‘Ours is the biggest book club in the world,’ my host says. ‘We think so, anyway.’
This is my second speaking engagement at The Philharmonic Center for the Arts, Naples, Florida. The first was on Thursday 7th February in the Daniels Pavilion to a sold out house of 282. On the following Saturday, the auditorium is at around half capacity. However, as this is the Hayes Hall, a full scale concert hall, it equates to some 672 people who have come for … well, just a book talk really.
While I’m waiting in the wings during my introduction, one of the crew adjusts the monitor to view the audience. ‘That’s a big crowd for a book lecture,’ he mutters to his mate.
There are two podiums on stage like the presidential debates. The US edition book cover of Girl Reading is projected on a screen the size of a billboard making me look rather puny in comparison. And all this is for me. Sort of.
Actually, these audiences have come because of Elaine Newton who, according to one director at The Phil, ‘sells out faster than Tony Bennett.’
Elaine lives in Florida for part of the year and in her native Canada for the rest. She’s an academic, her home university is York University, Toronto, but she has given lectures on book, films, theatre and psychology in cities around the world, virtually anywhere she’s stopped for any length of time, and she does it ‘for fun’. I also think she does it because teaching is in her blood, because she has quickly flowing, sparkling ideas, the gift of effortless communication, and the ability to draw people to her with warmth and enthusiasm.
Elaine Newton has spearheaded the Naples Book Club since The Philharmonic Center for the Arts was built in 1989. There were 40 people at her first talk; now they spill into the largest arts venue for miles around causing parking problems and traffic jams.
‘I’ve been coming to Elaine’s talks for 12 years,’ one lady tells me in the book signing queue. ‘I’m one of the new ones, other people have been with her much longer.’ Indeed, I meet several women who have been loyal members for over 20 years.
There are several ‘book clubs’ in the world that might lay claim a larger following than this: I’m thinking of Oprah, Richard and Judy, and online communities such as Good Reads and BookCrossing. Based on sales of selected titles and membership registration, these run into thousands, even millions. However, if you remove the media and internet from the equation, keeping the definition of a book club strictly in the real world and honour the notion of real people meeting up on a regular basis to share a book they’ve all read, then Elaine’s claim that theirs is the largest becomes entirely plausible.
Each year they publish a Critic’s Choice Summer Reading List of 35 – 40 titles that goes to libraries, bookstores and periodicals all over the US. It doesn’t exactly ‘go viral’ (Elaine isn’t fond of technology and avoids online platforms completely). It’s more like old fashioned word of mouth on a grand scale. From this list, Elaine will lecture on 6 chosen books. She takes a folder of notes to her lectern, leans into the microphone the way experienced professors do, and seems to deliver her entire presentation from memory, even creating it in the moment like a jazz musician.
The list is a collaboration. Elaine meets with Jessica Olson and Felicia Santiago, the communities team at the Naples branch of Barnes and Noble. Over piles of books and cups of coffee they thrash out / cajole / tease / argue for their favourites out of dozens of novels. They treat the process with the same care and attention as any literary panel, but I suspect their sessions are more good natured than most. After all, they’ve been doing this for a while, and I don’t think they’d keep doing it if they didn’t love it with a passion. Elaine’s name is on the publicity for The Phil events, but like any true academic she is open to persuasion and has read and spoken on books because they were championed by Jessica and Felicia. She knows them and trusts their judgement. If they believe in a book, there must be something to it.
It was Felicia who first contacted me through my website back in April 2012. She sent me a thoroughly charming email saying how much she loved my novel, and would I consider coming to Florida to speak about it? I admit I was confused. I’ve been invited to speak at book groups before, in King’s Lynn, in Cirencester, in Cumbria, in Woodbridge, in Ipswich. The largest of these was around 35 people; the smallest was 5 people which included members of my own family. What Felicia described sounded a bit mad.
Of course, authors travel abroad to talk about their books all the time, but I simply didn’t believe I was there yet. Girl Reading was only available in hardback in the US. It had attracted a sprinkle of positive reviews from that side of the pond, but it was still (what is the euphemism for obscure?) ‘niche’.
I decided Felicia had made a mistake. She didn’t know I was a nobody and I didn’t know how to tell her, so I took the coward’s way out and batted the email to my publisher, quietly confident they would veto the whole thing. Actually they thought it was a good idea too and suddenly we were talking about booking flights.
Six months before of my first talk, I look at The Phil’s website to discover it has sold out. Now, I wouldn’t say I’m a terrible public speaker, when I do a talk it’s usually fine, but if I’m being honest I probably wouldn’t pay $34 to hear me. And so I develop a new worry, that I will come across as (what is the euphemism for disappointing?) ‘a work in progress’.
