After high school, I attended a technical school and studied Auto Mechanics for a year-and-a-half. (I wanted to see if I could learn how to do something I didn’t know anything about.) I was a whiz at doing brake jobs but when the parts cleaner ate the Positively Pink polish off of my fingernails, I realized this wasn’t the career for me.
When I was twenty-two years old I opened my own restaurant, The Cutting Board. The restaurant was very busy, customers loved my food but so did my employees. They carried it out the back door on a regular basis. Turns out that owning a restaurant is a tough business.
In 1978 I founded and published , one of the first regional business magazines in the country. After 11 years I sold the magazine and it’s still being published today in Madison, Wisconsin. During the last eight years of publishing In Business magazine I also started a free lunch program called Meals for Madison.
at noon I served a free meal to 125 people. It became a community business adventure, because each week I’d invite a different corporation to send some of their executives to the meal site to help serve the noon meal and then clean up afterwards. Restaurants donated food, presidents of companies wrote checks and once a month high school students cooked the main course in their Home Economics class, and I’d bus them to the meal site so they could serve.
I used to tell people that if I could start a business that brought me as much joy as Meals for Madison and make money doing it, I’d be in heaven. Sometimes you get what you wish for. In June of 1999 I found my little piece of heaven when I launched DearReader.com.
In case you’re not familiar with DearReader, I beg your pardon—and hope you’ll indulge me while I adopt my “commercial voice” (which I’ve been using doing voice-overs since I was being potty trained!) to tell you a little about what I do.
Yes, really—potty trained! Some people read in the bathroom, but when I was a kid I did commercials. It's a little embarrassing, I don't remember how it got started, but whenever I was “sitting,” I'd reach over, rummage through the vanity drawer by the sink, pull out a bottle of mouthwash or some shaving cream, tilt my head to the side (ever so slightly) smile, hold up the product, look into the imaginary camera and start delivering the advertising copy from the back label using my "commercial voice."
Uh..umm..so here goes:
When you go to DearReader.com you’ll find 11 different book clubs. Sign up today and tomorrow in your email you’ll receive a 5-minute chunk to read from a book in a category of your choosing—mystery, romance, classics, and so on. The next day you’ll receive another 5-minute read. By the end of the week you’ll have sampled enough from the book to know if it’s a good match for you. If it is, head to the library or visit your favorite bookstore. It’s as simple as that.
Oh—and I write a daily Dear Reader column, too. Most days my column isn’t about books, instead I write about everyday life and the feelings I wrestle with; the embarrassing thing I did yesterday; how I can’t seem to get back in the groove because my mother died and now I feel like an orphan; my morning coffee fairy; the greatest gift my dad ever gave me; and my most memorable , when my party dress started shedding. Life is never boring at my house—in fact things are pretty entertaining.
For a long time I couldn’t understand why people enjoyed reading my daily column so much. But through the years, I’ve come to realize that by the time readers get to the end of my column, they’re not reading my story any longer, instead they’re reliving one of their own. I end every column with “Thanks for reading with me. It’s so good to read with friends.” And I mean it. I’m at my best one-on-one with people and even though 375,000 people read my column every day they feel like I’ve written it just for them—sittin’ on the sofa just shootin’ the breeze.
I have been following your Dear Reader column for several years now. I am so grateful you are willing to share with your readers a glimpse of your life, whether it’s happy or sad. Let me introduce myself: I am a 43 –year-old mother of three children ages 8, 10, and 11. I have been diagnosed with late-stage metastasized lung cancer.
Knowing that I won’t have the privilege of walking my three young children through their tough teenage years and adulthood, I want to prepare a scrapbook for each of them to fall back on when they are down and have no one else to turn to. When I was reading your column about the “writing inspiration” folder you keep, it strikes me to the core—that’s exactly what I want to prepare for my kids. Something to inspire them to be the best person they possibly can, and to pick their spirits up on a rainy day when things feel out of control and they need to get themselves grounded again.
It would be greatly appreciated if you can share some pointers with me as to where to find these inspiring books, articles, quotes, etc. Thank you for your time!
In my reply to Priscilla, I told her that some of the most precious things I own are the photo albums and recipe box that my Grandma Hale passed on to me. Whenever I thumb through the albums, or I’m following the recipe on one of Grandma’s recipe cards, I feel like she’s standing right beside me in the kitchen. It such a comfort, and the memories come flooding in. I suggested that Priscilla create recipe boxes for her children, including favorite recipes and stories. Write down on a recipe card the things from her life she’d like to pass along to them—recipes for their lives: how to make an impression on someone (give them an example of something she did)when it's okay to tell a fib and then tell them one of her little white lies. What’s the best gift anyone ever gave her? What were the things that really scared her in life? How did she feel when they were born, when she was diagnosed with lung cancer and she realized the outcome.
Priscilla did make recipe boxes for her children and unknowingly, she left behind a gift for me, too. I didn’t realize it until I wrote back to Priscilla, but for years I’d been creating my own recipe box, and the stories I discovered in it inspired me to write this book.
DEB: How did you get started doing the online book clubs? I have been a member of one for quite some time and thoroughly enjoy it.
