Friday, June 8, 2007

Book Groups

Last night my friend Julie and I got together for one of our more-or-less monthly dinners, followed by an event at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Massachusetts, a multifaceted place that offers a rich tapestry of books and community to readers and writers alike. Last night's event was their annual celebration of book groups, complete with "flash" readings by authors Elinor Lipman, Jacqueline Sheehan and Lawrence Douglas; equally rapid recommendations of a four-foot stack of books from Random House reps; and food and conversation with an eclectic group of readers who belong to book groups already or who were looking to find a compatible one.

The evening prompted my reflection on the book groups that have invited me to speak after choosing my book, Dancing on Sunday Afternoons, as their selection. My first experience with a book group was two years ago, when Dancing was still a manuscript. The members of the group worked at the prep school where I taught and they offered me their insights and questions in exchange for a home-cooked Italian meal. It was a fruitful discussion for me, especially in understanding how readers came to my work and what they took from it.
In the last several months I've visited with book groups both small and large, most filled with complete strangers who heard about me through word-of-mouth. Some of the questions they raised were the same. "How much of it is true?" everyone wants to know. "How long did it take you to write it?" is another that closet novelists seem to hunger after.

But each of the groups had its own identity, forged by the needs and experiences of the women sitting around the living room or the community center table. For one group, my book was the launching pad for discussion of relationships with grandparents and family histories that had been hidden or cherished or lost. There seemed to be a lot of regret in the room that night, of opportunities missed or denied. Another group was intensely focused on the personal meaning of the book to each of them--the passion in Giulia and Paolo's relationship, the stillborn babies, the entanglement of family. Yet another group, the largest, most raucous and most free with the pouring of wine, erupted with memories--both hilarious and excruciating--of growing up Italian in America. Words flew across the room that night; nerves were touched; it was hard to stop. My last group so far was with a group of mothers of boys in a Benedictine high school (the same high school my now 28-year-old son had attended). I don't think there was an Italian at the table, but their interest in the story and their understanding of Giulia's life was palpable and real.

I love doing the book groups. I learn so much about what my words mean for my readers. They teach me, and they help me to see my stories in a different light.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Starting Out

I've taken a deep breath and am plunging into my first post.

As a newly published writer whose first novel went on sale in February, I've had an exhilarating and adventurous spring taking my words on the road. My audiences have ranged from three to three hundred, in venues as cozy as Pam's Paperbacks, in Wilbraham, Massachusetts (a gem of a bookstore) and as vast as CityStage, in Springfield, Massachusetts, where my book, Dancing on Sunday Afternoons, came to life with the music of flamenco guitarist Jesse Cook and the amazingly talented dancers of the New England Dance Theater.

Along the way, I've experienced moments of deep gratitude--for the friends who cheered me on, rejoiced in this pivotal moment in a writer's life and opened their address books to invite everyone they knew to come hear me. I also discovered how deep connections can be, when my babysitter--the woman who watched over me when I was a child-- arrived in a wheelchair at one of my readings; when cousins I didn't know existed wrote to me after reading the book and recognizing my name; when friends I hadn't seen in nearly thirty years showed up at bookstores with open arms and wonderful memories.

I've also made new friends. Readers who took the time to pen a note about what my words meant to them; authors like Carla Neggers, who shared a table with me at Pam's and shared her entertaining stories and dedicated fans as well; columnists like Tom Shea, who peppered me with questions in order to understand who I was and what I was writing about; independent bookstore owners like Pam Aronson and Janet Edwards, who LOVE books and offer their knowledge and their recommendations to spread the word.

Now that the whirlwind of travel and talk is over, I'm settling in for a summer of writing. Periodically I'll stop in here to post a few thoughts as I continue on this journey.