Dear Cousin Sel,
It was so much fun chatting with your fourth-Thursday-of the-month book group over the squawk box last week. Every author is thrilled to be invited to talk to a book group even though we realize it's never just about our book. It's also an excuse for busy women to get together, relax, nosh, sip and befriend---and, as importantly, to think about an issue or idea collectively that might not have occurred to any one individual in the group if she hadn't been obliged to read a book that took her on that journey.
That your group has now been meeting for almost 15 years is impressive. You've seen each other through different phases of the life cycle including childrearing, adjusting to empty nests, becoming grandparents, and facing illness, divorce and death. The incredible bond of friendship you've forged over time is evident, even over the phone. Like sisters, you interrupt and finish each other's sentences and feel comfortable enough to challenge one another and disagree. The conversation, laughter, and questions flow fast and easy.
Although we started off with the standard greeting, "Can everyone hear me?" and you all chimed in "Yes," I knew that I could endear myself to your kindred spirits in Hollywood, Florida if I recounted a few details of the impressive snowstorm that promised to reach blizzard proportions here in New York later that day. Floridians (and Californians) always like to gloat about the misery they left behind and your group didn't disappoint me. (Next time we "chat." I hope we'll be videoconferencing on Skype so I can see them laughing at our dire winter weather forecasts)
Conference calls to reading groups always feel somewhat daunting to me. Give and take is never the same as it is in person and I can't see the facial expressions and body language that typically warn me that I'm talking too much and should move on to questions and answers, or should just move on. I tried to be sensitive, asking whether I should skip reading one of the three passages I had selected from my book---but your group seem so genuinely interested and encouraging that I continued.
I must admit, though, that before long I felt like I was sitting beside you at the sunny dining room table in Broward County--with the sliding glass door leading to the covered porch. Your group was so warm and welcoming to an outsider. Perhaps, it's because you introduced me as "My cousin, the author," although we aren't actually blood relatives but cousins through marriage.
I was delighted to tell real readers (rather than editors and other writers) my own story---about why and how I became an author---and why I chose to write a non-fiction book about female friendship. Like most women, from the time I was a very young girl, I was innately curious about friendship and how mine stacked up to other women's experiences.
The best part for me, however, was hearing about your own friendships---including the ones you had with your own mothers and daughters, the joys and challenges you experienced, and the lessons you learned. You spoke about how the Internet has enabled you to reach back into your past and connect with childhood friends from your schools or neighborhood who knew you then, before you became the person you are now. Many of you stressed how important it is for women to maintain friendships over the years because they form the scrapbooks of our lives.
I want you and your group to know that each time an author speaks to a book group, she receives so much more than she gives. Yes, it's hard to sell books these days and you rounded up a captive audience of book buyers. But reading groups offer other, more intangible opportunities for authors: to learn from our readers and to hone our craft so our writing is better. Foremost, they reaffirm why books and the relationships between authors and readers are so important.
The funny part, Selma, was that after I hung up the phone, I was a bit envious of your book club buddies' relationship with someone as special as you. Next time you invite me to speak to your group, I've decided I want to be there live so I can spend some girl-time with you before or after. I imagine there are book groups around my hamlet in Westchester that could offer the same sense of sisterhood and support your group gives you, but I guess I'll have to wait until the power is back on and the large snow banks have melted to look around and find one.
Irene S. Levine, PhD is a freelance journalist and author. She holds an appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. Her new book about female friendships, Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, was recently published by Overlook Press. She also blogs about female friendships at The Friendship Blog and at PsychologyToday.com. She loves to meet reader groups live, by phone, and on Skype.