Book group phobia

C.W. Gortner, author of THE LAST QUEEN, will be discussing his work in the Salon called “Historical Friction” on Saturday, Oct. 25th at 11:15 in Salon B.

* * * *

I’ll never forget the first time I visited with a book group in person. My novel, THE SECRET LION, had been out for almost two years and I was finishing up my recently-published novel, THE LAST QUEEN. I had heard of book groups, of course, as well as their increasing importance to authors in an era of shrinking marketing dollars. But I’d never been in one and I had no idea of how they worked. Writer friends of mine had been encouraging me to make myself available to these groups; they kept saying, “You’re a great speaker, a real ham. You’re perfect for book groups.”

The truth was, I was secretly terrified. I’d done quite a few readings, signings, public speaking engagements; I had taught classes. I’m good with an audience. But I was scared to the point of phobia of meeting with a group of readers who’d read my book and might question me at close-range about it. What if I’d made some inadvertent error that a reader would point out? What if they hated the book? What if they found my writing trite, irrelevant? What if they laughed at me? It was totally illogical; but every writer struggles with some type of insecurity when it comes to their work; and for me, this was the Bogey Man of my authorial fears— meeting readers up front and personal in an intimate setting.

As often happens, what we most fear, we attract. Shortly after I sold THE LAST QUEEN and another novel via auction to Ballantine Books, I got a call from a local reading group. They had selected THE SECRET LION and wanted to know if I was available to speak to them. What could I say? I agreed and then spent the next forty-five days worrying about it.

On the night I went to the house where the group was meeting, I felt ill. My hands were sweating; I was sure they’d see the beads of perspiration on my forehead and think I was carrying a communicable disease. I could barely speak as I was introduced to everyone, the lump in my throat felt so big. Then, as the hostess offered me a glass of water and indicated the trays of canapés nearby in case I was hungry, a lovely young woman sitting opposite me burst out, “Oh, I loved your book! I couldn’t put it down. I can’t wait to hear you talk about it.”

It was if she’d shot Zen gamma rays at me. All the tension in my body seeped away. I looked about for the first time with clarity and was greeted by seven smiling faces. These are readers, I thought. Readers, like me. People who’d read and liked a book, and were thrilled the author was there to discuss it. How often had I finished a novel and thought, I wish I could tell the author how much I liked it. I wish I could talk to him or her about my impressions. Then the hostess leaned in to me and said softly, with a chuckle in her voice, “You can relax now. We don’t bite.”

That night was one of the best evenings I’ve spent as a writer. We went beyond the hour time-frame, the discussion lively and enthusiastic. I was astonished by how much they’d found to talk about in my work, their different interpretations of it, the messages and themes they’d detected. Some of it was what I had intended while writing the book but a lot of it wasn’t. In the end, I learned far more about who I was as a writer than I’d ever expected, and was profoundly grateful for the experience, knowing it would stay with me forever and inform the ways I looked at my writing. One book group had changed how I approached my craft.

I’ve spoken to several groups since then, some in person and some via phone chat. Invariably, whether it’s twelve readers or five or three, I always learn something new about my work, about how it’s experienced by someone other than me; where I’ve succeeded and where I have not. Not once have I ever put down the phone or closed the door without feeling that deep sense of passion and joy for books that readers bring to the world.

Readers are why I write. I might spend years crafting my sentences and scenes, reveling in my secret world, but in the end I need it to be bound and read by someone other than me. I write for pleasure; but my true reward is when I hear that one reader say: “I loved your book.”

I’m very excited to be attending Book Group Expo this year. It’s an honor and a privilege for me to have been invited and I look forward to meeting the true focus of my endeavors: you, the reader.

* * * *

C.W. Gortner, half-Spanish by birth, holds an M.F.A. in Writing, with an emphasis in historical studies, and has taught university courses on women in power in the Renaissance.


3 Responses to “Book group phobia”

  1. 1 Margaret Cezair-Thompson
    October 21, 2008 at 4:30 pm

    How do I post on this blog?
    Margaret Cezair-Thompson

  2. October 29, 2008 at 1:56 am

    The generosity of writers with their time slays me. Bravo, and thanks.

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