An Ode To Reading Groups
I am not a literary rock star. I’m not even a literary lounge act. I’m more like the guy on the street corner playing two overturned plastic paint buckets with a pair of beat-up drumsticks. At least, I was until now. To my astonishment, my third and most recent novel, Hannah’s Dream, has been a Pacific Northwest bestseller, and I know one big reason why: book groups. Hannah’s Dream has found its way into book groups nationwide.
So when, in celebration of National Reading Group Month, I was invited by the Women’s National Book Association to join a panel of fellow novelists in Seattle recently, I showed up eager to testify. Joining me were Jamie Ford (Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet), Stephanie Kallos (Sing Them Home), Jim Lynch (Border Songs), and Garth Stein (The Art of Racing in the Rain).
Our moderator for the evening was Nancy Pearl, revered librarian and author of Book Lust, More Book Lust, and Book Crush. According to Booklist, Pearl is the originator of the very concept of reading groups. About 250 readers—most presumably book club members—made up the evening’s audience.
If you’d attended, you would have noticed laughter leavening the discussion, all two hours’ worth. This, in macro version, is exactly what I like best about book groups: they generate noise and energy. They’re the nearly perfect hybrid of fan club and family gathering. Discussions are heated, opinions deeply held. Was Character X right to do what he did to Character Y? Was cancer really necessary for narrative tension? And, as most book clubs discussing Hannah’s Dream get to at some point, what about Johnson Johnson, anyway?
I’m not much of a self-promoter, and my social skills have come with considerable effort. Given my preference, I’d never be in a room with more than three other people. And here’s what I look like in my natural state, which is to say writing: I kibbitz. I fret. I eat a lot. I’m eating right now. Sometimes I type things and then delete them. Sometimes I don’t type them in the first place. Sometimes I achieve a paragraph. You can see how it goes. Not much flash, not much glamour. My comfort zone.
Yet, at the merest mention of a book group, I brazenly invite myself along. In the Northwest? I’ll be there in person. Florida? How about a telephone appearance? Overseas? Why not SKYPE? Surprisingly often, my overtures are accepted.
Some of these groups have been meeting for eight and ten years. There’s always a lot of laughter, good company, inexpensive wine and a high-calorie dessert course. Initially we find things to talk about like children and birthplaces, but we save the book-work for last, when we’re licking our cake forks or replenishing our wine. Someone makes the first overture. Sometimes that someone is me. I talk about how my fictional elephant Hannah was born from an actual killer whale. About how much respect I have for zookeepers. About the kinds of bonds that are possible between members of radically dissimilar species.
From there, almost inevitably, we end up in a comfortable, warts-and-all conversation about the book’s events and characters and quirks and mechanics. And here is the amazing, even magical, thing: these characters, who come from my own head, are as real to these avid and skillful readers as the next door neighbor, and just as much fun to gossip about. And at the evening’s end someone usually wants to know what happens to the main characters later on, beyond the story’s end. It surprises them when I say that’s entirely up to them. I’m done; the characters are now as much theirs as mine. Like speculating about the future that must be lying in wait for a favorite cousin or idiot nephew, there are no wrong answers, just ones that feel more or less likely.
And so, to all you cherished book group members I say, you never knew you had that kind of power, did you?
Now you do.
Diane Hammond is the author of novels Hannah’s Dream, Homesick Creek and Going to Bend. Her fourth novel, Seeing Stars, is about child actors in Hollywood and will be released in March 2010. She lives in Bend, Oregon with her husband, six cats, and a Pembroke Welsh corgi. Visit her at: http://www.dianehammond.com.