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 canapés 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.