Since I last wrote here, I’ve had lots of fun visiting a slew of clubs, either in person or via Skype. Here goes the list in order of my visits: UTAH, MISSISSIPPI, RHODE ISLAND, KANSAS, PENNSYLVANIA, MASSACHUSETTS, MICHIGAN, MISSOURI, VIRGINIA, and tonight, I’m taking the train to meet with a NEW YORK book club at a library in Valley Stream. Oh, and I also had some fun with a FLORIDA club in Key West. (This gang was not technically part of the challenge but they wrote me way back asking if I’d join them, so of course, I did!). There were many highlights from these events, but here are some I wanted to share:
At the very end of this Skype chat, the voice of a woman off screen said, “I grew up in the same town as you, and I don’t know why you didn’t put the Melon Heads in your book.”
Melon Heads?!?! Now, only someone truly from my kooky New England hometown could talk that secret language! I nearly screamed, “Wait a minute! Who said that?”
“I did,” came the voice as the woman leaned into the screen and gave a little wave.
“You’re from my hometown?” I said, excited as ever. “You buried the lede! You should have said at the start of the chat, not the end!”
Before I go on, let me explain: The “Melon Heads” were this supposedly monstrous family who lived in the woods somewhere off a spooky dirt road in my hometown. Legend had it that if you were dumb enough to venture down that road late at night, the MHs would find you and drag your sorry butt back to their cabin and eat you alive. Needless to say, most people were too terrified to drive down that dirt road, so it was avoided at all costs. Me? I rather liked the idea of being attacking by a Melon Head. After all, it sounded a lot more fun than anything else I was doing in that tiny town, like working my after school job as a telemarketer, where I kept people on the phone for hours, asking fascinating questions like, “You mentioned you like Kentucky Fried Chicken. In what way do you like Kentucky Fried Chicken?” And so, not only did I frequently drive my enormous old honker of a station wagon back and forth down that dirt road, (going waaayyyy under the speed limit in case a giant-headed-human-eating monster was a little slow in catching up with me), I also began loading up my car some Friday nights with no fewer than 9 friends and heading down that dirt road too.
Anyway, I had to explain to this nice reader that while I always draw lots of inspiration from that town and sprinkle it into my books, they are not meant to be a historical guide, particularly to the Melon Heads. And besides, the damn MH’s never did find me and chase me and eat me. Plus, their street is now paved and lined with nice new homes. Who knows? Maybe they relocated to another town and are vegetarians these days.
RHODE ISLAND & MICHIGAN!
I was lucky enough to meet these two clubs in person, since I was in both states for speaking events and was able to stay an extra night. I met the Rhode Island club (small, just like the state!) at a restaurant. They told me they had read all of my books, and so, it was the first club where we talked, not just about Help For The Haunted, but about Strange But True and Boy Still Missing as well. What a great experience for a writer…I felt very lucky that night!
The Michigan club was from the tiny town of Milan (pronounced M-Eye-Lon, not like the Italian city as I’d been pronouncing it!). This was a big club, and we met at a great coffee shop. They were all such careful readers…one even found a mistake that I’d made in the book. (Yes, it’s true: I’m human and I make errors, despite all my research and endless revising.) Thankfully, they forgave me and we had a blast together.
The last couple years I’ve been lucky to go to St. Louis and give a talk in April for a few hundred women as part of a fundraiser. Over time, I’ve kept up with so many of those women and now even go to town early to have dinner with a group of them because they are a riot and we all love to laugh. Well, some of the ladies in this club have come to those events before, so I felt instantly relaxed. I even started a little game of Show & Tell with items in my apartment. Since they were asking about foreign covers and if I have a say in how they look, I ended up showing them an advanced reading edition of the UK cover of Help For The Haunted, where there was a hilarious mistake. My UK publisher (WHO I LOVE!) accidentally left out a word from the quote on the front. It was from Marie Claire and was supposed to read, “You won’t be able to put it down.” Instead it reads, “You won’t be able put it down.” Without that “to” it sends a very different message! Well, I told the group how that cover made it all the way to me without anyone noticing the mistake… Thankfully, I’m a careful reader… and I also have a great sense of humor. My editor in the UK and I laughed over that one!
