I have slowly learned how to spot you at twenty paces -- a knot in your jaw, a little gleam in your eye, often a slight smile and the marching, oh, the marching toward me.
Listen, I get it. You've been angry at a lot of novelists over the years -- for one thing or another. For failing to give happy endings, for letting a once-sweet marriage split up, for tragic deaths and unrequited longing ... And, still, you've read dutifully -- or, well, sometimes spottily/skimmingly but getting through each assigned book.
And it's felt like assignments -- more volunteer hours, no pay. You haven't always wanted to read these books. In fact, sometimes the books piled up and kept coming at you, assembly-line style. And so maybe you've suffer a bit of Marxist alienation of labor? It's possible. That's all I'm saying. You're pissed off and tired and rightfully so.
And then I show up -- all salutations and expectations. I've been invited, after all. And I'm the first author in all of these years to have shown up, (to have taken the time to come down from my high and mighty authorial throne and look at me -- just some upstart, some little snot).
Do you have a thing or two to say to Anne Tyler? You do.
Are you still pissed at Lee Smith for letting Ivy burn the letters at the end of Fair and Tender Ladies? You bet.
If Zora Neale Hurston had the guts to show her face at this group, well, you'd have a word for her about Teacake!
And let's not even get into Jong or Waldman!
But those authors aren't here. I am! And there's chocolate and wine and it seems nice and the women are friendly ...
And ... did anyone mention that ONE woman in the group ALWAYS (always!) believes that the author is writing a thinly disguised memoir and passing it off as fiction, and the other women would like to bury that notion, once and for all, and I could do just that? Not to mention the grammarian! Not to mention the one baffled by multiple points of view! Not the mention the one who doesn't think anyone should ever write outside of their own demographic! Not to mention the one who hates profanity! (There's no need for it!) There are age-old arguments, scores to settle, debts to pay, and I could be the arbiter. I could offer the final word.
No. No one has mentioned this at all. I just hear some passive-aggressive stacking of dessert plates and banter. I have no idea what's at stake. I'm here as a favor to a friend's friend. It's good pr, right? I'm here on some bookish duty that I don't really understand. I like the soaps in the bathroom and the little silver charms that everyone puts on the stems of their wine glasses to keep from spreading germs.
You want to know why my mind sometimes veers to dystopia? These are dark waters. The undercurrents are riptides. This makes a WASPY thanksgiving look like a love-in.
So what happens?
True story #1:
You showed up with a copy of my third novel with a handmade book cover instead of the jacket -- the new jacket is made out of mailing tape or something. You told me that you hated the cover of my book so much that you tore it up into tiny little pieces and made your own.
Inventive! (And disturbing.)
True story #2:
You were the one who drank a little too much of the vino and held back into laying into me at the end of the night. You were angry, most of all, that my characters weren't, well, you -- or some version of you. You told me that my characters needed to "grab life by the ass!" When I asked for a specific example of life ass-grabbing, you were momentarily stumped and then said, "I don't know. They could start a small business! You're the writer, not me!" In my head, I thought, "Really? I thought, for a minute there, you were the writer! Funny..." But said, "A small business. I'll think about that."
True story #3:
You said, "I just don't like stories with death in them. Why do novels always have people dying in them?"
As politely as possible, I said, "Because people die in real life?"
True story #4:
In the novel that does reflect the real life of my grandmother who was raised in a house of prostitution in the 20s and 30s, you tell me -- in a thick accent that I can't determine -- that you think my family is weak and that I am a very bad daughter for having revealed the family history.
I try to tell you that my grandmother allowed me to interview her for the book, was on radio interviews with me, that, after she read the book, she cried and told me that I'd gotten it right, especially the soul of her mother.
You don't believe me and are disgusted with me on behalf of my family.
I leave early.
Oh, and my sweet grammarians and logicians. I know that you do not believe that I have the right to be a novelist because of the errors found on pages 17, 121 ... I appreciate the abbreviated detailing of my crimes against language; some merely stylistic, but still ... I tell you that if you shut books because of typos, grammatical glitches, and errors, you're going to miss out on books far, far better than mine. You don't like this because it feels like a reprimand and you were the one here to do the reprimanding.
And then I try to remind you -- all of you -- that I don't actually write books for the express desire to make you angry. It's not a vendetta thing. I write because I have to write. It's how I navigate this brutal world. (I have the impression that some of you think it's a little uppity of me to think my work is worthy of publication, but we don't delve into this.) I tell you that my main goal is to be true to the human experience as I see it. I can't write the human experience as you see it because I don't know you.
So, is this a fair assessment of book clubs?
No. Not at all. There are those at book clubs who actually want me to talk about the process, who want to talk about the writing life, who want to glimpse the other side of the process.
And the truth is that I love the reader. I think of the reader far more often than they could ever think of me. I love the emails that thank me for writing these books. I love the readers who tell me how I gave voice to something that they felt has gone unsaid. I love the readers who tell me that I've affected their lives -- for the better. (Most of all, I love the kid readers of my kid novels who tell me that I'm the best writer in the entire world. Who wouldn't love those emails?)
And I even love the angry readers somehow. After all, they keep opening books -- sometimes looking for flaws more than for the elements that could resonate with their own lives -- but they're there. They keep coming back.
I dedicate The Anybodies like this:
This book is dedicated to you. Yes, you. Don't be so shocked. Haven't you always secretly thought that you deserved a book dedicated to you and to you only?...
I dedicate The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted this way:
This novel is dedicated to the reader.
For this singular moment, it's just the two of us.
For this singular moment, it's just the two of us.
And that's the truth of how I feel. I sit at the desk and sometimes my mind blurs to you... I probably shouldn't think of you, but I do -- the idea that what's here and belongs to me will likely one day belong to you. It's not always easy to hand it over. (See above: you sometimes scare me.)
But, still, word by word, this is where we meet. For better or for worse. And I keep coming back.