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Conversations With Myself: An Author’s Guide to Writing Reading Group Guides

By posted at 6:00 am on June 13, 2012 4

Back when I was a reporter at Premiere magazine, I attended a screening of Pedro Almodóvar’s film, Talk to Her, and received one of his famous press notes packages. Almodóvar is known for conducting “auto entrevistas” (self interviews), in which he asks himself pointed and occasionally self-flattering questions about his latest movie. For example:

Q: From now on, we’ll have to say that as well as being a good director of actresses you’re also a good director of actors. The leading characters in Talk To Her are two men and the actors who play them are splendid.

A: I’m delighted it’s you who’s said that.

I remember being amused by these schizophrenic conversations, in which Almodóvar played both interviewer and interviewee. (I imagined the chatty Spanish director in a mad dash, back and forth between two chairs, swapping roles.) At the time, the whole notion of a self interview seemed absurd to me, but now I see the benefits. As Almodóvar put it, “The reason I interview myself is for practical reasons. I say what I want to say and in the fastest way possible. In any case, a self interview is a written piece and writing is always done in solitude.”

coverI frequently thought of Almodóvar while working on the reading group guide for the paperback version of my nonfiction book, The New Kids, chronicling the lives of students at a high school for recent immigrants. Initially, my publisher assigned a freelancer to write a first draft of the reading group guide, which features an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing book clubs and classes, and an author Q&A. While it was a solid start, I felt that many of the questions could go deeper. So I pulled out two chairs (metaphorically speaking, of course), and set about interviewing myself, figuring that no one knows my book better than I do.

Reading group guides can have the feel of an author’s conversation with herself, which is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your opinion of the author. In a troubled publishing industry, they can also be enormously helpful in selling a book to general readers as well as more specialized groups, such as book clubs and classes. In my case, the readers’ guide for The New Kids has played an important part in securing adoptions of the book by colleges, universities, high schools, and communities organizing common reading programs. It also has had the cool effect of inspiring others to write their own guides for my book. Recently, a high school teacher in Colorado who taught the book in her classes shared with me her own discussion questions that she had come up with for a New Kids curriculum.

After years of being claustrophobically alone with my book during the writing stage, it has been a joy to be able to talk about it with real, live humans who have actually read it. Since the hardcover publication, I’ve been doing events, readings, and visiting book groups. But I can’t be everywhere all the time, and the reading group guide is a way for me to initiate my ideal conversation about the book with readers who keep the discussion going.

As a journalist who has interviewed everyone from Colin Powell to Kim Kardashian, I am used to asking other people questions, but turning the focus on myself was a strange and reflective process that made me reconsider the very notion of what makes a “good” question. It also made me curious about other authors’ experiences writing or revising their reading group guides. So, I decided to ask a few.

Amy Sohn, the author of Prospect Park West and Motherland, a novel being published in August, is used to interviewing herself for reading group guides — she has been doing it for 15 years. “The best thing about interviewing yourself is that there are no ‘gotcha’ questions!” Sohn says. “The second-best thing is that you can be certain the interviewer read the book.”

covercoverOf course, not all authors interview themselves. Robin Black, who wrote the short-story collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, shared a conversation she had with Karen Russell (Swamplandia) in her reading group guide. My friend Ransom Riggs answered his editor’s questions about his young adult novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, for his forthcoming paperback, which also will feature photos previewing the next installment of the series. And Melissa Walker, another YA author, worked with her publicity team to revise a readers’ guide that was sent out along with advance reading copies for her book Small Town Sinners, which deals with a teen growing up in an Evangelical community that is producing a Hell House. “I think the publicity department knew this book would create controversy, so they wanted to present questions that would ‘normalize’ me and also make the reader really think about the content,” Walker says.

Some authors forego written questions altogether. Daniel Torday, who wrote The Sensualist, chose to provide suggestions for supplemental reading for his novella on a webpage created by his publisher.

coverFrances Greenslade, who wrote the novel Shelter, also took the conversation online, providing a reading group guide on her website that includes a “soundtrack” of songs that appear in the book as well as discussion questions. “I call it ‘Questions I’d love to be asked if I visited your book club,’” she says. “I like the questions my publisher came up with for inside the book, but there are things I grappled with as I wrote the novel that I think make for interesting starting points for a discussion. It’s always the stuff that challenges us that is the richest vein for further exploration.”

The authors I polled (myself included) represent several different genres, but we’ve all had a hand in creating our reading group guides for the purpose of enhancing the reading experience and inspiring discussion. Here is what we’ve gathered.

Did you write or heavily revise your reading group guide, and if so why?

Brooke Hauser: I asked my publisher to revise my reading group guide in part because I felt that some of the discussion prompts came off sounding like pop quiz questions instead of conversation starters.

Robin Black, author of If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: I wrote the Topics for Discussion part of the guide — for the paperback—because my editor said we should start that way and they would make changes as necessary. As I recall though we just went with what I wrote. They also sent me an example from another collection they had published recently and that was actually a huge help especially with tone. To me, the questions I wrote don’t sound like me at all—they sound like a readers’ guide.

Amy Sohn, author of Motherland: I revised my reading group guide for Motherland after it was sent to me for review, because I wanted it to reflect the questions I wanted the book to raise. Some of these questions were already addressed in the reading group guide. Others were absent. I also wanted to be careful not to give my readers any low-hanging fruit when it came to critiquing my work. I deleted questions I found facile. I edited preambles to questions that felt like misreads of my intention.

