gillpolack (gillpolack) wrote,

Women's History Month: Lynn Viehl

Passing Along the Gift
by Lynn Viehl

I’ll tell you about the place where it all started.
Once it had been someone’s mobile home; our town had either salvaged it or received it as a donation. As you walked in you had to veer to the left to avoid the sharp corner of a battered metal rack too large for the wall it occupied. Linoleum patches and plywood covered holes that had rotted through the creaky floor; the only bathroom in the place was the same size as an upright coffin. The only places you could sit were a half-dozen cheap plastic and aluminum chairs. They surrounded an old cafeteria table still stained with barely-visible streaks and splotches; the ghosts of school lunches past.

The air inside this place always smelled of dust, mildew, and chemicals from the nearby water treatment plant. A window shaker poured damp, cold air over anyone who walked through the front door, but seldom pushed it beyond there. The surging sound of its compressor, made loud by the silence, hummed through the narrow aisles and crowded corners. It took twenty steps to walk from one end to the other, assuming you didn’t have to dodge someone coming the other way.
That’s what it was like to visit the tiny public library in the town where I grew up.

It didn’t seem that cramped or uncomfortable to me. I lived in a small house with my parents, four brothers and sisters, my grandmother and my aunt. Nine people, one bathroom. We had to use a picnic table and benches to have meals together. There was always someone in every room; if you wanted some privacy or quiet time you had to leave and go somewhere else.

The library was where I went. Although it was two and half miles from my house, I walked or rode my bike there several times a week and every Saturday until summer, when I could go every day.

Most kids don’t spend all their time in libraries, but I wasn’t most kids. I loved to read, but had no books of my own. My mother, who struggled daily to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table, couldn’t afford such things. Whatever reading I did was at school from textbooks, which in those days were beyond dull and boring. I was so starved for something to read that by the time I was nine I began writing my own stories and poems to amuse myself.

The first time I visited the library was for a school assignment to get a library card and check out a book for a report I was supposed to write. My second visit was to return the book. The third time I went was to escape my older sister and her best friend, who had two hobbies: talking about boys and torturing me.

The only things you could do in the library was read, study or work on school work, so that’s what I did. Over time I began bringing the little poems and stories I was still writing and worked on them, too. At the library I didn’t have to worry about my sister and her best friend looking over my shoulder, or snatching my writing away from me to read it out loud and laugh at me.

Once the library ladies realized I wasn’t going to cause any trouble, they left me alone. I quickly got bored with reading the picture books in the corner kids’ section, so I started sneaking books from the grownup shelves. I thought for sure someone would catch me, and stop me or kick me out, or take away the books and tell me I was too young to read them. No one did. Gradually I realized that as long as I was quiet and well-behaved, I could read – and take home – any book I wanted.

Stumbling into Aladdin’s cave couldn’t have been more exciting than having an entire library to read. There seemed to a book on the grownup shelves about everything I wanted to know, too: birds, Thomas Jefferson, snakes, planets, Norway, the Civil War, New York City, farmers, art, Vikings, Betsy Ross, The Black Death. I read about ancient Rome and modern Moscow, glassmakers in Venice and horsemen in Mongolia. I followed the rise and fall of the Third Reich and the shocking behavior of Jacquelyn Suzanne’s love machine. I learned how to grow corn, shear a sheep, and seduce a titled aristocrat with my innocence and natural beauty. By the time I found H.G. Wells I had already become a time traveler. The library was my personal time machine, always ready to take me to any year or place I wanted to go.

Those grownup books also became my writing teachers. I began to see things about building stories that I had no words for, and that no one was teaching me in school. I could hear the characters speaking from the pages, as if they were really alive. I felt my heart race as events unfolded and the secrets encrypted in the plot were finally revealed. I recognized things like pacing and voice without even knowing what they were. For every writer I discovered who did amazing things with story, there was always another one waiting to be found on those shelves.

By the time we moved away from that town in 1974, I had looked through or read almost every book in that library. I think that gave me the courage to write my first novel that summer. I made some promises to myself, too: someday I was going to be a real writer, and my books would be on the grownup shelves in libraries all over the world. Maybe one day I’d even build my own free library, where anyone could come in and read whatever they wanted.

Twenty-five years later I signed my first publishing contract. I had spent most of my childhood and all my adult life reading my way through other libraries and writing stories, so I knew a lot about books. I’d never met a published writer, though, and only knew a little about the Publishing industry from reading some writer magazines (which were mostly wrong about it.) I set up my first web site and went to my first conference and listened to all the things I was supposed to do as an author, which completely bewildered me. Authors weren’t at all like their books, and everything seemed to be about who you knew and how many awards you got, or how much money you were paid by publishers. Everyone talked about secret handshakes and overnight successes and get-rich-quick schemes instead of books. Everyone seemed to hate each other, too.

At first I tried to fit in and do what the other authors did, but I quickly found out that following the herd wasn’t for me. I did like the internet and my web site, though. Readers could leave messages for me on it, and many asked for more stories. My first book did so well I wanted to give back something to the readers in return for their support, so I posted an unpublished story on the web site for anyone to read for free. My readers loved it, and asked for more, which delighted me, so I started putting a new story on my site every month.

People from other countries began to visit my site to read my free stories and leave messages for me. Many were from places where my published books weren’t sold, and yet they wanted more, too. You can’t imagine what a thrill it was for me to know that, thanks to the internet, my stories were being read all over the world.

When the other published authors I knew found out what I was doing, they gave me hell. Professionals did not give away their work, I was told; they sold it to a magazine or an anthology. The only people who put stories on the internet for anyone to read were amateurs, has-beens or fanfic writers. The only time it was marginally acceptable to publish online so was when an author was up for an award, and even then the stories were distributed only to the people who voted for the winners. Plus the minute a writer published anything for free on the internet it became worthless. I was ruining my career before it had even gotten started.

Fortunately I didn’t listen to them. I wanted people to read all my stories, not just the ones I published. Besides, I wasn’t giving away anything I had ever intended to publish for money. Most were just ideas I wanted to try out, or new visits to worlds I’d already created. I didn’t know it at the time but I was basically writing my own fanfic. Besides, if people liked the stories I gave away, they might actually buy the ones I published. Why not keep doing it and see what happened?

That was eleven years ago, and (surprisingly) I did not destroy my career. Instead I built one, along with an international readership, mostly on the foundation of those free stories I posted on the internet. Today I have forty-seven novels published in five genres in countries around the globe, and my readers have put my last seven dark fantasy novels on the New York Times bestselling list. I’m pretty sure that makes me a real writer.

During those years I’ve also given away another forty or so original short stories, novellas, novels and other works. Currently I have one of the largest collections on the internet of original, not-for-profit content written and self-published by a single author. Anyone in the world can read, download, print out and freely distribute anything from my collection.

For a poor kid with no formal education to speak of, I think I’ve accomplished more than even I ever dared dream. I am very proud of every book I’ve published. But if I’ve done anything worth remembering, I hope it’s for this virtual free library I’ve built. I think in a small way it passes along the gift I was given; the one that allowed me to do all the rest.

I met Lynn online (on her blog) and she sent me one of her books as part of one of her regular draws. She's another of the generous writers, whose sharing enriches all of us.

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