My fears are alleviated to an extent when I meet Elaine and her husband, Alan, a man with a heart of gold who patiently drives me from place to place which in a city carved down the middle by a six lane freeway is essential. One of the first culture shocks I get when I arrive in Naples is that everyone drives here because even when something is nearby, it’s miles away, such as the Barnes and Noble bookshop that looks like a short walk from the hotel on Google maps, but is in fact a long walk.
Here I spend some time with Jessica. She tells me about the work they do in schools and the local area generally to promote reading. Their store is small by American standards. By my standards it is palatial with two floors, escalators, and longs aisles of bookshelves almost disappearing into a perspective point. The energy and dedication of the staff make it a centre in the community. Jessica asks me for a recommendation for their next reading list, which I give. Before I go, I take some photos of Twitter friends’ books.
There are other differences too, like the sizzling hot waffle iron for guests to use in the hotel breakfast room. This would never happen in the UK – it’s too much of a health and safety risk, not to mention a fire hazard – but here in the land of the free, and light touch regulation, untrained members of the public are blithely dolloping batter in it to make perfectly formed American waffles covered in syrup. If my speeches are a disaster, I reason, they might never invite me back, so I ought to make the most of this. Pour confidently, turn the iron with assurance, and the waffle will rise. Try not to burn yourself.
Elaine and I emailed and spoke on the phone in advance. We sketched out the content of our talks, but she warns me we will be improvising and the events themselves would bear little resemblance to our plans. And she is right.
Elaine leads with a question, my journey to publication, my research, how I chose the artwork I based each chapter on? And I, mindful that we have 90 minutes to fill, answer in more depth than normal. And perhaps because I am in another country and the feeling of unreality never completely leaves me, or simply because Elaine is such a skilled listener, I am as candid as I’ve ever been in the company of readers.
People who attend both talks tell me that the first one was good and the second one was better. For me, the second is harder as I try to engage the enormous space. We also stray into new territory, I share insights that I’ve kept private for a very long time. (If not now, then when?) Perhaps something of this comes through.
Elaine is the perfect reader. She sees the tiny details you ached over, their dual meanings and thematic resonance. Moreover, she perceives things you didn’t notice you’d put in the novel. Best of all, she tells everyone she knows how much she loves your book.
The ladies of Naples are the warmest and most supportive readers any author could hope for. I wish every writer could have the same feedback as they gave me. If so, perhaps collectively we would write with greater courage. (NB, there were a few men too and I am grateful for that, but they would agree they’re in the minority.)
One lady bought me flowers to have on stage while I spoke. Another gave me some cards she’d made from her photographs of pelicans and the local landscape. Another had the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. Another who found the book signing queue too long asked my husband to sign her copy on my behalf: ‘Thank you for supporting Katie,’ he wrote in it.
Here is what one reader said in an email: ‘Katie, we just wanted you to know we loved every moment spent with you and so look forward to reading more of your future works. The book is terrific and hopefully, all of us will see you in Naples again soon!!!! Thanks for autographing all our books! Three generations of fans!!!’ (Grandmother, mother, and daughter.)
It wasn’t totally plain sailing. For example, I almost gave away the ending of the last season of Downton Abbey not realising it hadn’t aired in the US yet and was shushed by every person in the room. ‘Nothing bad happens,’ I added innocently. ‘Everything is fine at Downton.’ I also did that thing every author dreads when signing books: I spelled someone’s name incorrectly. It was the last lady in the queue and my concentration slipped for just a second, so I sent my husband off to get her a new copy. Sorry, again. I’m still embarrassed by it.
After the second event, in the lobby of Hayes Hall, I asked Jessica what she was doing for the rest of the day? ‘I have to get back to the store,’ she said. ‘Newt Gingrich is coming in for a signing.’ (Hmm. I wonder if he ever spells somebody’s name wrong?)
Afterwards I went to Elaine’s and Alan’s home for lunch with some of their friends. They’re all from other parts of America, or Canada, because Naples is a place filled with people who weren’t born there. The house has an international spirit, the walls covered in Alan’s photographs. In his garage for example are pictures of Buddhist monks and ancient monuments in Burma, anachronistic in a town where the oldest building dates to 1910 and large swathes of it have been built within my lifetime.
When most of the guests have gone, Elaine suggests we sit on the side of her pool with our feet dangling in it. After the heat and pressure, it is a welcome relief and a moment of stillness.
I started out treating this as work. Four days later, I feel as if I’m saying goodbye to family.
The car doesn’t arrive until 10am the following morning which is enough time for one last waffle. I make it with gusto, batter leaking out the edge of the hotplates. I turn it out. It isn’t exactly perfect, but it’s golden in colour, fluffy in the middle and delicious.
My appearances in Naples would not have been possible without the kindness and support of the following: Elaine and Alan; Jessica and Felicia at Barnes and Noble; The Philharmonic Center for the Arts; and my US publisher, Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, especially Gwyneth. With many thanks from a grateful writer, K x