Simon & Schuster selected my book as their May pick for their Book Club, and after I did my little dance of elation and joy in my living room, I thought about how I feel about book clubs. In a word (or three): I love them! I just did a skype yesterday with the wonderful Boulevard Books Book Club in Brooklyn, New York, and they reminded me of why I love book clubs so much.
I’ve done my fair share of book club visits (mostly through skype or over the phone, though I’ve done a couple in person, too). Book clubs are all very different from each other. Some involve food, others don’t. Some are huge, others smaller. But in all of my visits, I was delighted to hear from people who knew the book incredibly well, had strong feelings about plot/theme details, and talked about my characters as if they were real people. I think that outside of a university graduate seminar in literature, there are very few places in American life where people can gather and talk thoughtfully about the machinery of fiction: language, metaphors, themes–and a book club is one of them.
What always excites me about book clubs is just how well they know the book. Sometimes, they actually know the book better than I do. They notice everything about the characters, even throwaway lines I put in on a random page and forgot about it. They notice certain recurring metaphors. (Despite my book’s title, I was unaware of the number of times “burning” shows up as a metaphor.) They make connections between characters. (I didn’t notice how characters who are on opposite sides of the antagonist/protagonist fence sometimes behave in similar ways in my novel.) I write very subconsciously, and make a deliberate effort, during the drafting stage, to remain unconscious of the book’s themes. So it’s really exciting when I actually get to hear from readers–super smart, engaged readers–who let me know what’s actually on the page. What I actually wrote, as opposed to what I think I wrote. For instance, book club members often ask me about the character of Hana. When I wrote the book, she was a minor character, someone I really didn’t think much about. I didn’t realize her importance until after I started doing book club visits.
The other thing about book clubs, and this may be the masochist in me, is that they really let you know what they didn’t like! They do this superpolitely, but they still do it, and I kind of love it. If they see some inconsistency in a a character, they don’t hesitate to tell you. But by the same token, there’ll be someone in the club who’ll explain that exact character’s (seemingly) puzzling behavior by offering their own insights. Book club members, I suspect, are all amateur psychologists, and always figure out the characters’ motivations (even the secret ones). On the other side of the coin, book club members aren’t shy about letting you know when they’re fans of the book, and there’s nothing more fun than to talk to someone who appreciates what you’re doing.
What really intrigues me is the fact that no book club visit is the same. Yes, there are some questions that often get asked, like my parents’ reaction to the book. (The book is inspired by my mother’s life.) But the book club is more often than not a reflection of its members’ own interests, backgrounds, and location. In a book club in Singapore, a lot of the conversation had to do with Asia, as well as my own complicated ethnic/national background (Brazilian/Korean/American); we ended up talking about “third cultures” and the ladies had some wonderful insights about raising children in a foreign country. In a book club in New York, East Coast intellectual mecca, the members asked very Charlie Rose-like questions about the ethics of writing about living family members and process-related questions about different stages of the manuscript. In a book club in Chicago, populated by young women in their 30s, we talked about the customs and traditions described in the book. When a book club visit is going really well, in my opinion, the members almost forget that I’m there and start talking about the book amongst themselves, offering their views on different characters’ behavior. Interestingly, in my most recent visit, there was a lot of talk about possible What Ifs, like alternate endings, and What if Soo-Ja ended up with —— instead of —— at the end? It was fun, because the book then took on its own life, with people rewriting the ending in their heads, or getting to hear about the different versions of the story that were in my own head at different points.
The other thing that impressed me about the book clubs I’ve visited is the egalitarian nature of the meetings. Pretty much everyone who wanted to talk got to talk, without anyone trying to dominate. And when people disagreed on an interpretation, it was always done in the spirit of coming to a deeper understanding and the awareness of multiple possibilities, rather than a “You’re wrong and I’m right” kind of situation. Sometimes I’ll get asked a question, and the answer that another book club member provides is often just as interesting or even more so than the one I do. I think of myself as the “Director’s Audio commentary”/Making-of Featurette on the DVD, providing some illuminating trivia about how the characters came to be, or why I made the choices I made. Yes, I’m the bonus feature on the DVD; I mean, book!
If you want to chat about the book, BookBrowse is hosting an online book club discussion here. If you want to chat with me directly, request a Skype visit here. If you want to join the Simon & Schuster discussion of the book during the month of May, the link is here. Happy reading and discussing!