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August 27, 2008

Joshua Henkin: Shouting Matches and More

Posted by carol
Guest blogger Joshua Henkin explores his fascination with reading groups and shares some of the memorable moments he's had visiting with book club members from coast to coast --- including one meeting that erupted in a shouting match over a plot point in his most recent novel, Matrimony. Joshua, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, is also the author of Swimming Across the Hudson.

These days, when my four-year-old daughter sees me putting on my coat, she says, "Daddy, are you going to a book group?" And when I cancel yet another racquetball game, my racquetball partner says to me, "Good god, what's with you and book clubs?"

What is with me and book clubs? Since the publication of Matrimony less than a year ago, I've visited book clubs in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania --- and in Michigan, California, and Oregon. And those are just the ones I've visited in person. If you count the book clubs I've visited by phone and online, I'm up to almost sixty --- north of the Mason-Dixon Line and south of it, and in all four time zones. "You're a book club slut," a friend of mine said, and all I could do was shrug.

I have a policy. I won't drive more than two hours each way to visit a book club. But then a book club calls, and they really want to meet me, and, yes, it's a two-hour-twenty-minute drive, but what's an extra twenty minutes?

As I get into my car, I wonder: Is this simply wanderlust, my longstanding love affair with the American highway, with the late-night stops for gas, potato chips, and caffeine? Have I been seduced by the food and drink that gets served at book clubs so that when I think of the best meals I've had this past year, images comes to me of a dining room in Portland, and a deck overlooking the New Jersey shore? Is it that I, one of three sons, want nothing more than entry into this female world of book clubs, where men, it seems, aren't allowed unless that man is the writer? (I've reversed things with my own family. I have a wife and two small daughters. Even our golden retriever is a girl!) Is it that writers are voyeurs at heart, and what writer would turn down the chance to enter someone's living room and talk to a group of people he's never met?

It's all those things, certainly, but it's a lot more than that. Only at book clubs do I encounter people who have read my novel so carefully they remember details I myself have forgotten. I've been forced to think about the writing process, about the different choices I made in writing Matrimony, and I've become a better, more thoughtful writer because of that. From Greenwich to Detroit to Marin County, I've been asked sophisticated, probing questions by highly intelligent women, and I've learned more from these women than I have from the critics. I've been praised, certainly, but I've also been prodded and called to task. At a terrific dessert place in Westchester, over sangria and key lime pie, a woman said to me, "In all honesty, I didn't really like your book." The other book club members rushed to my defense, and I, in turn, rushed to my critic's defense. Every reader's opinion is valid --- certainly as valid as the author's opinion. Once a book is out there, it's out there.

A book club in New Jersey made a different dessert for each state where Matrimony takes place, and I had to match the dessert to the location. I'll avoid spoilers, but there's a moment in Matrimony that has generated a great deal of controversy among book groups. The wife did something, the husband did something back: Who was right? A literal shouting match erupted at one book club, and I was forced to play referee.

At the end of a book club meeting in Michigan, the hostess said to me, "Joshua, if you could give us one piece of advice about marriage, what would that be?"

I sat tongue-tied, surrounded by women almost twenty years older than I am, all of whom had been married for more than twenty-five years. I had just made it to forty and had gotten married only five years earlier. Perhaps I hadn't chosen the right title for my book.

Not long ago, I received a call from a woman whose book group I had visited. She had a sister in Seattle, she explained. Was I interested in going out there and meeting with her book group?

"But I live in New York," I reminded her.

"The girls are great," she persisted. "I'm sure they'd really like you. And my sister's an amazing cook!"

Alas, I had to explain, there are limits to my endurance. But there's the phone. And there's Skype and other video conference programs. I haven't learned how to use them yet. I'm like the woman in that Roz Chast New Yorker cartoon: HOW GRANDMA SEES THE REMOTE CONTROL. Every button says, "Press this and your house will explode!"

But I'm willing to learn. Perhaps the future of book clubs will involve authors and readers communicating by computer. You'll get to meet my wife and daughters. I'll still see your living room, but you'll see my living room right back!

--- Joshua Henkin