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April 9, 2008

An Author's Book Club Discovery

Posted by carol
Debra Dean is the author of the novel The Madonnas of Leningrad and the story collection Confessions of a Falling Woman. In this post, she reveals some things she has learned from book clubs --- including insights about her own novel and how book club camaraderie often goes beyond the page.

Initially, I approached the whole idea of a book group with skepticism. I just didn't get it. The number of books on my "To Be Read" list already far exceeded my actuarial life expectancies; why would I want someone else adding to that list? (Never mind that many of my all-time favorite books were originally required reading in college.) Mostly, though, my reluctance was the shyness of a bookish person. Reading is an intensely private act; that's what I love about it. If I could have two superpowers, they would be the ability to time travel and to be invisible, to go anywhere in the world, at any point in history, and just observe, unseen. Reading allows me the pleasures of a voyeur. Why would I want to take off my cloak of invisibility?

After my first book, The Madonnas of Leningrad, came out, my agent set up an email address for readers to get in touch with me, and he encouraged me to accept invitations to visit book groups when they met to discuss my novel. "Oh, I can't really see myself doing that," I demurred. "Yes, you can," he said firmly. "It's fun," other authors said. "And the food is amazing," they added. "They'll treat you like a queen." I'll admit, I was curious. What would it be like to sit down and talk with readers of my novel? What if they didn't like it? I was a little nervous and self-conscious, the way I get when I'm invited to a party with strangers, but I'm not immune to the fantasy of being queen for a day. Or the lure of a slice of cake. So I put on my nice clothes and went to my first book group evening.

What I hadn't anticipated is that these women would teach me things about my own book. They assumed I was the expert, and so they phrased their insights as questions. One reader noted that the main character's name, Marina, is a Russian variation of Mary --- the Madonna --- and Anya, the elderly room attendant, was Ann, the name of the Virgin Mary's mother. Was this what you intended? she asked. (I couldn't cover my surprise: the Virgin Mary's mother was named Ann?!) Another woman pointed out how the dark silhouette of an eagle seen flying overhead echoes an earlier scene when Nazi planes are strafing the city of Leningrad. Wow. The truth is that for all my carefully worked out symbolism and themes, much of what happens in the creative process happens at the level of the unconscious, and if a writer is lucky, the book is smarter than she is.

But better than what I learned about my book was what I learned about my fellow readers. They opened up their circle to include me, and they shared their lives: their journeys with parents or spouses who had dementia, their travels to Russia, their families' histories in war-ravaged countries, their relationships with grown children, their love of art. They let me know how my book had touched them, how they had cried when they read the part with the chocolate bar or the scene with the women in the baths. And if that were not enough, they fed me cookies and pasta salads and wine. Who could ask for anything more?

I have since visited, in person or by phone, with lots of book groups across the country. A few weeks ago, I attended the First Course Book Group that's held at Books & Books, my favorite store here in Miami, where I live. While we munched on roasted corn salad and guacamole and hummus, one member of the group told us that her mother, who emigrated from Cuba, has the same abhorrence of wasting food that Marina does. There were nods of recognition around the table and more stories. We talked about Marina's failing memory and our own occasional memory lapses. We talked about Marina's marriage and our own marriages, and about home schooling and moving to a new city and learning Dutch. One woman had an extra ticket to the opera. Did anyone want to be her "date"?

I now know what I've been missing out on, not having a book group to call my own. These women I've met have read wonderful books that are still on my "To Be Read" list. They've cultivated friendships that have supported them through hard times and helped them celebrate their joys. And they eat a lot better than I do. It's more than worth shedding that cloak of invisibility.

---Debra Dean
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