After thirty-plus years, I’m trying to overcome what Katie identified: being “an author who, for all her dreams, craves both literary success and personal obscurity.” I’m getting used to speaking in public places where my writing will be spotlighted. After all, I had nine non-fiction books published before my first work of fiction appeared.
All of my NFs were religious books and they became, to my great surprise, battlegrounds. I’m used to having the sponsoring group get a phone call from an irate Mormon who’s heard an announcement about the meeting on the radio and calls to say they’ll be there to take notes and sue us all for inaccuracies. I’ve had people stomp out, threaten me privately, break down in tears.
Now, that’s not just when I’m speaking on cults. Once a lady attended a large meeting when I spoke on Rahab (the subject of my book, The Red Cord of Hope: When History Stopped for One Woman of Faith).
I don’t know if she brought the little pad of yellow Post-It notes by chance or if she put them in her purse that morning just for me. Every time I said something she had a different view on, she wrote in tiny crabbed writing a scriptural notation and her “corrections” which she presented to me with a flourish in front of about a bazillion people. (I still have all those little yellow badges of shame, inside one of my Bibles, right by the scriptures she listed. And—in one case, she was absolutely right and I was wrong, letting my blabbermouth speculate on something off the cuff.)
And I have to say the most hurtful, scathing letter I received in all these years of publishing was from a fellow Christian woman who said I’d misused and overstepped the Bible. (Later she admitted that she was basing her judgment on the King James Version of the Bible, and she could see why I said what I said when quoting the NIV.)
When my first work of fiction appeared (The Dream Quilt, Waterbrook), it sold very well. I was thrilled to hear via the grapevine that entire groups of people were working on quilts using the design on the book. People wrote the publisher saying that it had helped their children be able to overcome bad dreams. One MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) group tracked me down and paid for professional recording studio time for me to read the book aloud. Then they distributed cassettes, child-friendly cassette players, and books to hospital children’s wards, for kids who had to spend the night without their parents.
I say, “tracked me down,” because I published that book under a pseudonym (my own children’s names, Celeste Ryan.) So there was no speaking before groups with that one.
Nonetheless, I’ve had a very wide range of experiences speaking to groups of people who have read my books. But in my experience, mostly the people who come to a book club meeting (or some sort of public gathering that focuses on an author and her work) fall into several broad categories. I’ll list a few, and hope that you will provide some other categories.
First, there are those who are issue-driven. If you write anything that is even slightly controversial (and for some Christian readers, even mentioning an issue like abortion or alcohol use is controversial), you may offend someone who will welcome the chance to tell you about that. Other issue-driven readers may feel they have something to add to the author’s knowledge base. At best, however, such a person may just want to sound you out about why you made the decision to deal with such an issue in a Christian book.
Second, there are people who want to achieve some sort of vindication. I have found with almost every woman’s group, as a speaker I can see visual clues to whom the group sees as leader. If I make a startling or unusual statement, I can see the eyes of the group flit toward the leader. Often this is the person with the most depth of Bible knowledge, or the one who is usually the teacher in the group. Because such a position is important to her and she feels protective of her flock, she will often feel that she should ask the “probing” questions about the book they’ve all been studying. Or—she may give you praise for what you wrote, and her words will carry enormous weight.
Thirdly, there is often a “hijacker” in the group. This is the person who is involved in great personal struggle and for whom the group (especially if it is a small group, or just has members from one church) serves as a kind of therapy. Such a person will want to have you (as an authority figure—you’re up there speaking, right?) hear about their problems and give public advice – and sympathy. It is very difficult to properly acknowledge such pain and yet not let the group’s focus be swept into her very small corner.
Fourth, there is almost always at least one aspiring writer in the group. Many times (as Bonnie has described!) such a person will try to use a public situation to wrangle out of a published author a commitment to read, endorse, edit, co-write, or re-write a book.
But mostly such people just want a little nudge or direction or encouragement. I find that if I say, “I’d love to give you some pointers after the meeting,” I can help without veering off the course that the person who invited me to speak had in mind. Then when meeting with the writer, I save myself a lot of time and misunderstanding by writing down for him or her the web address to my short blog article, “The Seventeen Steps to Getting a Christian Book Published.”
In general, though, people who come to a book club or other formal meeting to meet an author just want to interact with a face as they have interacted with a mind when they read my book. I try to dress nicely and as Patti said, skip the spinach salad before I speak. But on the other hand, people want to know that authors aren’t perfect. They can see the middle-aged woman with a slight lisp and in desperate need of a manicure and be assured that a regular person can achieve something even if you’re not Superwoman. I tell them that I began studying biblical Greek in my forties and they can too. That I wrote my first book in a corner of my garage. That most of my writing takes place when my hair isn’t combed and my robe doesn’t match my house slippers.
And we, as authors, need this kind of feedback too. We stand before a great, dark forest into which we have sent our words and we timidly call out, “Is anybody there?” That forest is enchanted. Magic can still happen with words. As authors and readers we believe that words don’t belong to the author, ultimately they belong to the reader. And that’s why people read, why they come to book club meetings, some of them, because they have begun to own our words.
How about you? Do you have some other categories of people who attend book club meetings? Are you a representative of such a category?