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September 16, 2008

Brunonia Barry: Soup and Stories

Posted by carol
Brunonia Barry's debut novel, The Lace Reader, is set in Salem, Massachusetts. It's the story of Towner Whitney, who hails from a family of women who can read the future in the patterns of lace. After a decade-long absence Towner returns to the seaside town, where she discovers the truth about her twin sister's long-ago death. Brunonia has met with many reading groups, both before and after The Lace Reader was published, and here she talks about soup, stories, and how some book club members' comments helped shape the novel.

"I like soup, do you like soup?"

This was the first question someone asked me at the most recent book club meeting I have attended. The question is a direct quote from The Lace Reader, but the soup she was offering was real. Cold avocado and crab soup, to be specific. And it was delicious. Followed by a full meal, a pot luck buffet, all favorite recipes of the members, all very different and not meant to blend together in any specific, menu-planning way, yet blending perfectly with no repetitions. Which was a perfect metaphor for the group, as I later discovered.

This was not your cucumber sandwich type book club. In fact, not one of the clubs I've attended has ever served cucumber sandwiches, though I would have welcomed them. Some have served tea, a direct homage to my character Eva's tearoom, I suspect, though coffee and wine seem to be the beverages of choice in book clubs these days.

I have been to almost fifty book clubs in the last year; a few of the early ones even read loose pages of The Lace Reader before the book was in print. If it weren't for book clubs, my book might not exist. Or more specifically, it might not exist in its current incarnation. These early book clubs provided me with critiques and suggestions as well as a great deal of encouragement. One member of the first club I attended, a technical editor, even jumped in with editing pointers which were not only used but much appreciated.

Overwhelmingly, this latest group wanted to talk about the ending of my book (which is great fun for me and something I obviously cannot do at signings). And overwhelmingly, everyone had a different opinion. "Of course, you would have that interpretation," our host, a research scientist, said to her best friend, a hypnotherapist and Reiki practitioner. And the fun of it is that they are both right, which they eventually figure out for themselves. Unless asked a direct question, I am always silent during the discussion of my book's ending. The rest of the time, I speak freely, answering questions and sometimes reading aloud, but only if they request it.

Another universal topic is the writing process. When do I write? Where? How many hours per day do I devote to it? What do I use as inspiration?

We sat outside in the garden facing Marblehead Harbor. As the cannon blasts echoed across the water from the local yacht clubs, signaling sunset, I began to feel as if I were in my own story. My characters of Towner and Lindley have heard those same cannon blasts. And as I listened to this group of women who have been meeting for almost ten years now to discuss their favorite books, I was reminded of May's Circle of women, the ones who make lace together on a fictional island not far from the mouth of this harbor, and I felt the privilege of being invited into this special group who have become friends over the years, not before the book club began as you might expect, but because of its existence. As one of the members explained, "Our lives are completely different, our interests seldom overlap. But when we get lost in a story, we almost become the characters, and for those few shared hours of discussion, we are the same."

---Brunonia Barry