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Oh, The Places We'll Go: Authors and Book Clubs

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The famous Dr. Seuss book by similar title is most certainly an allegory of authors and book clubs. When we publish a new book we're certainly "off and away" on an adventure, and the places we'll go, from book store signings to peoples' overcrowded living rooms, are wonderful to downright strange. Still, go we must, it's only just (sorry!): people have plopped down good money for our books, and now they want -- one could say, deserve -- straight answers about them. And not from back-matter author interviews, or C-Span book programs, or website Vimeos. Book club people want their author contact up close and personal, and ideally with food involved. To authors, book club invitations are like a church bell's toll: one might not feel like going at all, but in the end it's nearly always a good thing.

Though not necessarily an easy thing. For authors, book club events are complicated and many-layered. Let's start with the food. No matter what menu is promised, it's best to eat (lightly) beforehand. Book club events are often long on sweets and caffeine but short on protein. The last thing an author needs is a sugar and caffeine high on an empty stomach, which can lead to talking jags about the process of writing -- and editors, and revision, and copy editors and one's Amazon numbers -- plus managing a paper plate and your novel and a glass of wine while sitting in the host's personal Lazy-boy is a dangerous act. Speaking of drinks? One. Two drinks and you're back to talking about the writing process, about the sentence on page 74 that defeated you.

This gets us, ala Dr. Seuss, to the dark side of things. If not eating or drinking much sets the author apart from the assembled club, that's as it should be. A book club is a homogeneous gathering of nice people who do not write. Their living rooms or summer patios become a "waiting place" where they listen for a "yes or a no"; that is, they want to believe that the author is a nice person who sees the world just like they do. Which the author does not, because, well, he's an author. Negotiating this psychic territory while cheerfully talking about one's book is no easy thing, because an author's book club persona -- necessarily agreeable if not charming -- is not altogether truthful.

The novel might have been a personal agony to write. It might have caused hurt to family or loved ones. It might feel, as F. S. Fitzgerald put it, "fake", and not all that it could have been. But readers don't need to hear all that. Though some book clubs are more literary than others, most are as much social as bookish, and some people come mainly for the sugar cookies. This plays against the author, for whom writing is a matter of life death.

Truth be told, I often leave a book club feeling somewhat dishonest -- cheap, even -- which is of course my problem, and not that of the nice folks who invited me, and who, I hope, will keep reading and buying books and reaching out to authors. Musicians say there's no unimportant gig, and ditto, I think, for writers and book clubs. That he (me) hardly ate or drank a thing that night (and all that good food!) is soon forgotten, as is the weak coffee and the impossible Lazy-boy. What remains is the simple, elemental power of good books to bring people together.