Avey

Dynamic Women — Changing Times

Backstory: Conversations Around the Book Table

Dec 5, 2017 | Writing life | 2 comments

Birt's Bisto and Books

At Birt’s Bistro and Books in Surprise, AZ people gather to eat, browse for books, listen to music, and tell their stories.

The backstory is a literary device that details the happenings that lead up to a novel’s main story. Public functions also have backstories. Table and wall displays at book fests, art exhibits, or craft shows comprise the main event. But behind the scenes, busy organizers work tirelessly, and community members make time in their schedules to attend. Therein lies a story. Once the event kicks off, I often hear inspirational stories in the conversations around the book table.

I didn’t know what to expect when I joined two other authors at the Benevilla Book Grab in Surprise, AZ.  Early morning sun poured through the windows at Birt’s Bistro and Books and played on tables where regulars ate breakfast and chatted. At Birt’s, bookshelves surround diners like loving arms. The books are all donated and once or twice a year, volunteers clear the inventory to make room for new books.

We local authors weren’t allowed to sell our books. We were part of the display.  For our part, manning book tables is just part of the marketing mix authors are expected to do. But antipathy for self-promotion is part of my backstory. That’s true for many authors. It’s painful to watch shoppers make a wide swath to avoid entrapment in a sales pitch. However, these were not shoppers; they were readers. That changes the whole relationship.

Without the pressure to sell, I was free to engage in conversation. I listened to people’s stories. When they asked about my books, I practiced my pitch and watched for the moment when a polite inquiry turned into avid interest. Magic happens when a reader’s backstory and mine connect.

A Reader’s Backstory

When I tell Suzanne Yankowski that in writing The Trials of Nellie Belle I put my great-grandmother on the literary stage and made her explain herself, Suzanne’s eyes light up. She has a story of her own to tell. In her words:

One day my dad asked me to watch my mom while he went to the doctor. Mom had MS. Dad never went to the doctor for himself. When he got home, I asked him how it went. He said,  “The doctor told me to get my affairs in order. I have two weeks to live.”

I said, “Ha, ha, Dad, very funny!” but it turned out to be true.

It made me sad to know my kids would never hear his stories. I gave him a tape recorder and asked him to tape his stories for as long as he had the strength to do so. He lived a year and a half. He died the week after he recorded his last story.

A Volunteer’s Back Story

The bookstore manager has a different kind of “back” story.  Linda Mellon arrives before everyone else. She sets up and then bustles around handing totes to people who pay $10 to fill their bags. She hauls the sale books up and down stairs and arranges them on tables. Throughout the day, Linda refreshes the book tables. At day’s end, she returns some of the unsold books to the shelves and boxes up others to donate elsewhere. At lunch, however, Linda is nowhere to be seen. She has gone home to lay on her bed and do stretches because she is recovering from recent back surgery. Regardless of pain and weakness, the book sale is her main event. Her surgery is backstory.

These two women have something in common–a belief in the power of story to preserve the health of the family or community. I would never have heard these inspirational stories if I hadn’t had the opportunity to engage in conversations around the book table.

Books are products to be sold; that’s true, but I think of my novels as backstory. Writing them leads me to greater understanding and compassion. The main event is the privilege of participating in the literary life.

What’s your backstory?



  1. Marie Sontag

    Great way to view our stories and marketing. I will remember this!

  2. Mary Anthony

    Excellent behind the scenes reporting. Thank you Sydney.


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