I'm thrilled to have this guest post from Joshua Henkin, author of Matrimony, about his Book Group Expo experience this past weekend. Read on for his insights into the weekend. I love how every author's take on the Expo is so unique....
When I started my paperback book tour for Matrimony, there it was, in the distant horizon: the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Book Group Expo. Hundreds of book groups from around the country. And me, like a kid in a candy store.
I wasn’t disappointed. Although I didn’t, alas, get to meet Book Club Girl herself—she was at home, very pregnant—I got to meet Nicole, Book Club Girl’s non-pregnant doppelganger, as well as numerous other people I’d been looking forward to meeting. I’d been in touch by email with Carol Fitzgerald of Book Reporter fame and Esther Bushell, the retired English teacher from Greenwich who has made a fantastic second career facilitating book groups, but I’d never met them in the flesh, and it was great to spend a big chunk of time with them, eating, drinking, talking about books. Esther and Carol were both terrific—smart, funny, great to get to know. It was also wonderful to meet Julie Robinson, who runs Literary Affairs in Beverly Hills, as well as Lauren John, a librarian and book group leader from the Bay area, and Marilyn Herbert, who runs Book Club in a Box in Toronto.
In short, San Jose gathered facilitators and book groups and book group groupies like myself. I’ve visited now close to 75 book groups for discussions of Matrimony, an experience I wrote about on Lisa Munley’s terrific blog Books on the Brain. But those meetings were all one writer with one book group, and there was something more exhilarating about having so many book groups under a single tent.
Among the highlights of the salons was hearing book group members tell their own stories. How one woman’s book group had helped her get through her divorce. How another book group had endured the death of a member quite a number of years ago and how that member still lived on through the book group. Time and again, the members would say, "I know she would have loved that book."
I’ve given a lot of readings and been to a lot of conferences, but what distinguished Book Group Expo was that the authors were doing as much of the listening as the talking. That’s why I visit book groups. Prior to the rise of book groups, the only people writers got to hear from were their fellow writers and book critics. Now there are literally millions of Americans we can be in touch with and who are often gracious enough to invite us into their own living rooms.
When I visit book groups, members often ask about my writing process: what was I thinking when I wrote this; what was my intention when I wrote that? I do my best to answer these questions, though often it’s hard to know. It took me ten years to write Matrimony and I threw out more than three thousand pages. It’s hard to remember what you were thinking at any given moment, and besides, writers proceed intuitively. As Andre Dubus III pointed out in his salon, the writing process is a lot closer to dreaming than it is to thinking. In any case, to me what’s most interesting about book groups is hearing what readers have to say. As I’m always telling my writing students, once the book is out there, it’s out there. The reader’s interpretation is just as valid as the writer’s.
Other highlights of Book Group Expo: meeting Julia Glass, whose work I’ve long admired. At her salon, Julia was asked to name a book she loved, and she said Robert Boswell’s Mystery Ride, which she found years ago on a remainders table. Nothing makes a writer happier than to hear another writer recommend a book they love, particularly when that book isn’t known by enough people. So let me tell you about Mystery Ride, a novel that my then-girlfriend (now-wife) read aloud to each other over the phone the first year of our relationship when we were long-distance, a novel that made such an impression on us that years later we named our dog Dulcie after the teenage daughter in Boswell’s novel. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking book about a marriage and a divorce, about parenthood, about many other things, and since all good fiction takes you somewhere unexpected, the novel also suggests that time does not heal all. I can’t recommend it strongly enough.
My own salon was called "Wedlocked: The Intimacies and Intricacies of Marriage," moderated expertly by Leah Garchik. It was great fun participating with fellow authors Sylvia Brownrigg and Jennie Shortridge, both of whose most recent books I’ve begun to read and am enjoying immensely.
Among the questions asked:
Is there ever a happily-ever-after and were you trying to say something hopeful/happy about marriage? (My own answer: novelists are never trying to say anything about anything. They’re creating characters and writing a story. As for hopeful/happy endings, it’s arguable that Matrimony has a happy ending, but I’m suspicious in general of the wish for happy endings. To me, nothing is more depressing than a tacked-on happy ending. And there’s solace, it seems to me, in fiction that explores characters’ troubles without providing easy solutions. Reading such books, we’re reminded that we’re not alone.)
Could you have written your novel about gay marriage? (We all agreed that we could write a novel about gay marriage—and we all support gay marriage—but we also agreed that those would be different novels from the ones we’d written.)
Would you recommend that someone give a copy of your book as a party favor at a high-end wedding? (Of course we would! That’s 200 sales! Though I also would slip in Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, just because it’s such a great book. And though it’s true it’s about a terrible marriage, the bride and groom could consider it a cautionary tale!)
Favorite line from Book Group Expo: Ann Packer author most recently of Songs Without Words, on whether writing is therapeutic: "Writing isn’t therapeutic; therapy is therapeutic."
Favorite Book Group Expo food: pumpkin butter! The marketplace, where the vendors were set up, got transformed into the venue for a makeshift cocktail party, with waiters passing around chocolate, glasses of wine, etc. But you couldn’t beat the pumpkin butter slathered across crackers.
Favorite Book Group Expo Vendor: Roman Paradigm Massage. Once you’d bought all your books and carried your load home, you could recuperate with a massage right next to the author signings.
Book Bloggers: It was terrific to meet several of them—Trish from Hey Lady Whatcha Readin, Jill from Softdrink, and Wendy from Caribousmom. I only wish there had been more bloggers at Book Group Expo, and from looking at the comments on Trish, Jill, and Wendy’s blogs, I sense that a lot of book bloggers agree. So maybe we can start planning for next year. There’s a close connection between book bloggers and book groups. Almost every book blogger I know is a member of a book group, and book bloggers are great at spreading the word about and to book groups. Perhaps something can be arranged next year with Book Group Expo to make it easier for more bloggers to come. A giveaway/raffle of a bunch of free tickets to book bloggers? Discounted rates for the others? Press credentials? Any other ideas? Having more book bloggers at the conference would be great for book bloggers and great for Book Group Expo. It would help spread the word.
A special shout-out to Books Inc., the West Coast’s oldest independent bookseller, which supplied and sold all the authors’ books and did a terrific job.
And finally, and most important of all, a huge thank you to Ann Kent, Kathi Goldmark, and Susanne Pari—the brains (and brawn!) behind Book Group Expo. They all worked for months to make the conference what it was, and all of us—writers and book group members—owe them our tremendous gratitude.