Generally, I consider myself to be a lucky person, but the type of luck that I mean is the luck one makes. For several years, I used that type of luck while writing my book, The Alchemy of Us. I didn’t have access to a well-funded library, so I cobbled together a patchwork of resources. I used public libraries for books, digital libraries for articles, and a local college library for its quiet.
In these places, I pieced together stories about inventors and the impact of their inventions. It was a slow and arduous process. So, when my publisher selected my work as one of its big titles for spring 2020, I felt that I inherited a new form of luck.
My publicist assembled a tour of 26 venues in 21 cities in the U.S. and the U.K. With such an ambitious plan, my book felt like NASA’s Golden Record, with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be propelled across the publishing universe. I wanted to be ready. In preparation, I practiced my talk and swam four times a week. I even organized a preview talk at a local library to rehearse in front of an audience before my tour began. Little did I know that this small venue would telegraph the big things to come.
Two days before that event, the library’s coordinator asked if I was still coming, given the recent coronavirus news. At that time, there were only a few cases on the East Coast, so I said yes. The next day, that small library understandably canceled, since the number of cases was escalating and safety was key. By then, a few of my tour venues in England had canceled because of the crisis in Europe. A few days later, the West Coast bookstores started to cancel. Then, the East Coast bookstores began to cancel, too. Eventually, the whole tour collapsed.
As this was unfolding, I was in okay spirits. I presented a level of acceptance honed from my New Jersey upbringing, with its unofficial state motto of, “What are you going to do?” However, in retrospect, I must have been partly in shock, because a few days later my acceptance transformed into anger. I kept thinking about the odds of a pandemic canceling a tour for a book that took years to write. All evening, I got pretty heated about my bad luck. I would have gone swimming to cool off, but my pool was shuttered.
The next day, I woke up with an idea that I needed to buy a new computer. For years, I wrote on an old Mac, but lately Skype wasn’t working. I had been on the fence about buying a new laptop, but not that morning. After two trips to the Apple Store, I owned a new MacBook that night. It was a good thing I acted when I did, because two days later Apple closed its retail stores.
At the time, I had no idea that my new computer would be my main vehicle for my virtual book tour. I could do radio interviews with it via Skype, and I could livestream lectures via Zoom. In this brave new world of virtual book tours, I’ve learned quite a bit. I jury-rigged a home studio with a standalone webcam for my livestream events. I didn’t have a podium in my house, so I repurposed my music stand to hold my notes. This virtual book tour is being cobbled together much in the same way as the resources I used in writing the book it’s supporting.
For years, I have been writing my best book yet and creating my own luck as I moved ahead. For a golden moment, my luck improved—but then the world changed for the worse, and so I had to make my own luck again with the book’s promotion. In the months to come, my book promotion will use both established tools and my newly adopted technological ones.
This use of technology for book promotion seems fitting. In The Alchemy of Us, I show how society embraces new technologies out of need, and it is out of need that I am using technology to promote the book. This notion isn’t lost on me—nor is the fact that my luck improved again. This spring I will reach my readers virtually, but in fall I will reach them in person, since my tour has been rescheduled. There should be much to celebrate come fall, when, hopefully, the worst of this pandemic will be behind us.
Ainissa Ramirez is a materials scientist and science communicator. Her book The Alchemy of Us will be published by MIT on April 7.