On Saturday, March 11th, New York City readers and booklovers were treated to a wonderful afternoon of celebrated authors discussing their books and writing. Hosted by publisher Simon & Schuster in the historic Ed Sullivan Theater, the Book Club Matinee was the first event from the publisher and, hopefully, not the last. It was just perfect in so many ways.
I attended the event with a few friends and, although we were all excited by the stellar lineup, I must admit that one of the highlights was getting to see the Ed Sullivan Theater --- the site of the Beatles' first US performance, David Letterman's "Late Show," and now "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert." Upon entering the iconic building, we were delighted to see numerous cardboard cutouts of Colbert, all of which were perfectly poised for some tourist-friendly photo-snapping. Needless to say, we took full advantage before heading to our seats in the theater.
Although the set was familiar to many of us, it was perfectly personalized for the day's events, with slideshows of the Simon and Schuster logo and the invited authors' books visible on the stage. After a short period of mingling and photo-taking by all of us, Wendy Sheanin, Vice President and Director of Marketing, the program’s emcee took to the stage. She was visibly excited at speaking from the famous stage and her enthusiasm immediately made us all feel welcome. Wendy introduced Simon & Schuster President and Chief Executive Officer Carolyn Reidy, who also shared warm words of welcome, noting that she remembered both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones’ appearances on this iconic stage.
Wendy introduced Lisa See as the first author guest. I was not familiar with See's books before attending Saturday's Matinee, but many clearly many in the audience were huge fans, especially of SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN, which was a huge book group favorite. Lisa’s upcoming novel, THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE, which will be in stores on March 21st was given to each attendee as one of the selections in the goody bag. The idea for this book began when she became interested in adopted girls from China and wondered about their feelings of loss and struggles with identity. She thought about what it would be like to be so precious to a couple here that they would choose that child to be a part of their family while grappling with how back in China the same child had been not thought to be precious enough to be kept as part of China’s “One Child Policy.”
She wanted to set the book in a province in China that she had not yet explored and discovered a small, yet highly diverse, region of China where the Akha minority live. This place gave her the perfect setting for the historically-fueled and emotionally-wrought kinds of novels that have become her trademark. Once she settled on a topic and a location, she happened to meet a tea master through pure coincidence and chance. Then and only then did the seed for her novel truly begin to take root and before long she was off to do research. During her presentation, See gave us a brief history of Pu’er tea --- one that fascinated even me, a dedicated coffee-drinker. It was truly a perfect kick-off to the event and I look forward to reading See's book.
Up next, bestselling author Lisa Genova was joined by Leigh Haber, Books Editor of O, The Oprah Magazine. As a huge fan of STILL ALICE, I've been fascinated by Genova ever since I learned that she is not only a terrific author, but also a doctor of neuroscience, an unusual balance that gives her books the perfect mix of good writing and scientific fact. Genova explained that she was driven to write fiction after her grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. She could research the disease endlessly and although she understood it from a medical standpoint, she still desperately wanted to know what exactly her grandmother was feeling and experiencing. Genova began interviewing early-stage patients and soon she felt confident enough to write the sort of book that she and her family could have used. Of course, we were all dying to learn about other interesting medical issues, so Genova also discussed left neglect, a condition where the brain literally refuses to acknowledge all things on the left. It may sound crazy, but it has some very real repercussions like, for example, an acquaintance of Genova's who could not distinguish between signs reading "MEN" and signs reading "WOMEN," as the important, gender-changing letters are on the left side of the word.
Her upcoming book is about ALS, a topic close to her as one of the co-directors of STILL ALICE battled it for four years and passed away just a few weeks after Julianne Moore won her Oscar for the film. Nonfiction readers will be excited to learn that Genova is also planning a nonfiction book on memory.
The third panel of the day was the true highlight for me, as the star of it was an author I never imagined I would see in person: Isabel Allende, the Chilean-American author of works like THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS, DAUGHTER OF FORTUNE and THE JAPANESE LOVER, who has received not only Chile's National Literature Prize, but also the 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom. As the daughter of a Chilean, I grew up idolizing Allende the same way my classmates spoke of famous American authors, so this was a particularly momentous occasion for me. Seeing Allende was made all the better by the fact that she was in conversation with Bookreporter.com's own Carol Fitzgerald.
It's hard to summarize all that Allende and Fitzgerald discussed, as their conversation covered topics like the best place to hide a body in New York (a plot point in one of her books), the dissolution of Allende's second marriage and her habit of beginning books on January 8th (to give herself a hard deadline to begin), but the conversation flowed so easily and naturally that it was like watching two friends reunite though, in fact, they had not met until that day. Isabel is certainly a firecracker and it was an absolute hoot watching her discuss her fascinating life and path to authordom. She also discussed her habit of writing her mother daily, and a close group of friends with whom she has been meeting with, and keeping the confidences of, for more than 20 years. Allende’s next novel, IN THE MIDST OF WINTER (coming in November) was announced the day before Saturday's event. She did not share much about it, but did let us know that it will be set over three days in winter. The audience clearly looks forward to it!
After a short break we returned to the theater for two more panels. Up first, Ruth Ware, author of THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10, and Megan Miranda, author of ALL THE MISSING GIRLS, were joined by Elisabeth Egan, Books Editor of Glamour and author of A WINDOW OPENS for a discussion about their nail-biting, page-turning thrillers. I've been dying to see Ruth Ware in person and I was immediately taken with her witty, charming English humor --- the perfect foil to her dark, chilling books. She and Megan were just wonderful together and their numerous similarities really gave us insight into their writing processes. Both Ware and Miranda, for example, believe that their characters come to them fully formed, and their motives are revealed only by giving them full reign within the authors' plots and settings. Interestingly, neither Ware nor Miranda outline their books, a fact that is shocking given their numerous plot twists and red herrings. It would have been difficult for any author to follow Isabel Allende, but these authors more than held their own and had us all laughing and paying close attention.
For the last panel of the day, Simon & Schuster truly gave us an amazing treat: bestselling author Anthony Doerr, whose novel ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE won both the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and was nominated for the National Book Award. Doerr is another author I never expected to see in person and I was definitely not prepared for how laugh-out-loud funny and down to earth he was. Doerr prepared a hilarious slideshow which included photos of him in his youth, memes and even screenshots of funny book-inspired tweets.
The main message throughout his talk was that we must all encourage one another to move forward and that empathy --- particularly the empathy gifted to us through books --- will be the driving force behind any and all positive changes in the world. I must admit, Doerr was so funny that it was initially almost impossible to imagine him writing such a deep emotional hit like ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, but his incredible passion for knowledge and appetite for exploring quickly made it obvious that he is far more than a funny man with a knack for memes. He is a deep thinker who created a book that tied two people together, but also showed us the power of connecting with our fellow man. Doerr's presentation was the perfect ending to an already stellar day and it truly made us all feel connected as readers and humans.
As we were exiting the theater, I overheard many guests raving about the day and questioning whether or not there would be another event like it next year. I certainly hope so!