Author Archive for Susanne Pari


BGE in The New York Times

Yesterday in the New York Times‘s, there was a great article on the front page of the Sunday Styles section by Joanne Kauffman.  I won’t give a summary; the article is worth reading.  See my comment (on poopy diapers, of all things).  And Ann Kent’s (BGE’s founder) comment about how it’s estimated that we now have over 5 million books groups across this country.

The article is called “Fought Over Any Good Books Lately?” which is exactly what it’s about:  how book groups can go sour for some people.  I bet there isn’t a book group reader out there who isn’t familiar with the hundreds of ways a person can hate or love their book group.  The Times article focuses on the negative, of course, because those stories are the most interesting.  Kathi Goldmark and I figured this out in 2006 when we staged a skit called The Book Group From Hell at the first Book Group Expo.   Every member of The Book Group From Hell (all of us are writers) has a serious personality disorder — characters (caricatures, actually), if you will, who each have the worst traits of our most unpleasant book group members.  In the skit, we discussed The Joy Luck Club, a book that is widely-known.  Of course the skit was supposed to be funny, a little break between literary salons.  What many in the audience didn’t expect and were surprised to discover was that Amy Tan (in diguise) was the Book Group’s most vociferous dissenter on the subject of her own book.  Here’s a photo right after Amy removed her hat with a flourish and turned toward the audience (that’s Kathi playing the harried executive in the background):




Caribousmom is a wonderful blog for readers authored by a prolific reader/writer named Wendy.  See her excellent review of BGE 2008 Day One and BGE 2008 Day Two.  Her photos are better than mine!


watch bge’s political salon

In the spirit of election day tomorrow, we’ve released the videocast of the literary salon titled Ten Days and Counting! Politics Past and Present with authors Will Durst (THE ALL AMERICAN SPORT OF BIPARTISAN BASHING), Jeff Golden (UNAFRAID, A NOVEL OF THE IMPOSSIBLE), Susan Griffin (WRESTLING WITH THE ANGEL OF DEMOCRACY), and moderator Sedge Thomson, host of the NPR show West Cost Live.

Watch the video here.  We’d love to hear your comments.


the unreliable narrator

Here is a guest entry by Diana Spechler, author of the new novel, WHO BY FIRE.  I asked her to talk about the subject of her literary salon, which we called Write or Wrong:  The Unreliable Narrator Defines Virtue.  A short description of the salon was this:  One person’s morality is another person’s evil.  How do we know our principles are virtuous?  And how can we be so sure that people who seem evil are that different from us?


At Book Group Expo a couple of weekends ago, Susanne Pari moderated a panel (comprised of Andre Dubus III and me) about the unreliable narrator.  Before I was asked to be on the panel, I hadn’t really thought much about the word “unreliable” in connection with the three narrators in my novel.  I panicked a little.  I couldn’t believe I was being relied on to reliably present my narrators as unreliable.  What if I couldn’t deliver?  Fellow authors and readers would forever consider me unreliable.

I employed the sometimes-reliable Wikipedia.

An unreliable narrator, I read, “is a narrator whose credibility is seriously compromised…due to psychological instability, a powerful bias, a lack of knowledge, or even a deliberate attempt to deceive the reader or audience.”

Okay.  But doesn’t that describe, like, I don’t know, every person in the entire universe?

Perhaps not everyone suffers from psychological instability, but who doesn’t have biases?  Who doesn’t lack knowledge?  Who never deliberately attempts to deceive his audience?

Take me, for example.  While I was writing my novel, I suffered many episodes of psychological instability, like the time my computer crashed and I lost three days’ work, and I stood in my apartment in my bathrobe, my head thrown back, screaming and trying to yank my hair out of my scalp.

And bias?  Yeah, try telling me my nieces aren’t flawless.

Lack of knowledge?  Okay, I lack a little knowledge now and then.

And do I attempt to deceive my audience?  Yup.  At Applebee’s, where I was once a waitress, I was trained to “up-sell” by using “sizzle” words (i.e. “How about a nice, refreshing, frosty iced tea?” or “Wouldn’t you like a juicy, delicious glistening steak?”)  Look.  You can take the girl out of Applebee’s, but you can’t take Applebee’s out of the girl:  I am to this day a frequent user of sizzle words.

