The year was 2002, my first novel, “After Anne,” had just been released and I was in California at a writing conference, where I’d been “discovered” two years prior.
Two years earlier, I’d been wandering around the conference with my jaw dropped, meeting authors whose books I’d read for years and there they were: real live people. Nice. Friendly. Down-to-earth. And, now, two years later, I was one of them. Just like those “famous authors,” I now had several copies of my hot-off-the-press novel in the conference bookstore.
OK, I’ll confess, I walked through the bookstore more than once (or five times), just to make sure this dream of mine was really real. Yup, my books were really there, in author alphabetical order between some of my favorite writers. Surreal.
On one of my casual walks down “my” aisle, I saw a woman standing by the table, holding a copy of my book, reading the back cover. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. “I wrote that book,” I blurted. I went on to tell her about the book, how this conference was where it had all happened, how excited I was to have my first book published, and who knows what else. Probably that I was from small-town North Dakota and things like this don’t happen often.
“I guess I’ll buy it,” she said.
“Thank you!” I was still gushing as she walked away.
Fast-forward a month or so. I was back in North Dakota, sitting at my computer, working on another novel, when an email popped into my inbox. The subject line was: “After Anne.” I clicked it open.
The sender opened by explaining: “I met you at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference. In the bookstore. Honestly, when you started telling me about your book, I thought the only reason you were talking to me was to try and get me to buy a copy. Which I did. I just finished reading your book and now I know. You weren’t trying to sell me a book. You were talking to me, because, well, it’s about ‘friendship.’ Just like your story, you were being a friend to me.”
Reading her words sent a happy shiver through me. She “got it.” She understood what my intent was in writing that book. It was about the power of friendship to encourage and change each other.
She went on to write: “You see, as a black woman, I would rarely buy a book written by a white person, but you were so persistent. I’m glad I bought it and I’m glad I read it. Your story taught me a lot about friendship.”
I sat back in my chair, taking in her words. I remembered when I was writing that story, I purposely didn’t write what color hair the characters had. I hate it when I’m reading a book and I have characters clearly imagined in my head and then, in the middle of the story, the author will write something like, “She tossed her platinum blonde hair over her shoulder,” when I’d imagined the character with dark brown hair. Now I was curious.
I wrote back: “Since you brought up the subject of race, I’m wondering, when you were reading that story, did you imagine the characters as white or black?”
Her answer came immediately: “Well, black, of course.” And, then it was as if she paused and slowly typed: “Ohhh, I suppose when you were writing it, you imagined them white.”
Of course I did. It seems we all look at the world through our own-colored glasses.
Her words thrilled me and I wrote back that her email was one of the best I’d received. I was delighted she imagined those characters from her perspective. Our “outsides” don’t matter nearly as much as what’s inside. Friendship is a color of its own. And, I was so glad she saw the “heart” of that story.
Jump ahead to 2019, when issues of race were just about to explode in our country. My husband and I were on our first-ever river cruise which began in Germany and ended in Amsterdam. A year earlier, I’d signed a contract with a publisher in the Netherlands to release “After Anne” in the Dutch language. It just so happened my almost 20-year-old story was hot off the press as we docked in Amsterdam. My Dutch editor, Janneke, suggested we meet for lunch.
After “hellos” and hugs, we began visiting. She reached into her backpack and, with a big grin, handed me a thick copy of my book. (The Dutch language uses many more letters – and words – than English, which is why the book was SO thick.) Of course, all the writing on the cover was in Dutch. And, even though I don’t speak a word of the language, I could tell the title was not, “After Anne.” We hadn’t discussed this – at all. I was a bit speechless, and finally, pointing to the title asked, “What does this say?”
Janneke explained that the words “After Anne” have no translation in Dutch. So, they had changed the title to “The Color of Friendship.”
It continues to amaze me how God can take the tiniest bits of our lives and weave them into a story so much grander than I ever imagine. My wish is that we all will see the color of friendship in everyone.
Roxanne (Roxy) Henke lives in rural North Dakota. You can write to Roxy at firstname.lastname@example.org.