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50 Years of Island Books: Ashley Ream and Lee Kravetz

Ashley Ream is a former journalist and the author of two acclaimed novels, The 100 Year Miracle and Losing Clementine. She and her books have appeared in L.A. Weekly, Los Angeles Magazine, Bust Magazine, the Toronto Star, The Seattle Times and the Kansas City Star, among many others. Born and raised in a working-class town near Kansas City, she has since moved all over the country, doing stints in Florida, Texas, Los Angeles and Wisconsin. She currently lives in a small house in the big woods outside of Seattle.

Lee Kravetz is the author of the novel The Last Confessions of Sylvia P., as well as acclaimed nonfiction, Strange Contagion and Supersurvivors.  He has written for print and television, including The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, The Daily Beast, The San Francisco Chronicle, and PBS.  He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Miriam: Ashley and Lee, I'm excited to have you two together on the blog. Our readers and even many of our staff don't know this yet, but Island Books is responsible for a special moment in your lives that I was lucky enough to witness. I can't think of a better anecdote about how bookstores bring people together and create community. I'll let you tell the story, but first, let's start with how you came to Island Books and where you were in your lives and careers when you first made the connection.

Ashley: I discovered Island Books after moving to Seattle in 2015. It was right before my second book, The 100 Year Miracle, was published. Right before my daughter was born. Right before the movie rights to my first book sold. Up until then, I'd lived all over the country, working as a journalist and for some non-profits (including public television, another future connection to Lee, I would only discover later.)  So when I walked through the doors the first time, it was at a real moment of transition for me. I was finally settling down, buying a house, putting down roots in my life and my writing. I was making a home for myself in a way I hadn't before. Island Books is a real part of that story. 

There was something about it that felt like home to me the first time I visited. The staff is incredible. It's the "Cheers" of bookstores. Everyone knows your name. Everyone is glad to see you. When you browse the shelves of an independent bookstore, you're discovering something about the people who run that store and the community that supports it. It's a curated experience. An actual human chose to order each and every book. Not an algorithm. Not AI. When every tenth book is a book you read and loved, you know the other nine are going to be good. Sometimes they know what I want to read better than I do. 

And of course, they've been incredibly supportive of me and my books. I've had events there. I bring my family there. They keep a poster of one of my books on the wall, and when I've had a tough writing day, stopping in to pick something up and seeing it on the wall, it feels like them saying, "you can do it." Writing is hard, and their support has meant more than I think they know. I am just so grateful. 

Miriam: It's funny how a bookstore becomes a character in the stories of our lives. I always look at that poster of your book cover when I go in, and it makes me think of you and the people behind the books. Lee, how about you?

Lee: Miriam and I have known each other for decades, even before our days both working in the New York publishing industry. We’ve supported one another as we both moved to the writing side of the field, too. The moment after Miriam read the draft of what was to become my first novel The Last Confessions of Sylvia P., she said, “I know where you need to stop on your Seattle book tour.” 

This is how I came to meet Island Books—never has there been a more eponymous entity! An island of books, among an island of sellers and customers who not only love books, but adore them, respect them, and nurture them. 

I came to town on book tour with my eleven-year-old son in March of 2022. Laurie had set up an incredible reading for me at Island Books. My friend Joshua Mohr was to provide the “in conversation” piece of the evening. The set-up was cozy. The room, bright. The air smelled of books and brownies. As we waited for people to arrive for the reading, my son spent time among the YA books; I got lost in the curated adult novels. The nature of the store is such that, walking through the shelves feels a bit like you’re walking through a friend's bookshelves. 

Island Books is small, provincial, comfortable, and deeply familiar place, even to a stranger who shows up for the first time, like I did. 

I’d learn that one of the reasons if felt so familiar was because one of the customers that evening was author Ashley Ream. Ashley and I lived but a hallway away from each other as freshmen at the University of Missouri two decades earlier! We'd both wanted to be novelists; and after college we’d both left the mid-west for the west coast to learn the craft. Years and miles separated us, even as we’d kept tabs on one another. And yes, her appearance that evening was an incredible surprise that could only have happened at this store, which held such a special place in Ashley’s heart. 

Island Books, it turns out, is also a nexus for past and present. 

Miriam: I think I talked to Ashley before you did that night, Lee. She told me about your connection and pointed out that her book was featured on an impressive poster above the typewriters. I could see how much it meant to her to see her book there and to find Island Books supporting her old friend. It was fantastic to see how the store brought you two together. I can't even count how many times I've seen magical connections happen through that bookstore nexus portal, but that night seemed particularly special and still stands out in my mind. 

Ashley: Bookstores really are meeting points for readers and for authors. It's such a solitary job. Writing a novel usually means sitting alone in a room for a couple of years. Your colleagues are imaginary characters. Even as a working writer, I don't talk to my agent or my editor every dayor even every month. If you don't seek out community, it's easy to go a little squirrely. (As a mental health professional, I'm sure Lee can confirm that "squirrely" is the official, medical diagnosis.) Bookstores are natural watering holes, and book events are parties. It's an open invitation, and you never know who will show up. Sometimes it's an old friend from college you haven't seen in twenty years. Then that old friend introduces you to their old friend. (Lee: "Ashley, do you know Miriam?") And then you have a new friend. 

Years ago, I went on a whim to a book event for Michelle Wildgen (Wine People), and in the audience, I saw a woman I was 99% sure was Susanna Daniel, whose novel Stiltsville was one of my favorites. I did the "excuse me, are you..." thing. She was, and not only did we become friends, I got to know Michelle, too, who was Susanna's friend. And so the chain goes. There are so many stories like that. 

The truth is that touring a new book will bring out every insecurity you've ever had. ("Please like me. Please.") And a friendly face in the audience, whether it's a new friend or an old one, a fellow author, a reader or a supportive bookseller, is everything. There was no way I wasn't going to show up for Lee. (It was actually the first event after COVID that I went to.) And now I'm finishing up a draft of a new book. It's set in a family-owned grocery in the San Juans, tentatively titled The Peculiar Gift of July, and when touring time comes, I will definitely be looking into the audience for familiar smiles. I hope some of them are yours.

Lee: The bookstore really is the wateringhole, and it’s also the battleground where all elements of the book-writing process come together. You’ve got the book, the readers, points of sale, and an opportunity for each party to connect to the work, and to each other, all in a heightened environment of an author’s fear (aka: What if no one shows up to see me? What if the book doesn’t catch? What if someone in the audience points out a major plot hole I missed?) We expect all of these elements.

But it’s the unexpected elements that make bookstores genuinely special, like running into an old friend, tantamount to coming across an obscure book you never expected to find on a shelf. In fact, there might be a novel idea here, Ashely! Two friends who only connect at each other’s bookstore events every few years. Want to write it together?

Miriam: Can I be in on this collab novel?

Lee: YES! You’re in! 

Miriam: Excellent. Now that that's settled, let's talk about next week, Island Books community. I'll have the one and only Laurie Frankel ready to share her thoughts with us for 50 Years of Island Books (with a bit about her writing process and new novel as well). Check in with us again soon!