Yesterday, I reviewed WHITER THAN SNOW by Sandra Dallas (who just happens to be one of my favorite writers.) I enjoyed this novel about the affect a devastating avalanche has on a small town and its residents. I thought the story was gripping and the characters definitely touched my heart.
I am so happy to welcome Sandra Dallas to Booking Mama. She has written a guest post for Book Club Exchange about a few of her experiences with book clubs. I hope you'll enjoy this essay as much as I have!
The first time I met with a book group, I joined. It wasn’t just the love of books—and the fact the members liked my first novel Buster Midnight’s Cafe. Those were givens. It was the camaraderie. At that first meeting, I found myself confiding things to these women that I hadn’t told even close friends. It was more than a “strangers on a train” evening. I connected with the women, and in the years I belonged, I came to cherish both the insights into literature and the friendship.
The group eventually disbanded, what with members moving away, with divorces and marriages. But I came to appreciate the connection that people have with each other through books.
My novels have long been marketed as book group picks. Whiter Than Snow already has a book group guide, which is available on my website and through the publisher, St. Martin’s Press. I’ve spoken with a hundred or more book clubs, mostly in person, but occasionally over the phone. And I think I’ve learned as much from the clubs as they have from me. They’ve suggested plot twists I’d never considered, asked questions that made me realize I didn’t know my characters as well as I thought. Their remarks even sent me in new directions with the book I was writing.
Although my novels—especially Prayers for Sale, Tallgrass, The Diary of Mattie Spenser, and I’m hoping Whiter Than Snow--seem to resonate with book groups, I don’t write with book clubs in mind. I never think, gee, book groups are going to like this character, or this plot twist will lead to a good discussion. Instead, I write for myself, and if book groups like the result, that’s great. If they don’t, well, my daughters will read the book.
I turn down far more book group invitations than I accept, of course, because I can’t always justify half-a-day away from the computer. But I’ve attended enough that I have one suggestion to groups that invite authors: Don’t let the author be a surprise to your members. At first, I thought it would be fun to be the mystery guest. But I’ve discovered that not only is my attendance awkward, but members don’t believe I’m the author. And I have to go through this game as each one arrives—“You’re not really the author. This is a joke, right? Who are you really?” And when I’m the surprise guest, the first question once the discussion starts is, “I didn’t read the book. What’s it about?”
Every group has its own personality—teachers, lawyers, religious groups, married couples, housewives who just want an evening away from the kids. Some come with a list of questions and hew to a schedule, while others arrive as much as an hour late and haven’t read the book. They are unfailingly gracious and grateful to meet with an author.
I’m the one who should be grateful, however. I learn so much from them--and well, okay, they feed me. I really go for the food. It seems to be a prerequisite to hosting a book club that you’re a good cook. Some book groups prepare gargantuan meals. Others have tables loaded with brownies and cookies. I’ve picked up great recipes for soups and casseroles.
A few even prepare meals based on what my characters eat in a particular book, which is tricky, since my characters often eat plain and unappetizing food. I’m always apprehensive when someone tells me she’s fixing a meal from The Diary of Mattie Spenser, expecting salt pork and beans. Book groups can be pretty faithful to the foods in books, which is why I’m thinking that in the upcoming book, I ought to have my characters dine on tenderloin and chocolate truffles. But in fact I’m writing a novel in which the characters are hungry enough to eat their boots.
Award-winning author SANDRA DALLAS was dubbed “a quintessential American voice” by Jane Smiley, in Vogue Magazine. Sandra’s novels with their themes of loyalty, friendship, and human dignity have been translated into a dozen foreign languages and have been optioned for films.
A journalism graduate of the University of Denver, Sandra began her writing career as a reporter with Business Week. A staff member for twenty-five years (and the magazine’s first female bureau chief,) she covered the Rocky Mountain region, writing about everything from penny-stock scandals to hard-rock mining, western energy development to contemporary polygamy. Many of her experiences have been incorporated into her novels.
While a reporter, she began writing the first of ten nonfiction books. They include Sacred Paint, which won the National Cowboy Hall of Fame Western Heritage Wrangler Award, and The Quilt That Walked to Golden, recipient of the Independent Publishers Assn. Benjamin Franklin Award.
Turning to fiction in 1990, Sandra has published eight novels, including Prayers For Sale. Sandra is the recipient of the Women Writing the West Willa Award for New Mercies, and two-time winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award, for The Chili Queen and Tallgrass. In addition, she was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award, the Mountain and Plains Booksellers Assn. Award, and a four-time finalist for the Women Writing the West Willa Award.
The mother of two daughters—Dana is an attorney in New Orleans and Povy is a photographer in Golden, Colorado—Sandra lives in Denver with her husband, Bob.
A huge thanks to Ms. Dallas for sharing some of her experiences with book clubs. If you are interested in participating in a future Book Club Exchange, please contact me at bookingmama(at)gmail(dot)com.