by Laura Crum
A lot of people suppose that being famous, even in a small way, is huge ego gratification. And yes, it can be. I am not famous, really, but there are those who know who I am from reading my books, and I am sometimes asked to speak at various gatherings. And yes, it is flattering. The other day I had a rather unusual experience along these lines, and thought I’d write about it.
So, normally when I give a “book talk”, it’s at a library or bookstore, and the people who come are either fans of my books, or mystery fans in general, or people who like horses and think they might like my books. And normally I give some kind of presentation (geared to the audience for that event), and take questions. I strive to be entertaining, and mostly I do a pretty good job of this, I think. And it’s all very flattering, though a bit time consuming and tiring for someone who is basically an introvert. To be frank, I don’t seek these events, though I have done a lot of them in twenty years of being a published author.
But my most recent event was a real change of pace. I was invited to speak to a book club—a dozen women who meet regularly to discuss the book that they had chosen for the month. They had been meeting in this way for many, many years, and now, for the first time, they wanted to read a book by a local author and have that author come address their group.
This sounded easy enough, and, of course, I agreed. The group chose my most recent novel, Barnstorming, and they all bought copies of the book (good). And on the evening in question, I showed up to give my “book talk.”
Well. They were all very nice people and they had wine and lots of food and it was very pleasant. But…their usual habit was to discuss the book they had read and say what they did and did not like about it. And it became clear to me as the evening went on that this was more or less what they intended to do—as I listened.
To be frank, at first I sort of inwardly rolled my eyes. I was now supposed to listen to my book being dissected (in the nicest possible way) by these well-meaning ladies? They had called me out on a winter’s night for this? Surely they could have talked about their impressions of the book minus my presence.
It wasn’t terribly different from reading reader reviews on Amazon—except that none of them were mean. They all said that they liked the book. And then proceeded to give their thoughts about it—not all of which were terribly flattering. Once I got my head around the fact that this was the evening’s event, it was actually pretty interesting.
It soon became clear that this was not my usual audience. None of them had horses or were at all interested in horses. Most of them were not mystery fans and knew little to nothing about the genre. Their book club read all kinds of books, but apparently few of these books had been mysteries. They all enjoyed the background of Barnstorming (the area where we all live), and most seemed to really enjoy the character of my protagonist and the overall story, but they were accustomed to reading longer, meatier books (think “The Poisonwood Bible,” which was mentioned), and I could tell by their comments that they felt my book was pretty lightweight.
At one point they went around the room, giving their impressions of the book. One woman said, “Horsey,” and I wasn’t at all sure this was a compliment. Another said, “Cute,” which I was sure wasn’t a compliment. And then she explained that she had never before thought of a horse as being “cute,” and my description of Sunny, using that adjective, was a revelation to her.
At this I actually laughed out loud. The idea of someone who had never thought of any horse as being “cute” is pretty foreign to me.
Eventually, as they discussed my book, including me from time to time, one woman said that, of course, as an artist, I needed to follow my own path. She used that word, “artist” in the somewhat heavy way many people employ this term, and I had to chime in.
“I don’t think of myself as an artist,” I said. “My books are not literary novels, they’re mysteries. I think of myself as a craftsman. I know how to make a good chair. In other words, I know how to make a pleasant, entertaining story. My books are “airplane books.” You get on the plane in San Francisco with the book and it keeps you entertained for your three hour flight and you disembark in New York and leave the book on the plane.”
They all looked at me with big eyes, and one woman said, “Well, I’m really glad you said that.” (It was only too clear that she had been WANTING to point out that my book was not great literature but was afraid to insult me.)
And then she went on to say (at some length) that she had enjoyed the book partly because it was “easy.” At this point another woman jumped in and said that she didn’t agree and she thought there were some very interesting philosophical points in the story (again at some length).
So eventually I chimed in and said that though I made “chairs,” not great art, I did try to make the most beautiful chairs that I could, and that I spent quite a bit of time contemplating what I really wanted to talk about in a given book, and then I shaped the mystery around this. I tried to make the books as insightful as I could, within the context of the stories remaining fast- reading mysteries.
The discussion went on along these lines, and I did find it very interesting to hear these strangers’ impressions of my book. It was a touch awkward to hear the book’s possible faults pointed out—because unlike in a writing group, my published book is a done deal. It isn’t going to change now. If you point out a problem, I can explain to you what I was trying to do, but I can’t “fix” it. It was clear that these people were used to pointing out what worked and didn’t work for them and speculating on what the author was trying to convey in a certain passage. A couple of times I finally interrupted and said, “I can tell you what I was trying to do here. It may or may not have worked for you, and that’s OK, but I can explain what the point was meant to be.”
Anyway, it was a pleasant evening and they were all nice people. Most of them said that they would like to read the whole series and see how the character evolved (yay). I had to feed my horses in the dark, but hey, I’ve done that before.
So have any of you other authors done something like this? Any thoughts on how you would have handled it?