I am so excited that one of my very favorite authors Lisa See has written a guest post for Book Club Exchange. For those of you who aren't regular followers, Book Club Exchange is a feature on Booking Mama that covers anything and everything book club-related.
Ms. See has written many of my favorite novels -- the most recent being SHANGHAI GIRLS. You can read my review here. Since Ms. See is an author (and not a book club member), she offers an extremely unique perspective to the book club experience! As a book club member, I know how much my book club personally means to me. But I found it extremely interesting to learn how much book clubs can mean to an author like Ms. See.
I’m a writer and I love books. Sadly though, I’m not in a book club. (Why not? I’ll get to that in a bit.) Nevertheless, I probably “visit” more book clubs in a year than most people attend in a lifetime. When I first started out as a writer, book clubs weren’t all that popular. Even so, I went in person to any book club that invited me to talk about my first book, On Gold Mountain. I thought it was a great way for people to learn about the book and also learn about me. I know that for myself, as a reader, I have real bonds with individual writers through their words and stories. I hoped that people would start to have that bond with me. It’s turned out to be true, because I often get e-mail from people who were in one of those book clubs I visited fifteen years ago. They tell me they’ve followed my career all these years. They say things like, “We knew you when,” or “You were a lot younger then.” (They did, and I was.)
Somewhere along the way Oprah started her book club and the whole world changed. It seems like everyone has a book club now. I can’t possibly go in person to every book club that invites me. It wouldn’t be physically possible, because I get invitations from all over the country and even the world to visit book clubs. What I can do is join in by speaker phone. I’ve been doing this for my last three books: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, and Shanghai Girls. I’ve spoken to as many as three book clubs in a day. (I don’t recommend it. It’s really exhausting for me and by the end probably not all that great for the final book club, although I’m bound to say some pretty amusing things because I’m so punchy.) I don’t know if the people in book clubs that I talk to by phone have the same kind of bond with me that I used to feel when I visited in person, but I know for sure that I have real and very deep bonds with the book clubs. My reasons are varied, emotional, simple, and sometimes a bit complicated.
Most writers spend all day alone in a room with just a computer screen for company. Some days the only time I go outside is to see if the mail has arrived. So for me to get to talk to a book club at the end of the day gives me companionship. The women make me laugh. They ask interesting questions. And I get to talk to someone other than myself.
But it goes much deeper than that. I’ve learned so much about writing from talking to book clubs. I’ve learned what worked in a book and what didn’t. I’ve learned that sometimes people don’t like to read things that don’t reflect their world view, while others love to open a book and step into another time, culture, or place. I’ve learned that people look for themselves in books and think about what they would have done in the same situation. Most important, I’ve learned that, even though I have an idea of what something should mean or how something should be interpreted, people have their own minds and their own interpretations. That doesn’t mean that I’m a bad writer or that they’re bad readers. It just means that we come to books with our own individual life stories, experiences, and ways of looking at the world. It takes nine Supreme Court justices to figure out what they think the framers of the Constitution meant on legal issues, right? So it makes sense that it would take a whole book club to figure out what a writer meant by a character, a scene, or an emotion.
I’ve also learned a lot about women from book clubs. We’ve talked about mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, marriage, widowhood, and friendship. We’ve talked about love, jealousy, resentment, guilt, and atonement. When I was working on Shanghai Girls, which is about two sisters, I would ask book clubs if I could ask a couple of questions that had to do with the new novel: Is there anything your sister could do that would cause an irrevocable break? And, what’s the difference between actual sisters and friends who are just like sisters? A lot of what women told me made it into Shanghai Girls.
My bond to book clubs is deep and very meaningful to me and I really wish I could be in one, but I can’t. When I’m writing, I have to be very careful what I read. I don’t want another writer’s voice or another character’s voice to creep into my head, even inadvertently. When I’m writing, I only read non-fiction about the subject I’m currently working. Sometimes I’ll read poetry or short stories written by women who lived in the place and time period that I’m writing about. These usually aren’t fun books. Right now I’m dividing my reading between two books: Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China and China’s Road to Disaster. Believe me when I tell you that these aren’t “fun” books to read, but I read them so that my novels will be as historically accurate as possible. As soon as I’ve turned my novel in to the publisher, I spend two or three months treating myself by reading other author’s novels. How do I know what to read? I ask book clubs! So my final gratitude and thanks goes to all those book clubs who’ve recommended books to me that have transported me to new and different places.
Lisa See is the New York Times bestselling author of PEONY IN LOVE, SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN, FLOWER NET (an Edgar Award nominee), THE INTERIOR and DRAGON BONES, as well as the critically acclaimed memoir ON GOLD MOUNTAIN. The Organization of Chinese American Women named her the 2001 National Woman of the Year. She lives in Los Angeles. To learn more, please visit her web site at www.LisaSee.com.
I am so grateful to Ms. See for sharing some of her book club experiences with us! If you are interested in participating in a future Book Club Exchange, please contact me at bookingmama(at)gmail(dot)com.
Thanks to Random House, I have two copies of SHANGHAI GIRLS to share with two very lucky readers! To enter, please leave a comment with a valid email address telling me what your favorite Lisa See book is. If you haven't read one, what are you waiting for? Just kidding...you can leave the name of the Lisa See book which you would most like to read. This giveaway will be open until Monday, February 1st at 11:59 p.m. ET, and I will notify the winners the following day. This contest is open to those of you with U.S. or Canada mailing addresses only -- no p.o. boxes please. Good luck!