I'm so pleased to have this guest post from bestselling author Elizabeth Strout, who reports here from this weekend's National Reading Group Month event in Nashville, TN where the Southern Festival of the Book was taking place. Her wonderful novel, Olive Kitteridge is just out in paperback. This sounds like it was a great event and really speaks to the power of book clubs, to stimulate our minds and soothe our pain. For a National Reading Group Month event near you, visit the official site.
Downtown Nashville was filled with people and tents and music and food and books this weekend. Books and more books, and people buying books, lugging books around. It was the annual Southern Festival of the Book, and festive it was. The weather was in the low eighties, the sky a wide sweet blue, and people seemed pleasant and patient as they waited in lines for book signings, or wandered through the plaza looking for the right entrance to one of the old government buildings being used to house many of the events.
In the midst of this, a breakfast meeting of the Woman's National Book Association Nashville Chapter was held, and I was invited to be their guest author. Having broken my foot two days earlier by doing no more than simply walking down the street of New York, I was not sure if I'd be able to attend. But the doctor had given me the go ahead, and so my "boot" and I made the journey -- my first time in an airport wheelchair -- and when I showed up that morning for the book club meeting, the pain level had been ratcheted up. I was somewhat worried about my ability to gather my thoughts. But the women were entirely gracious and understanding, and they started the interview section of the meeting a bit early for my benefit, just in case I ran out of steam. The meeting was held in the main library of Nashville, in one of the lower level rooms, spacious and comfortable, with a number of round tables where a variety of women sat eating pastries and other breakfast food. They set me up with a stool to stick my foot on, at the front of the room, and I was questioned by a thoughtful, calm young woman, and I enjoyed myself tremendously. Which goes to show, I think, that the affect of intelligent and caring readers seems to mend broken bones, travel fatigue, and -- as I have always wanted to believe -- many ailments of the soul.
These women engaged easily and passionately with me in opinions about the cantankerous character at the center of Olive Kitteridge. At one point it was suggested that Olive's behavior at her son's wedding (where Olive steals her new daughter-in-law's bra) "bordered on the psychotic." It was fabulous. I surprised myself by going into a bit of a monologue reminding them that Olive had received a narcissistic wound when she heard her daughter-in-law criticize the dress she'd made specially for the important day -- and we all ended up laughing, as I confessed I didn't realize I was so invested. Although of course every author is deeply invested in their work and their characters. At any time, but particularly at this moment in history, to be in the presence of readers who are also invested in what we writers have to say, was a true thrill. I write for other people. And here they were. Book clubs are giving me hope. When I think of how much I hear people discussing television shows these days I feel more and more that I belong to a cottage industry. But to visit a group dedicated to the art and act of reading reminded me that people are still actively receiving what it is we writers do alone. The solitary act of writing becomes a lot less solitary when one is in the presence of the readers. It was a pain killer, trust me. I left much steadier on my feet.