SIDNEY — Award-winning journalist Joanne Huist Smith, of Dayton, recently tugged at the heart strings and inspired almost 100 women in Sidney as she talked about her book, “The 13th Gift: A True Story of a Christmas Miracle.”
Sponsored by the Book & Travel Club in Sidney, Smith spoke about the book, which deals with the aftermath of losing her husband just before Christmas.
“Even though I know very few people here,” she said, “when I see the way people clutch the book, I can tell who has read it and who hasn’t.” Everyone experiences loss some time in their life, she said.
“If you’re lucky, your hair is gray by the time this happens. I don’t feel like a stranger with the women in this room,” she added.
As a girl, Smith loved “Harriet the Spy” novels by Louise Fitzhugh, about a little girl who wrote down everything she saw and did because she wanted to be a writer. Smith has been journaling and writing short stories and poetry ever since.
“When I pass away, my kids are going to find journals everywhere. They’re in my closet, under the bed, in the kitchen cupboards with the plates I only use on holidays. I write in them every day,” she said.
She attended Patterson Co-Op High School in Dayton and earned a degree in English in 1996 from Wright State University. She took writing classes at Sinclair Community College and found she was good at it.
“I found I could write and get paid for it,” she said. “That was like eating cake for breakfast. So I would write down story ideas and thought I would write some big, important novel. I love science fiction and during my child-bearing years, I fell in love with romance novels and thought maybe I could do that under an assumed name. I wrote down everything in these journals and five or six years later, I read them and realized if I hadn’t written them down, they would have been lost forever because I didn’t even remember writing them.”
When told that her humor resembled that of Erma Bombeck, she said, “My dad told me, ‘Little girls from Dayton do not grow up to be writers.’ Erma Bombeck was my proof that they did.”
“The 13th Gift” tells the story of strangers who left anonymous gifts to cheer up her family after husband died. Who were they?
Smith and her husband, Rick, had been married for 19 years, when his heart, which had a defective valve, gave out on Oct. 8, 1999, before he could have surgery for the repair. She said he was the love of her life, and with three small children, she wasn’t sure how they would ever get through the holidays.
“We were shattered,” she wrote in her book.
In the first few months after Rick’s death, she wrote down everything about him. She knew there would be a day when the kids would come with questions. She wanted to be prepared and didn’t want to rely on her memory.
“The joy of being a mother kind of pulled me along. And, I would write down everything because I knew I always wanted to write a book. I needed to write it,” Smith said. She started it as a work of fiction. Her writers group kept telling her it was a memoir. After all, the kids in the book were Ben, Nick and Megan, the names of her own children. She realized, over time, that writing helped her heal.
At a writers’ workshop at Antioch in 2013, Smith had the opportunity to pitch her story — using three sentences or less — to an agent from Random House Publishing.
“I could never do that. (I thought) I needed at least 20,” quipped Smith. The agent, Hannah Brown Gordon, knew immediately the title of the book should be “The 13th Gift.” Smith said, “No, it’s not.”
She had planned to write 21 chapters, with every other chapter a back story about Rick, but was told it would make the book too sad.
“In hindsight, I think the book is the way it’s supposed to be,” Smith said. “But, I worked some of those chapters about him into the book.”
“The 13th Gift” is available at Readmore’s Hallmark in Piqua, Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com. It has been published in Italy, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Brazil, Portugal, Japan and Taiwan and as an audio book. Smith has been contacted about its becoming a movie.
She advised that you should always have a smile on your face, even if that’s the only thing you give to someone else.
“But you’d be surprised what the little things (gifts) you give others can mean to them,” she said.
Smith is now at work on her next book. For information, visit www.13thgift.com.
The writer is a regular contributor to the Sidney Daily News.