By Rebecca Diem
In June, I went home. Home to the town where I grew up. Home to the bookstore where I held my first launch. Home to the school that nourished a lifelong love for reading.
Holland Chatsworth Central School is a bucolic JK-Grade 8 school in rural Grey County, with students drawn from nearby villages and farms. When I was young, the school library was my window to the world. I would check out as many books as I was allowed, reading favourites over and over, making my way through the shelves. From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, from Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings. I dreamed that I was Belle, living her provincial life, wondering what awaited me in the great wide somewhere. And I knew, deep in my heart, that one day I would add my own stories to the shelves.
I was in town on a rare mid-week trip from Toronto to launch the final book in my quartet of steampunk novellas. There would be a party that night, at the Ginger Press Bookshop in Owen Sound. But I had reached out to a few of my contacts at the local schools to see if they would be interested in an author visit.
I think it’s important, as authors, to reflect on how far we’ve come. It’s too easy to always aspire for the next milestone. Our goal posts are ever-changing, especially as indies. There’s no clear marker of when you’ve “made it.” I’ve been writing for five years and just wrapped my first series, and I still have moments of doubt. Speaking with other authors whose careers I admire greatly—both traditional and indie—I hear the same hesitation to claim success. I would argue that one of the markers of a great career is defining what success means for yourself and using those values to guide you.
Returning to my elementary school library was one of those moments for me. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I returned to a familiar place turned unfamiliar by time. My librarian retired years ago, and most of my teachers too. The cozy chair in the corner was gone, and the shelves that towered over me as a child were eye-level now. And as they brought all the Grade 7 and Grade 8 students to the library to sit cross-legged on the floor, I suddenly felt so unsure. Who was I, an indie author with one series under her belt, to share my story?
I told them about my life and my work, discovered some distant relations in the audience (#smalltownlife), and read a selection of my latest novel. They listened with rapt attention, and during the Q&A wanted to know everything from my favourite authors to how books are printed to optioning a story for film and TV. These students meant business. They were curious and engaged and actively considering their future careers—just as I was at their age. Fortunately, as an indie, I had done my own research on these topics and answered their questions as best I could. Then there was this one:
Student: “Where do you go to school to become an author?”
Me: “Well, you start here.”
Here in this school, in this very library. Schools can teach you to read, but libraries teach you to love reading. My librarian, Mrs. Penny McKay, took this budding bibliophile and pointed me in the direction of different genres and more challenging stories. She mentored me and my best friends as library helpers. She asked our opinion on new acquisitions and listened to us. She even created a special award for my Grade 8 graduation: The ‘Nose in a Book’ award. I was 14 years old, and I felt seen. It was still many, many years before I mustered the courage to write and publish my first book. But the belief that I could started long ago in that library.
I remember reading Janet McNaughton’s The Secret Under My Skin when it was a finalist for the 2001 Red Maple Award and being fascinated by her description of a device that could hold any number of books in its pages. I wondered what it would look like, how it would feel to hold a library in your hands. Today, I carry one in my pocket.
So much has changed in our industry over the last 20 years. Whether your preferred medium is print or digital, reading and writing books has never been more accessible. And libraries have evolved to serve a new generation of thrill-seekers.
I celebrated the publication of my first series by donating a complete set of the signed print editions to my old library. I’ll take my place on the shelves alongside my idols who lighted the path for me. But something even more magical happened in the library that day, and it altered my view of success.
The bell rang, signalling the end of our time together. There were still a dozen hands in the air—I desperately wished I could have answered them all. But as we said our goodbyes and the students crowded around to see my books and the Class of 2001 photo (including 13-year-old me, sans bangs), my former teacher pointed out one of the girls and told me she was a writer.
We only had a minute, but we bonded over Neil Gaiman and our shared love of stories. I told her I was looking forward to reading her books one day. I left the school feeling happy and fulfilled, and hurried off to prepare for the book launch tea party happening that night. But a couple weeks later, I received an email from her mother:
“You met my daughter a couple of weeks ago, and I wanted you to know how much she connected with you. It was honestly a life-changing event for her, and she sees you as both an inspiration and a role model. It’s not always easy to see the ripple effect that your interactions have on other people’s lives . . . in her eyes, you are a true hero.”
The note goes on to say that her daughter is determined to finish writing her own book to show me someday.
Naturally, I received this email as I was getting off the subway, back at my regular life in Toronto working nine to five as a communications coordinator. I immediately burst into tears. This email is just one of nearly a dozen messages I’ve received over the last few months from people sharing how my work impacted them in some way. The long hours, the anxious nights, using up vacation time for book tours and conventions, this is what makes it worthwhile to me.
Her mother was right. The ripple effect can be difficult to appreciate. There are so many people who had a similar impact on my career—authors, mentors, family and friends—who may never know how much their actions and words of encouragement mattered.
I feel honoured to be part of that long tradition of shining a light on the path for those who follow. We share the same impulse to craft new worlds, or new ways of seeing our own.
I believe that everyone has a story to tell. Mine began in a library.
Rebecca Diem is an author, music lover and nerd. She is the author of the indie steampunk series Tales of the Captain Duke, following the adventures of a defiant young aristocrat who saves a band of airship pirates from certain peril and talks her way into joining their crew. An Avid bookworm, somewhere between reading Virginia Woolf and Neil Gaiman she began to write her own stories, and has no plans to stop. Rebecca now calls Toronto home and is on a never-ending quest to find the perfect café and writing spot. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram as @kthnxbex, and read some of her short stories at rebeccadiem.com.