Sometimes our great ideas hammer away at us for years before they break through. And sometimes they just float into our heads and take a chair. And sometimes our great ideas…aren’t even ours.
Okay, maybe that sounds bad, like I’m advocating plagiarism or outright theft, two literary no-no’s I wrote at length about in The plot (2021). But I’m not talking about swiping someone else’s lifelong work or groundbreaking insight (that really would be verboten); I’m talking about what happens when a casual suggestion hits you like a ton of bricks and you think: wow! Good idea!
In 2001, for my kids’ school’s annual fundraiser, the call went out to parents for auction items. Because this was a Quaker school, there was none of the private school auction excess featured in my novel You Should Have Known (later adapted as HBO’s The Undoing): no Park Avenue facelifts or private chalets in Gstaad. Instead, we parents were encouraged to create enriching kid or parent activities or handmade crafts. The principal said to me: “You know so many writers. Why don’t you organize a book group and invite writers to come?”
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wow. Good idea!
Over the next decade nearly 100 writers of fiction, nonfiction, biography, humor, and memoir came to my house in Princeton, New Jersey, and sat down with about 20 book group members, each of whom had made a donation to the school (that was the fundraising piece!) and had purchased and read the author’s book in advance. Princeton had plenty of local writers, thanks to the university, and many of them (Joyce Carol Oates, Chang-rae Lee, Susan Choi) graciously attended, but I was amazed that authors also willingly came from New York City. Rachel Dratch? (Girl Walks into a Bar) Sure. Min Jin Lee? (Free Food for Millionaires) OK! Steve Martin? (The Pleasure of My Company) gulp.
Why did they do it? I think the fact that I’m a writer myself created a degree of trust. And even the most “successful” author among us appreciates an opportunity to sit down with smart, friendly readers who’ve actually bought and read our book and want to discuss it.
My favorite thing about those discussions was something I came to think of as “the Question,” and it got asked in some form at every single meeting. The Question always began “Did you know…?” A novelist might be asked if she’d known, when she began her book, that a character would turn out the way they did, or that a plot twist would happen, or that research would send a book in an unanticipated direction. The answer was always “No.” The writers were inevitably surprised by where their books took them. The readers in our group were always stunned to hear that.
I know from my own writing that every set-in-stone word is the result of a discovery, a negotiation, a reconsideration, perhaps even a rejection before it makes its way to black-on-white permanence inside the finished copy of a book we read. The writing process (a term we writers sometimes roll our eyes at!) invites our private self-doubts and anxieties to work alongside our imaginations, research skills, and even—especially!—the telling of our personal stories, but—as if in compensation for that—it also opens up some mystical pathway inside us, making all manner of revelation possible. That’s part of why the process is so mysterious, even to ourselves.
I became addicted to watching what happens when authors and readers discuss a book together, and I didn’t want to stop doing it, so when my family and I moved back to my native isle, Manhattan, in 2013, I decided to reinvent the book group as a for-profit company. (I had come to regret the fact that I was not compensating the authors for their time, and paying them meant charging participants.) I also wanted to move from a regular group of attendees to a format in which people attended only the events that interested them, making for a constantly shifting group of reader-participants. The new endeavor was called BOOKTHEWRITER, and our events were dubbed “pop-up book groups.” I registered my little company in a dusty basement office at city hall, even as I tried to find people to host the gatherings (if you think it’s hard to convince people to allow 20 perfect strangers into their home, you’re right), and answered questions by confused potential customers (what did I mean, the author was present? Like, actually there?).
How to describe the difference between (1) sticking one’s head out of one’s writing room every four years or so, clutching a new novel and braced to engage with the public (mainly in the form of readers and reviewers), and (2) actually stepping into the marketplace to offer a service (in this case, the opportunity to discuss a new book with its author) directly to strangers, in exchange for their hard-earned money? I’m not sure I can articulate why it was so hard for me, but I knew it was necessary if BOOKTHEWRITER was going to succeed, and I also felt, on some level, that after 20 years as a novelist it would be good for me, personally, to be, well, a little more out there. I was used to giving readings in front of small bookstore audiences with my own books open in front of me on the podium, but I had never pitched an idea to media outlets or discussed it on national television, both things that happened in the first couple of months. I never actually got comfortable with it, but I got better at it.
At first, finding readers who wanted to attend my book groups was difficult, but slowly my mailing list has grown, and now BOOKTHEWRITER offers about 25 pop-up book groups per year, with full enrollments of 20 (because we’re all about the intimacy) and extraordinary writers: Elizabeth Strout, Karen Duffy, Julianna Margulies, Adriana Trigiani, Kurt Andersen, Erica Jong, Jennifer Egan, Jeanine Cummins, Edmund White, Sarah Ruhl, Gary Shteyngart, Jhumpa Lahiri, Dani Shapiro, Jane Green, Jean Kwok , Christina Baker Kline, Dawnie Walton… It’s a list I am proud of, and can barely believe. We hold our pop-up book groups in the living rooms of Manhattan apartments, many of which are stunning and one of which is even famous—the actual set of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel pilot!—and because we New Yorkers share a robust interest in other people’s homes, this has inspired BOOKTHEWRITER’s unofficial motto: Come for the literature, stay for the real estate!
Our conversations with authors are never less than interesting, and they’re frequently magical. Some stay focused on the book, while others evolve into personal, even intimate conversations about an emotional response to the book prompts. Through them I’ve learned a great deal that has not only contributed to my own work as a writer but also helped me better understand what readers want.
During the pandemic, I initially resisted the idea of going online, because the in-the-room experience is so central to what BOOKTHEWRITER does, but I began to sense how important the discussions have become to our regular participants. I took a deep breath and began meeting online, and I discovered how thrilling it is to welcome readers from far beyond New York City. (When we featured David Duchovny’s new novel, Truly Like Lightning, the author himself was on a film set in London and the participants came from all over the world. And every single one of them was a woman. I wonder why.) Since the fall of 2021 I have been holding hybrid book groups, with masked and vaccinated readers in the room with the author and simultaneous Zoom participants who are also able to ask the author questions. It’s working, and I will likely retain the Zoom audience even when the pandemic is firmly in our global rearview mirror.
It helps, I suppose, to truly believe in what you’re doing, and I do. I am still addicted to watching authors and readers interact. I love witnessing a longtime reader meet someone whose work they revere, or watching a memoirist connect with a room full of strangers through her story of her. I’ve reached out to my own literary idols with invitations and been gratified when they accept my invitation, and I have had the great pleasure of promoting books and writers I love. Less anticipated, but equally welcome, has been a change in my own ability to connect with readers, something I’ve appreciated over the past year when my seventh novel, Theplot, was embraced by a large readership. In so many ways, BOOKTHEWRITER has been a really great idea. Not my great idea, not originally! But a really great idea that continues to thrive in New York City and beyond. I’m grateful to my kids’ former head of school, and glad I did something about it.
Jean Hanff Korelitz is the author of eight novels, including The Latecomer and The plot (both in development as limited series), as well as You Should Have Knownwhich was adapted as HBO’s The Undoing.
To sign up for BOOKTHEWRITER’s pop-up book club groups, go to bookthewriter.com.
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