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May 21, 2008

Kristy Kiernan: From Guest to Book Club Member

Posted by carol
While I was visiting Books & Books this past weekend in Coral Gables, Florida, for a book club event the store was hosting, I had the chance to meet novelist Kristy Kiernan. She wowed the audience with a funny, touching story about ex-boyfriends and book clubs. I asked her if we could share that story here...

When I was twenty years old my boyfriend of two years broke up with me. For most of that time it had been a long-distance romance. I was living in Ft. Myers, and he'd attended college in Tampa. When he graduated, two months earlier, he'd moved into my apartment.

Things hadn't been going well. The night we broke up we'd had a date. He'd come home from work expecting us to go to a movie. I can't blame him for expecting that, we'd made the plans days ahead of time. We were going to double date with one of his friends, a friend I'd never gotten along with, but was making a real effort to be nice to for the sake of my newly ever-present boyfriend. So he came home from work expecting to find me looking good, preferably hot. Or at least in the shower. I wasn't.

I was still sitting on the patio, my feet up in a chair, reading The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe. I'd worked that day, too, as a waitress at TGI Friday's, on my feet all day, sweaty, reeking of broccoli cheese soup, with fajita burns on my arms. Apparently it was all too much for him. He said, "I thought you'd be ready..." I said something brilliant like... "Huh?" Barely looking up from my book.

Next thing I knew we were in the midst of a full-fledged break-up fight. I had a lot of good ammunition to hurl his way: over the previous two years he'd regularly lied and cheated, and, in fact, I had TRIED to break up with him just the week before but had relented when he curled up on the floor sobbing and begging for forgiveness.

And now here he was, breaking up with ME! His main accusation, his big gun, was that I didn't care about him and had never made an effort to get along with his friends. I was stunned. Because I thought I had made a supreme effort, a practically superhuman effort. But then he pulled out The Example. Evidently, he, and all his friends, and his friends' girlfriends, were incredibly insulted by the fact that when the guys played softball, in a LEAGUE mind you, I sat in the bleachers a book.

See, I didn't know that what I was supposed to do was to perch with cat-like readiness on the metal bleachers and concentrate on grown men running around a dirty field. I was supposed to cheer when a good play was made. I was supposed to know what a good play was. I was supposed to look concerned and mutter with the other women when something went wrong. When nothing was going on on the field, I was supposed to chat about soap operas and who was getting married and how awesome our boyfriends were.

I had no idea. I really didn't. But I recognized, immediately, that he was putting into words the very thing that had always made me different, always set me apart, always made me alone, and often, sometimes lonely.

We moved around a lot when I was a child. Often once or twice a year. And I suffered with the combination of new kid-itis and my love of books. I was called book worm. I was made fun of when I was pulled out of class to go get tested yet again for gifted reading and writing programs. But I could shut it all out with a book in my hands.

As an adult, I was lucky enough to meet and fall in love with a man who was also a reader, but the solitary personality developed by a lifetime of reading had set in, and I wasn't a joiner. I didn't develop a close circle of girlfriends, though I did manage to become proficient enough at a shallow level of socializing that we had plenty of people to do things with in our lives as a couple.

But the end of any night out would find me with anything I could find to read in my hands --- a menu, the back of a ketchup bottle, anything. Frankly, I just couldn't find much in common with other women. I became one of those women who says they've always gotten along better with men.

My solitary nature adapted well to the life of a writer. I wrote for six years before I sold my first book. My neighbors, and many of my friends, didn't even know I'd written three previous novels. And then Catching Genius came out.

Catching Genius was what was called a "small book." Not only that, but several things on the path to publication seemed to indicate that the book wasn't going to get much attention, including my editor dying two weeks after she acquired it. But then book clubs got ahold of it.

Oh my. The book clubs!

Book clubs hadn't even been a blip on my radar. Book clubs were, after all, social clubs, mostly made up of women. I envisioned the same sort of situation as those long ago softball games, and it made me feel nervous, isolated, and definitely not up to that sort of social interaction. And then I was invited to speak at a book club. And then another, and another. And then the requests came pouring in. Whether I wanted to be social or not, I was. And I couldn't bury my head in a book, I WAS the book.

Then my first request came in from a local book club. Oddly enough, the meeting was at a house in the subdivision right across the street from mine. Whew, there were a lot of deep breathing exercises going on in my car on the way over, let me tell you. I got there, and spent the entire night in a state of wonder. My visit had been planned by two of the members as a surprise to the others. One actually tripped over a garbage can in shock when she realized it was me. One casually said hello to me thinking I was someone else and then screamed when we were formally introduced (it startled me enough that I almost screamed back!).

We had wine, and ate dinner, and talked about my book. They were honest, they were smart, they were witty and thoughtful and utterly delightful. And over the three hours I spent with them, I realized that it wasn't me. I WAS social. I DID like women, very much. I wasn't rude, or socially awkward. I'd just never found my people.


When it was time to leave I didn't want to. Custom dictated that I should be first to go, in order to allow others to leave without feeling they were being rude. But I didn't want to. I made myself walk to the door, women following me, pressing leftovers into my hands and talking about the book they were planning on reading next, a book I happened to have on my nightstand at home.

And I blurted out, "Ha ha, can I come back?!"

They said, "Ha ha yes!"

We were all sort of joking, but were all sort of serious too. And then something amazing happened, I, and those twelve other women, had a moment of complete understanding. They saw through my joke. And they asked, formally, if I would like to join their book club.

That was twelve months ago. I've missed a couple of meetings because of the travel I've done for Catching Genius. But they always welcome me back. These women have become more than acquaintances. They have become my mothers, my sisters and my friends.

I get it now. And I am so honored that I could become a part of it, that I, my book, could be a part of bringing women like me together with other women. At 20 I understood why I was different, at 21 I met the man who would accept me for me, and finally, at 38, I met the wider world who accepted me for me.

I am humbled, I am grateful, and I am excited now, at 39, with my second novel, Matters of Faith, with its tough themes about religion and food allergies and families, already being classified as a great book club read, coming out in August, to be a part of something I never even knew existed.

---Kristy Kiernan