SUZANNE: It was the summer of 1999. My husband and I were working together in his software company. Most of the people who worked for him were stay-at-home moms, working part time from their homes, so they could be with their children. Frequently one of the moms would comment, that when her children were old enough she wanted to go back to college.
So one afternoon, when I heard the frustration in Cathy’s voice about wishing she could go back to school, I asked, “Why wait? Your kids might not be going to school for three or four years, but you could start reading about whatever subject you’re interested in right now.”
Cathy was not amused. “Look Suzanne, I cook, clean, do school activities, take care of my children, and work part time for you. I don’t even have time to shave my legs and you expect me to sit down and read a book!”
Good point. I guess I’d forgotten how little free time my husband and I had when our kids were young. In-between managing our businesses, trying to get kids off to school in the morning and then transport them to music lessons and sports afterwards, it was a real juggling act. So that evening when I was preparing our daily company email, on a whim I started typing in the first few pages of , a book I’d just finished reading. The next evening I typed in a little more, continuing to send short installments with each company email.
Four days later, No Time to Shave My Legs Woman called. “I’m embarrassed to admit it, Suzanne, but I’ve been sneaking over to my computer late at night to see if company email showed up yet, because I’m hooked on the book.”
So if sending part of a book, to a busy stay-at-home mom, could inspire her to add reading to her “to-do” list, what would happen if I sent daily book club emails to millions of people? And that’s how my online book clubs at DearReader.com were born. (By the way, before I continue, I need to tell you that taking copyrighted material out of a book is illegal, which my loving husband pointed out to me at the time. I assured him it was for a small group of women and that’s how creative ideas are born. But that still doesn’t make it legal. Not to worry, I have permission for all of the books I use at my online book clubs today.)
I knew how to build a website and I could envision what the book clubs would look like, but how was I going to get permission to use material from published books? Silly, naïve me, I thought if I called a publisher they would call me back. When they didn’t, I tried sending a fax and then an overnight letter. Finally it was my persistent dialing that reached a executive. She decided to take a chance on my online book club idea. But a week later, when we were supposed to finalize things, my contact was gone—literally. The recording on her phone said she didn’t work at Random House any longer, “Press one if you need further assistance.”
So I had no choice but to begin again. Eventually I connected with someone else at Random House and I started getting permissions. I figured I could name-drop and easily get other publishers on board, too. When that didn’t work, I bakedchocolate chip cookies and sent them overnight with a one-page letter. I realize a business letter and chocolate chip cookies might seem like strange bedfellows. But I loved to bake, and I needed to stand out, and who doesn’t love ahomemade chocolate chip cookie—like the kind Grandma used to make?
What a difference when I’d call a publisher the day after my package arrived, “Oh, you’re the cookie woman! I’m sorry we didn’t get back to you yet.” Today, eleven years later, over 375,000 people read at my Dear Reader online book clubsevery day. I’m still baking cookies for publishers—because it’s fun—and I bake for readers, too. Every month there’s aChocolate Chip Cookie Giveaway at the book clubs. Stop by, if you’re name is drawn I’ll bake and overnight two-dozen homemade cookies to your front door.
Sound a little crazy? Yes, but a little crazy means we have a lot of fun. When you sign up at one of my free online book clubs, in addition to test-driving great books ( through Friday you receive an email with a 5-minute read) I write a daily column, and I give away other “crazy” items: bubble machines, heating pads for kitties that live in cold climates, vintage aprons, garage sale goodies, measuring cups, journals, and I’ve even shopped for socks for book club readers.
I invite you to join the fun at www.DearReader.com and if you like my style, you’ll love my new book, Muffins and Mayhem: Recipes for a Happy (if disorderly) Life. Read a sample at www.MuffinsandMayhem.com get a signed book plate, and discover my “goodies” for book clubs that meet in person.
DEB: What was it like when you got the word that your book would be published?
SUZANNE: My book was sold at auction, which meant that several publishers were bidding on it. Thank heavens for agents who know what they’re doing, because it feels like a magically whirlwind when you’re in the midst of the excitement. There’s a video clip at my website: www.MuffinsandMayhem.com that shows my reaction when I got the news that an agent loved my work and wanted to represent me. Click on “videos” and you’ll see what a crazed writer looks like behind the scenes.
DEB: When you’re not writing, what kinds of books do you like to read? Do you have a favorite author?
SUZANNE: I read mostly nonfiction. I don’t have a “favorite” author, because I read for what I need. So “favorites” change weekly, sometimes daily. What I enjoy reading depends on what’s going on in my life.
DEB: What are you working on right now?
SUZANNE: Always working on my daily column at the DearReader.com book clubs. And I’ve started working on a second book—nonfiction—and it’s another book inspired by a reader
DEB: Tell us one thing that people may not know about you?
SUZANNE: I listen to loud music when I write. Or at least until I’m finished with the first draft. And I tend to listen to the same song over-and-over again. When I wrote the proposal for my book—a two week project—I listened to the same two songs repeatedly the entire two weeks. “Free Falling” by Stevie Nicks and “Galileo” by theIndigo Girls.