So.  Of course my narrators are unreliable.  How could I, the most unreliable of narrators, create reliable narrators?  By the same token, how could my mother, who often blurts in fits of emotion, “Diana,  you’re perfect!” and who has told me all my life that anyone who doesn’t like me is “just jealous,” have created a reliable daughter?

Unreliable begets unreliable.  We are a culture, a planet, a galaxy of unreliable narrators.  We push our agendas.  We avoid eye contact.  We screen our phone calls, dye our hair, guard our passwords, and wear slimming colors.  We say things like, “You’ve never looked better,” “I’ve never loved anyone as much as I love you,” and “I’ll call you right back.”

But I digress.

My point is that the Unreliable Narrator panel wasn’t scary at all.  It was awesome (I know: “awesome” is a sizzle word).  I loved every second of it.  But by now you don’t trust me, so I really shouldn’t bother to tell you what I think.


The amazing weekend is over!

But now we have amazing memories, and so much to talk about.

I won’t tell you that I’m still in my pajamas; you’ll have to use your imagination (but please, be kind).  I did, in fact, sleep for most of Monday, but every time I woke to pad down the hall to the kitchen for some nourishment, I was smiling at a swirl of memories from the weekend.

Here are a few photos to hold you over until my next post, which will hopefully be later today, as my brain adjusts to the written word rather than the spoken.

Here is a sky view of the forward section of the Main Salon, otherwise known as Salon C.  It seated about 350 people, with standing room for more.

The title for the Opening Salon on Saturday was “Write or Wrong: Defining Virtue and the Unreliable Narrator”.  From left to right below are me, Diana Spechler, author of the novel WHO BY FIRE, and Andre Dubus III, whose latest novel is THE GARDEN OF LAST DAYS.  All of us have books that contain narrators (or in Andre’s case, points of view) who have extreme religious philosophies.  We talked about how it felt to write in their voices, to get into their heads, and to portray them without judgment.

Diana and Andre (who has enough charisma to run for public office).

Read Diana’s sweet and hilarious impressions of bge at Book Club Girl.

Below:  Andre and Diana chatting with readers in the Signing Circle


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.

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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.

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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.


Serve your book group radishes

Erika Mailman, author of THE WITCH’S TRINITY, sent in the following entry, not only about the particular habits of her own book group, but about an unusual and inventive surprise that was presented by the host of a book group that had invited her to speak about her novel.

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This will be my third year at Book Group Expo. It’s an incredible get-together for those who love reading. The panels that welcome Q&A from the audience strike me as today’s version of the intellectual salons that once were popular.

My own book club has been meeting for over five years, supporting each other through deaths, marriages, births, divorces. I’m proud that in the midst of our busy lives, we still make a point of getting together every six weeks to hug each other, drink a glass of wine, eat a great dinner… and talk books.

Our group’s idiosyncrasy is that after dessert, we all close our eyes and like Roman emperors use our thumbs to denote our opinion of the book at hand’s success. However, a simple up or down being too crude for our nuanced feelings, we rotate our thumbs anywhere on the 180 degree scale.

We often tailor our meals to the book we’ve read. For instance, potstickers for Nicole Mones’ A Cup of Light and pierogi for Robert Alexander’s The Kitchen Boy.

Towne Center Books in Pleasanton regularly hosts the Read It and Eat Luncheon, where owner Judy Wheeler creates a lunch inspired by the book. She hosted me for THE WITCH’S TRINITY… and believe it or not, she initially served a plate of raw radishes (since jailers feed my character radishes while she awaits her trial). After we all gulped, she whisked those away with a smile and then served a delicious meal based on food from the earth.

I think it’s safe to say most writers are also readers. We love to talk about books, and we’re always excited to find one that escorts us somewhere else, deep into the lives someone else has imagined. I look forward to meeting you at Book Group Expo, and talking about the books that we find there.

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Erika Mailman is the author of The Witch’s Trinity and will be on the BGE panel “Which Witch is Which,” on Saturday the 25th at 1:45 in Salon C. She is interested in visiting book clubs, either via phone or in person. Email her at