I loved these readers. They were all getting ready for The Royals game the night we met. And so, they were all wearing their matching blue jerseys. “What’s The Royals and what are they playing?” I asked them, picturing the Queen of England and Kate Middletown in some sort of fencing dual. I don’t follow sports at all, so they had a laugh at how clueless I was.
I once visited a book club that had a sign: “We are a drinking club with a reading problem!” It cracked me up, since so many of these clubs toss back a fair share of wine during our chats (myself included)! However, these fun and smart women are Mormon, which means they do not drink even a single drop of alcohol ever. Here’s the funny part: they laughed and told me that they make up for it with extreme sugar consumption! The night we met, they had baked a delicious-looking HELP FOR THE HAUNTED cake! If only I could have reached through my computer screen and taken a bite. These girls and I had a lively chat and talked in great length about the sister dynamic between Sylvie and Rose, and also, the way their perceptions of the characters did a complete 180 from the start of the book to the end.
OREGON & MISSISSIPPI!
Oregon was my very first book club for the challenge, and somehow, I neglected to mention them in my first post. (By the way, did you know it is pronounced OR-U-GUN not OR-A-GAN as I had been saying it? Sounds easy but I kept getting it wrong. This took up the first five minutes of our chat, before we moved onto discussing Sylvie.) It’s funny, because Oregon and Mississippi both posed the same question: “How did you come to write a book from the point of view of a teenaged girl?” And I gave the same answer I did on the Today Show when the host asked me that exact question: “Isn’t it obvious? Deep down I am a teenage girl!” (My mother told me she turned off the TV at that point of the interview, by the way.) Thankfully, though, my Oregon and Mississippi girls did NOT turn off the Skype. We laughed, and then I gave them all the real answer, which is far more serious: My youngest sister, Keri, was the same age as Sylvie when our family faced an unfortunate, personal tragedy. She was a big inspiration for the voice since, like the character, Keri showed a great deal of strength and wisdom that was beyond her years during a terrible time.
PENNSYLVANIA & KEY WEST, FLORIDA…. IN ONE NIGHT!
This was the first evening that I scheduled two book clubs back to back. They were both great, though each had wildly different vibes. The PA Club was first up, and we engaged in a detailed discussion of the book and chatted about each reader’s take. I fielded all sorts of questions. While I don’t think of Help For The Haunted as a mystery in the Agatha Christie sense, there is very much a mysterious element since the parents are murdered in the first chapter and the reader does not know who did it until the last moments of the book. We had fun discussing the ways their views on the characters shifted throughout the narrative and also their suspicions.
After we said goodbye, I worked my Skype magic and headed down to Key West where the readers were tossing back plenty of cocktails and having a grand old time. There is a character in the book with the nickname “Seven” because he only has seven fingers. Well, the gang in Key West literally served finger foods at their book bash and offered hors d’oeuvres shaped like fingers! As if that was not fun enough, they also had pies with jack-o-lantern faces in the top and drinks with fake spiders floating in them. My only regret is that I wasn’t there in person to enjoy with them all. However, I’m going to an artist studio this winter in Key West and we all made plans to see each other then.
And that’s been the nicest part of these discussions in all these states so far: getting to know so many readers across the country, to hear about what they’re reading, to chat about books we love and authors who wow us, to listen to stories from their lives and to share funny and serious moments from my life too. The warm welcome from all of these clubs reminds me how fortunate I am to get to do what I’ve dreamed of doing ever since I was a little kid and I used to write books and try to sell them to my family for 50 cents. (Yes, I was both a writer and a publisher from an early age!) Writing is such a solitary act, but meeting with these clubs as part of the 50/50 Challenge is quite the opposite, and I’m loving every moment.
Next up…NEW YORK tonight…then WEST VIRGINIA and ALABAMA later in the week…NEW MEXICO and VERMONT the week after! Oh, and I’ve been posting the pictures on Facebook if you want to check them out!
Oh, and we are still on the hunt for book clubs in ALASKA, HAWAII, DELAWARE AND LOUISIANA! Sign your club up here.
John Searles, 10.28.14