Donna Woolfolk Cross
Donna Woolfolk Cross, author of Pope Joan speaks with reading groups via speakerphone about her book on an ongoing basis. ReadingGroupGuides.com talked to her to get insight into how she interfaces with groups, and also asked her to share some historical fiction titles that she thinks might lend to some lively discussion. Readers can contact her at PopeJoan.com.
Q: Tell us a bit about your book POPE JOAN.
DWC: It's the dramatic story of the first and only woman ever to sit on the Throne of St. Peter. Set in the turbulent days of the ninth century, darkest of the Dark Ages, the book is a novel (and above all, I hope, a rip-roaring good tale!), but it's seriously researched and based on historical record.
Pope Joan's life, documented in over 500 ancient manuscripts, is one of the great lost "Mysteries of History." My novel reanimates the life of this extraordinary woman, whose strength of vision overcame the appalling misogyny of her day and allowed her to fully exercise her prodigious gifts of mind, heart, and spirit.
Q: What made you decide to start offering readers a chance to discuss the book with you via speakerphone?
DWC: Shortly after publication, it became clear that my publisher wasn't going to do anything to promote the book. I could see the handwriting on the wall: Pope Joan, over which I had labored so long (seven years!) and about which I cared so much, was going to have a REAL short shelf life in bookstores --- somewhere between lettuce and yogurt!
I decided to bypass my publisher and reach out directly to readers --- specifically to reading groups --- by offering to join the conversation and provide the opportunity to ask questions of "the horse's mouth."
So the idea was born, frankly, of pure desperation, crass commercial greed and self-promotion! But the speakerphone chats have turned out to mean so much more than that. I really enjoy these conversations with readers. They help the creative process enormously. Writing is such lonely work. It's bracing to be constantly reminded that I'm writing for people --- nice, smart, inquisitive, responsive people!
Q: Approximately how many chats do you do a month?
DWC: I do 3-4 chats a week, approximately, though that varies a lot. Last week I had EIGHT chats; this week only one. It's also very seasonal --- very busy in fall, winter, and spring, very quiet in summer, when many reading groups take a break while members vacation, re-group, etc.
Q: Tell us about some of the more memorable conversations that you have had with readers.
DWC: Boy, that's hard to say. There are so many groups with whom I've formed a bond through long, talk-and-laugh-filled conversations! One that comes to mind is what I call the "10-4" group. Their speakerphone wasn't functioning correctly on the night I called, so the only way we could communicate was for them to ask a question, then mute at their end while I answered. And then I would speak and mute them. WEIRD because it felt like talking into a void (and very different from the usual, because part of the joy of these speakerphone chats is that it's almost exactly like being in the room with everyone.)
The only way we could let each other know that I (or they) had finished speaking was to say "10-4." At first this was very awkward, but they were a game group and by the end we were all laughing and enjoying ourselves mightily, joined in mutual determination to make this work. At the end of our chat, they all got together and screamed "10-4" in unison and actually overcame the technical problem with the speakerphone --- for I heard them!! Delicious fun!
Q: What is the largest group that you have ever spoken with?
DWC: Thirty people. Smallest group --- three people.
Q: Have you ever been part of a book club? If so, can you share with us some thoughts about that experience?
DWC: No. But there have been many groups I've wanted to join after chatting with them! Alas, they live FAR across the continent from me!
Q: What are some other titles that you think make for great reading group discussion?
DWC: Well, I'm a lover of historical fiction --- that's why I've chosen to write it. When historical fiction is done right --- when it's carefully researched and well-written --- you get the best of two worlds: all the FUN of a "I just can't put this book down" read AND...you learn so much! "Painless history," so to speak. So my suggestions are all historical fiction titles, to wit:
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Julian by Gore Vidal
Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel
Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
Vision of Light by Judith Merkle Riley
The Source by James Michener
Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel
Time and Again by Jack Finney
Q: What are you working on now?
DWC: Having recently finished the screenplay for the upcoming movie version of Pope Joan, I'm now hard at work on another novel --- again, historical fiction. The heroine is another strong woman from history (this time, 17th century France) who, like Joan, was able to overcome the social restrictions of her and live the life she chose! I admire such women immensely. Alas, I cannot tell you who she is, for my agent has said she will "cut out my tongue" if I do!
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