Zooming In on Book Club Discussions

How do you do an author interview and book discussion in the Covid-era? Anyway you can! I recently had a worthwhile exchange on There is a Balm in Huntsville with a dozen readers of a church book club from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Three of us were on a Zoom connection, and nine others, socially-distanced and masked, shared a speaker phone hook-up inside their church’s sanctuary in South Dakota’s largest city (the church’s Wi-Fi was either overwhelmed or malfunctioning). In an upstairs bedroom at my home in Austin, Texas, I sat in front of my computer’s built-in camera for the Zoomers and palmed my phone in my right hand for the folks participating by audio.

We shared seventy-five minutes of vibrant discussion and interchange on restorative justice, the possibilities of transformation, and prison reform and recidivism.

Lynn, a member of the church’s book club, emailed a few days later: “The story you shared about this man’s journey with life-changing consequences really provided new perspective for me. Thank you for answering our book club questions as I really appreciated learning more from you and WHY you decided this story needed to be told, your time in writing and researching and the ‘factual-ness’ of the information provided. It is hard to know when reading if things have been embellished to ‘make the story’ and your willingness to answer more questions about the people and situation shows your passion and the amazing things God can do for both victims and perpetrators. Thank you.”  

Balm tells the unlikely and astonishing story of the development within the Texas criminal justice system of “Victim-Offender Dialog” (VOD), the first state-sponsored restorative justice program of its kind in the nation for victims of violent crime. Within that larger story, Balm details the story of one offender and the parents of a young woman the offender killed in a drunk-driving wreck. They meet at a victim-offender dialog table in a prison in Huntsville, Texas, the offender admitting his grievous mistakes and the parents looking for answers and accountability.

It’s a true story. I wrote Balm in narrative non-fiction style. As the book clubbers from South Dakota can tell you, Balm reads like a novel. I’ve heard from other readers who’ve finished the book in a single day. My Lancaster, Pennsylvania publishers at Walnut Street Books and I are convinced that Balm, when it was published, was the only third-person narrative in the restorative justice genre. There are plenty of good academic books available that explain restorative justice and its practices. Balm, however, is unique because readers learn about restorative justice through the stories of crime-victim survivors and perpetrators.

In the year that Balm came out, I had eighteen engagements – at bookstores and churches mostly, and others including a radio interview on Texas Standard and a speaker event at Texas Lutheran University – where I shared the book’s story and answered questions about the writing process. At a few of those events, I shared the stage with two important characters in the book: crime-victim survivor extraordinaire Ellen Halbert and VOD developer and practitioner, David Doerfler. I’m deeply honored to tell Ellen’s and David’s stories of healing, restoration, and bold advocacy in the book.

The pandemic brought an abrupt end to author book events. But all of us are now readjusting. I’m available to meet with your book club or group to discuss restorative justice and its related topics via teleconferencing hook-ups like Zoom (or phone, if necessary!). Thanks to new friends in South Dakota for their openness to new possibilities – for book club discussions and for the healing ways of restorative justice practices.

T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of a dozen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin, Texas. I’m the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, 2019). Readers describe it as “compelling,” “inspiring,” and “well written.”

I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (ACTA-Chicago, 2014), which traces the history of economic inequality in American society. Reviewing Just a Little Bit More, journalist Sam Pizzigati says, “Anderson, above all, writes with a purpose. He’s hoping to help Americans understand that an egalitarian ideal helped create the United States. We need that ideal, Anderson helps us see, now more than ever.”

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