Writing and reading are as private an activity as using the closet. The writer, shut off in their shed/studio, frowns at the ring of the telephone or the knock on their door; and who would risk disturbing a reader sunk deep in the pages of a novel? Writer and reader have ‘gone away’; they’re both off surfing the cyberspace of their brain, the non-physical imaginative world that exists only in a network of firing neurones.
But like travellers returning from an adventure in a foreign land, we readers love to chatter about our experiences after we’ve closed the book, like to discuss what brought tears, what raised an eyebrow, what made us laugh out loud. We like to say how the book spoke to us personally or to shake our heads and spit that we can’t believe it ever found a publisher. Welcome to the Book Group phenomenon, where we can indulge ourselves in all of the above with a group of friends over a glass of wine.
Here in the UK there are said to be over fifty thousand book groups and if each has ten members … . As an author wanting to make myself available to book groups, this is daunting. I have, so far, been invited to two of these fifty thousand – so some way to go but it’s early days. You will guess correctly that I’m hardly an expert on the subject but here are a few musings for those authors who have yet to find themselves naked before a group of readers. I say naked figuratively, although I guess every type of book group is out there.
Here are a few thoughts:
1. Before the date your hosts may appreciate being pointed in the direction of a reading guide to your book. For ideas go to publishers’ websites and follow the links to a popular book, visit author websites such as Khaled Hosseini’s, or have a look at the guides on Oprah’s Book Club. My own are here. And if you suggest questions, you’d better have some unexpected answers to the questions that you have posed.
2. Most book groups run an unstructured meeting – you are not attending a choreographed Presidential Inauguration so ask your host if they want to run the evening in a particular way or would prefer you to take charge of the proceedings. It’s not a good start to the evening if you are all looking at each other not knowing who is supposed to get things going.
3. Early on you will be asked how you came to write the book. What were the triggers? If it’s so long ago that you simply can’t remember, you might try one of the following:
I woke from a Propofol induced coma and wrote non-stop for three weeks.
I started writing the final scene and wrote the entire book backwards until I found out what had started it all off.
The need to meet my alimony payments.
4. Consider taking some props. This could relate to setting or theme: a picture, a calabash, a shroud. Does your novel have some recurring motif, such as a feather? Bring it along. You could possibly sell it to the highest bidder: This is the actual feather that inspired author Veronica Steinberger’s famous novel …
5. Most book groups have an all female membership so if you are a male author you are likely to find yourself the only man in the room. You may well be asked, with incredulity, How did you get into the mind of your female character so well? Or perhaps, I didn’t find your female characters very believable. I’m going to an all-male book group later this year and will be interested to hear whether they ask, How did you get into the mind of your male character so well?
6. You will be asked if it is autobiographical. See my previous blog entry about the launch party.
7. In every book group there will be someone who has not read the book, and has no intention of doing so. It’s amusing, although I hasten to say ill advised, to ask each member of the group in turn to tell you which character they most enjoyed.
8. Unless you were careless enough to assassinate your principal character on the final page you will be asked if there is to be a sequel. The answer: If you promise me you’ll all buy it, why yes, definitely.
9. Someone will want to know if the novel is selling well. There is only one shrewd answer to this: Sure, they can’t cut down the forests fast enough to keep up with demand. This statement tends to be followed by an awed - or a disgusted - silence.
10. Take some extra signed copies of your novel. Some will buy for relatives and friends.
11. A wonderful thing will happen. Discussing your own novel with a book group is one of the best ways to discover the truth of author Sally Vickers’ comment: A book is a meeting place between the author and the reader and the reader brings almost as much creative power to bear on the book as the person who has written it. You will hear imaginative takes, new truths and find contrary points of view on what you have written. You will find that the reader was, unbeknown to you, sitting beside you as you wrote.
As an aside, I have to report that these imaginative leaps on the part of readers can take unexpected turns. Even reading the back cover blurb can send readers off in startling directions. For example when my novel was first listed on Amazon UK I looked at the page entry: What do customers buy after viewing this book? What am I to make of the following? Forty two percent, Amazon said, buy a Bosch Rotak-40 Rotary Lawnmower … and another 20% buy the Rotak-30. Perhaps it was the intimation of the waving grasses of the East African savannah that triggered this sudden need to get out and mow the lawn.
Finally: don’t outstay your welcome. Remember that many book groups are that in name only. They may want to get on with the real business of the evening: gossip, chatting about the children, discussing holidays. Your book is of high importance in your life but it’s not in theirs. Be thankful that they were willing to give over a few hours to travel hand in hand with you into the imaginary world you created, and you’ve had the privilege of sharing in theirs.