Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Book group phobia

As some of you may know, I'll be attending the San Jose Book Group Expo this weekend. It's a great opportunity to meet readers face-to-face and discuss reading and writing in an informal, literary-salon setting. I'm very excited about this event, but it wasn't so long ago when an invitation to speak would have sent spasms of fear through me.

I’ll never forget the first time I visited a book group in person. The Secret Lion had been out for almost two years; I'd heard of book groups, of course, as well as their increasing importance to authors in an era of shrinking marketing dollars. But I’d never been in one and I had no idea of how they worked. Writer friends of mine had been encouraging me to make myself available to these groups; they kept saying, “You’re a great speaker, a real ham. You’re perfect for book groups. They'll adore you.”

The truth was, I was terrified. I’d done quite a few readings, signings, public speaking engagements; I'd even taught classes. I’m good with an audience. As my friends say, I am indeed a ham. But I was scared to the point of phobia of meeting with a group of readers who’d read my book and might question me at close-range about it. What if I’d made some inadvertent error that a reader would point out? What if they hated the book? What if they found my writing trite, irrelevant? What if they laughed at me? I understood my fear was totally illogical; but every writer struggles with some type of insecurity when it comes to their work; and for me, this was the Bogey Man of all authorial phobias— meeting readers up front and personal in an intimate setting.

As often happens, what we most fear, we attract. Shortly after I sold The Last Queen, I got a call from a local reading group. They'd selected The Secret Lion as their book for the following month and wanted to know if I was available to speak to them. What could I say? I agreed and then spent the next forty-five days worrying about it.

On the night I went to the house where the group was meeting, I felt ill. My hands were sweating; I was sure they’d see the beads of perspiration on my forehead and think I was coming down with some horrible flu. I could barely speak as I was introduced to everyone, the lump in my throat felt so big. Then, as the hostess offered me a glass of water and indicated the trays of canap├ęs nearby in case I was hungry, a lovely young woman sitting opposite me burst out, “Oh, I loved your book! I couldn’t put it down. I can’t wait to hear you talk about it.”

It was if she’d shot Zen gamma rays at me. All the tension in my body seeped away. I looked about for the first time with clarity and was greeted by seven smiling faces. These are readers, I thought. Readers, just like me. People who’d read and liked a book, and were thrilled that the author was there to discuss it. How often had I finished a novel and thought, I wish I could tell the author how much I enjoyed this. I wish I could talk to him or her about my impressions. Then the hostess leaned in to me and chuckled softly, “You can relax now. We don’t bite.”

That night was one of the best evenings I’ve spent as a writer. We went beyond the hour time-frame, the discussion lively and enthusiastic. I was astonished by how much they’d found to talk about in my work, their different interpretations of it, the messages and themes they’d detected. Some of it I had intended while writing the book; quite a bit, I hadn’t. In the end, I learned far more about who I am as a writer than I’d ever expected, and was profoundly grateful for the experience, knowing it would stay with me forever and inform the ways I look at my writing. One book group had changed how I approached my craft.

I’ve spoken to several groups since then, some in person and some via phone chat. Invariably, whether it’s twelve readers or five or three, I always learn something new about my work, about how it’s experienced by someone other than me; where I’ve succeeded and where I have not. Not once have I ever put down the phone or closed the door without feeling that deep sense of passion and joy for books that readers bring to the world.

Readers are why I write. I might spend years crafting my sentences and scenes, reveling in my secret world, but in the end I need it to be bound and read by someone other than me. I write for pleasure; but my true reward is when I hear that one reader say: “I loved your book.”

Now, being invited to a book group is something I always cherish and look forward to.


L.C.McCabe said...

And I look forward to having you speak at my writers club meeting.

Slightly different, because most of the people there will not have read your work beforehand but will most likely be inspired to buy a book after hearing you speak about your experiences.

BTW, my friend Erika Mailman will be at the Book Group Expo as well promoting the paperback release of her book The Witch's Trinity. If you have the chance, try looking her up and introduce yourself to her. Expanding your network of friends is good thing.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for speaking on something so very identifiable to many.

Public speaking is one thing that will make me run full speed in the opposite direction, even to a root canal. Couldn't eat or think beforehand. But the few times I've done it locally, halfway through the writers' meeting, I realized I was enjoying myself. And at the end I was a little sorry it was over.

Great post.

Sarah Bower said...

Book groups are terrifying, but marvellous too because they're so much less polite than other audiences - at least in the UK, where I think we all tend to be less polite than you are. In my experience, they've usually read my books in advance and prepared very tough and challenging questions which force me to think about my work in different ways - and sometmes admit I'm wrong!

And then there's the awful moment when they ask you some detail about a book published two years ago, and you can't remember what they're talkng about! I console myself by remembering David Bowie saying he has to have an autocue for the words of his songs these days so I'm in good company.

C.W. Gortner said...

Linda, I'm looking forward to talking to your writers group, too! And I'm hoping to chat with Erika this weekend at BookGroup Expo.

Dynamic Queen (great name, btw): That was my experience, too. I realized half way through that first group that I was enjoying it and ever since, I've become - as my friends claimed - a real ham.

Sarah, I haven't had the awful moment yet when I can't remember a detail from my work, though I'm sure it'll happen! I did have one person at a group ask me why I didn't include more of the Inquisition in The Last Queen, an issue potentially fraught with controversy and dissension; but I had the right answer, fortunately, because I'd researched it beforehand. The way the question was asked, I knew the person was suspicious that I was glossing over this unappetizing fact of life in Renaissance Spain in order to make my story more palatable.

ctabuk said...

Hi C.W. I hope your book is doing well. About 6 months ago in another forum you asked me to leave a link for 'The Last Queen' on my site

I did so, and it's been getting regular hits. My novel 'The Adventures of Michael Fane' is out on Legend Press before Christmas. My site is now on page one on all the major SE's. So if there are other writers here, let me know. Cheers David