I love book clubs. I love reading for them, I love talking to them, and if I had my choice I’d probably do nothing but visit them to promote my books. Where else do you find people who have already made a commitment to read your book, and to read it closely enough to discuss it in a knowledgeable fashion with their friends? The best insights I’ve ever been offered about my work have come from book club members. In a world full of readings attended by the inevitable, random 5-to-10 bookstore browsers and 20-year-old assistant night managers who consistently mangle the title of your work, book clubs are an oasis of intelligent thought and discussion.
A few years ago, I learned that the in-store book club of the old Barnes & Noble on Sixth Avenue in Chelsea was going to be reading a novel of mine, “Dreamland.” There were signs around the store announcing when the club would meet, inviting anyone to take part.
I was flattered. The book had already been out for a while, but I thought I might condescend to stop by and ask if the club members had any questions, maybe soak up a little adoration. Floating somewhere in my head was a line from that Joni Mitchell song: “I meant to go over and ask for a song / Maybe put on a harmony . . . ”
The night the club was to meet, I showed up early, thinking I’d introduce myself at the start and ask if they wanted me there or not. But it was an informal setting, and it just felt too pompous to pop up and exclaim, “Hello, I’m the author!” I decided to wait until we were all supposed to introduce ourselves. I’d identify myself then, quietly reveling in the murmurs of surprise and delight that were sure to follow when they discovered the great man himself was among them.
Soon someone cleared his throat, told us his name and said he was usually the club’s discussion moderator. But not tonight: “I just didn’t like this book that much, so it’s fine with me if somebody else wants to lead the discussion.”
Wait a minute. People were going to give it a thumbs up or down right from the beginning? Uh-oh. But so it went with the next person. And the next. And the next: “I didn’t really like it that much either.”
This was a disaster. And now it was my turn. I was embarrassed not only for myself but for the members of the club. How would they feel once they discovered the author they had just dissed was sitting right there? Everyone stared at me expectantly. I swallowed hard and did the only decent thing — I gave them the name of an old roommate. “I’m Richard Feeley,” I mumbled, eyes downcast, “and I rather liked it.”
As it happened, that was how most of the rest of the club felt. Of the remaining 20 to 25 readers, almost all were at least fairly positive. But how was I to get my adoration now? It was too late to admit who I was without looking like a lunatic, or worse. What followed was one of the weirdest and funniest nights of my writing career, my experience of Tom Sawyer attending his own funeral.
As the evening went on, I sat back and took only an occasional part in the discussion, fascinated to hear what my readers had to say, throwing in a comment now and then to clarify some point or another.
“What’s this guy supposed to represent?” the would-be moderator huffed, referring to a 19th-century New York gangster known — both historically and in “Dreamland” — solely as “the Grabber.”
“Um, I think maybe he’s supposed to stand for Death,” I suggested, cringing inwardly. The others gave me patronizing stares.
“I think the author is much too sophisticated for that,” one of my staunchest defenders gently chided.
My main fear was that someone would recognize me before the evening was out. There was, after all, a prominent author photo on the back of the paperback edition the club was using. But, as it happened, this was noticed only by the elderly woman sitting next to me.
“You look just like the author,” she remarked in a loud voice.
“Yes,” I told her, “I get that all the time.”
I don’t think she was fooled, but the other club members seemed to ignore most of what she said. The discussion ended without my subterfuge being unveiled, and I got out of the store as quickly as I could without actually sprinting.
A few days later, I gave a reading from my new book, at a different venue, and one of the club members came up to get her copy signed.
“Our book club just did ‘Dreamland,’ ” she told me, beaming.
“Yes, I know,” I said. “I was there.”
“You were!” she replied, slowly frowning in recognition.
The next book the club read was written by a friend of mine, and after hearing my story he decided to put in an appearance. Later he told me that I’d been outed, and that the club members were none too pleased.
“They were quite indignant,” he reported — so he made sure to tell them, at the very beginning, who he was. But, he added, “It still didn’t keep them from tearing me apart.”