In March 2020, Kristen Harmel was gearing up for the paperback publication of her sixth novel, “The Winemaker’s Wife.” Then the world came to a grinding halt (and many of us who aren’t married to a winemaker wished we were).
Harmel’s initiation into the fine art of video conferencing occurred during a confab of fellow authors who met to commiserate about canceled tours and the challenge of reaching readers during the lockdown. They also wanted to figure out a way to help independent bookstores. “We called it our Oh Hey Rosé Zoom,” she said in an audio-only interview. “We all had a glass of wine and got on the Zoom together.”
On April 15, 2020, Harmel and a handful of those novelists hosted a Facebook Live for their fans. She said, “We were so unconvinced that anyone would watch us that, during our first episode, Mary Kay Andrews was wearing her pajamas.” The event was such a success that it became a weekly happening, which then evolved into the Friends & Fiction podcast, hosted by four writers from the original group: Harmel, Andrews, Kristy Woodson Harvey and Patti Callahan Henry. (Their fans call them the Fab Four.)
“This community we thought was going to be a few hundred people has now grown to 170,000 members,” Harmel said. She felt the full power of their loyalty when she was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year: “I posted on Facebook and Instagram on Jan. 4 about my diagnosis. By the time I woke up the next morning, I think there were at least 2,000 comments and probably 700 or 800 emails in my inbox.”
Harmel also received hundreds of handwritten cards and small gifts from listeners and readers — including a pink bracelet from a woman named Bubba who promised to wear a matching one until she knew that the 43-year-old mother was OK.
“I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘I got my mammogram because of your story,’” Harmel said. Other readers and listeners have shared their own experiences with breast cancer: “We had spent all of this time building the Friends & Fiction community and now I was being inducted into a community of cancer survivors who had been part of our Friends & Fiction group all along. It just underscored the fact that readers are the best people.”
Eight weeks after finishing radiation, Harmel said, “My hair doesn’t look normal. My body doesn’t feel normal. But I feel like myself again and every day I feel a little bit better.” It helps that her latest novel, “The Paris Daughter,” was an instant best seller and that she has the unending support of her co-hosts, who have become friends. “We all wrote our 2021 books during the pandemic together,” Harmel said. “We live in four different states, but we got up every morning and began writing at 7. Mary Kay Andrews would check in by text and say, ‘Is everybody up and writing?’”
Elisabeth Egan is an editor at the Book Review and the author of “A Window Opens.”
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