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August 26, 2008

Garth Stein: The Art of Visiting a Reading Group

Posted by carol
Today's guest blogger is Garth Stein, who ruminates on an author's responsibilities when visiting book clubs --- and shares interesting details like how he came up with the name Enzo for the canine narrator in his novel The Art of Racing in the Rain. For a chance to win a copy of The Art of Racing in the Rain, along with a beach bag filled with summertime essentials, enter's Beach Bag of Books contest.

The world has become so small, it seems, with the Internet. Messages that used to take weeks to deliver, now take seconds. What used to be a long and formal process of contacting an author via his or her publisher is practically non-existent.

I get around a dozen e-mails a day from readers of my book. And I respond to each of them (though my response process sometimes harkens to the old days and takes a couple of weeks or more). Through this process, I've discovered something that many authors --- like my friend Jennie Shortridge --- already knew: readers are thirsty for insight from the authors of books they enjoy, and they are happy to invite authors to join their reading group discussions.

Reading is a solitary sport. Whether we read alone, read in a group, or have someone read to us, the images and ideas that are evoked by the text are completely individual to us. I like to say that writing is a dialogue, not a monologue. The writer is not shouting commands: "you will now see a red car!" The writer is suggesting things from his or her experiences, and the reader must bring his or her own set of experiences to the table to complete the deal. In other words, the answer to the age old question about the tree falling in the woods: if there's nobody to hear it, then no, it doesn't make any noise. With a book, if there's nobody to read it, it, too, remains forever silent.

With this in mind, the job of an author visiting a discussion group isn't to provide answers, but to share a little insight. To give a little perspective. One of the questions I'm most frequently asked, for instance, is about the meaning of the zebra. (Those of you who've read The Art of Racing in the Rain know about the zebra.) Well, the zebra means a lot. But it means different things to different people. It would be unfair and unrealistic of me to expect every reader to glean the same exact message from the zebra. And so I am deliberately aloof in answering questions about the zebra. Instead, I'd like to hear what you, the reader, thinks.

But there are other questions that give some fun background. For instance, I'm often asked where the name Enzo comes from, and I have a funny story to tell about that. It's information that isn't in the book; when I tell people the story, they gain insight into the book. It doesn't change the book's meaning, and it certainly isn't knowledge that's necessary to understand the book. It's simply some extra fun.

I love participating in discussions when I have the time. I prefer iChat, as the video makes me feel like I'm on the Starship Enterprise or something, but a speakerphone works just as effectively. I usually tell the group I'm visiting with that I'm available for twenty minutes, but I always end up staying on for thirty or more because we get caught up in the discussion!

The bottom line is, most writers love to chat with a group of people who have read their books and are curious about the book and the writer. I mentioned that reading is a solitary sport. So is writing! After the book comes out, a writer really wants to know that people are reading it, enjoying it, and telling others about it.

So read your books and then take advantage of our small world: go contact the author and ask him or her to join you for your discussion. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by how many writers are happy to oblige!

Happy manifesting,

Garth Stein