Reader-reviewers can say whatever they want on bookselling sites, but when it came to the readers’ group guide I wanted to raise the level of the discourse. Understanding that I may not get the deep, thoughtful critical reviews I seek because book review space is shrinking, I saw the guide as a place to do something about it. To ask questions that engage literary tropes, metaphors, themes, doubling.

Like most authors, I also heavily revise my catalog copy and synopsis and weigh in on what blurbs to use, because the copy ultimately reflects on me and I want to be sure it reads in a way that I’m happy with, a way that I can “own.”

What are the components of your reading guide?

Hauser: In addition to discussion questions and a Q&A, my reading guide features a section called Enhance Your Book Club or Class Discussion, in which I suggest activities for readers who want to engage more with the book’s subject matter. For instance, I suggest volunteering at a local office of the International Rescue Committee, an organization that resettles refugees across the country. I also recommend visiting Ellis Island and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York.

Sohn: Introduction, Topics for Question and Discussion, and Enhance Your Book Club. My book has a scene that takes place at a supper club or underground restaurant. One suggestion was for the book club to hold its own supper club. It’s fun to imagine some of the book groups taking these suggestions.

Black: In my paperback, there are discussion questions, and there is also an interview of me done by Karen Russell. They make a good balance, I think. The interview Karen and I did is pretty craft heavy so for anyone who is interested in going a little deeper into the nuts and bolts of writing, it’s there.

The other questions, the ones I wrote, are more for readers who aren’t necessarily as interested in the writing process. There’s also a third element that isn’t in the book and doesn’t officially count, but I think is important: I heard so many times that book groups didn’t know how to discuss short stories that I put up a guide to doing that on my website. I know this isn’t technically part of the book, but in some ways it has done more to make my collection seem approachable to book groups than anything else has. For any collections I write from now on, I will try to have something like that included as an appendix.

Daniel Torday, author of The Sensualist: Instead of a traditional reading group guide, my publisher [Nouvella] and I decided it would be fun to do something to harness the great innovative powers of the Internet. To go with each copy of the book, we created a beautifully designed bookmark that has a QR code that brings you to a webpage with what we called “Supplementary Reading.”

coverThe book was heavily influenced by Dostoevsky and F. Scott Fitzgerald. So, I compiled some quotations from The Brothers Karamozov that directly influenced my writing — the book’s main character is named after Dmitri Karamozov, and the book takes its title from a chapter in The Brothers Karamozov, called “The Sensualists.” We included excerpts from those chapters, some stuff from André Gide’s great essay on Dostoyevsky, and something from David Foster Wallace’s famous essay on Dostoevsky.

How did you come up with your questions and topics for discussion? Did you cull any from events, readings, or book club discussions in which you participated?

Hauser: I’ve been asked some great questions about my book by readers, especially book club members who have invited me to participate in their discussions in person or via an email interview. So, when it came time to write my reading guide, I included a few of their best questions in an extended guide that I posted online. One of my favorite questions was about why most of the “main characters” in the book were students who either lived alone or had little parental guidance. That connection hadn’t occurred to me before a reader pointed it out.

Sohn: My editor drafted the initial questions, and I added a few that were more thematic. The questions didn’t gel with questions I have been asked at readings because people who attend my readings ask incredibly personal questions: “Do you like being a mother?” or else want to know about how to get their own books published or get an agent.

Frances Greenslade, author of Shelter: From visiting book clubs, I was pleasantly surprised to find that readers view the characters in Shelter very much as real people. I see them this way, too.  So, I like to ask who they identify with most and why. Readers are quite divided on their sympathy for the mother in Shelter, for example. It’s interesting to explore those conflicting views of her.

Black: I stole a few questions from interviews, just recasting them. And then I also threw in a few things that no one had ever asked me but that I wished they had. I also looked for common elements between the stories so the book could be discussed as a whole; and actually a couple of the ones I found surprised me—like that it’s a book about loss but almost nobody cries. When I realized that, I was curious myself about what other ways I had represented grief if there are so few tears shed—so I put the question in.

What do you think makes a thought-provoking prompt? Did you ever find it strange interviewing yourself, if in fact you did?

Hauser: My book is divided into three parts, loosely reflecting the arc of the students’ journeys as they adapt to life in this country: Passages, Between Worlds, and Almost American. At the eleventh hour, I panicked about the title “Almost American,” worrying it could imply the students were somehow “less than,” when really I meant that becoming American is in and of itself a journey (a legal journey or a psychological one, for instance). I thought about changing the title, but my editor convinced me not to, and I’m glad I listened, because it led to a great question: “What does it mean to be almost American? What does ‘being American’ mean to you?”

Greenslade: I think the most thought-provoking questions come from comparisons with our own experience. I hope that reading broadens my view of the world and makes me look at my own firm convictions a bit differently. I like a book to unsettle me a little, so questions that peer into that unsettled feeling interest me. Questions about the characters’ choices and motivations usually lead to good discussions.

coverSohn: Every writer has her ideal review. This doesn’t mean a rave. It means a review that looks at what the author was trying to accomplish and tries to weigh how she succeeded. I got a mixed review of my first novel, Run Catch Kiss, that nonetheless pleased me because it seemed to look at my intention: Did the book work as generation-specific satire?

To me, a thought-provoking question is one that addresses the author’s goals and the subtext of the novel but doesn’t weigh in on the morality of the characters. I don’t find “Did you like or didn’t you like ___ character?” questions to be very insightful as a reader myself, though they make for lively discussions in book groups. I prefer “What is the author trying to say about _____?” or  “How does ___ theme play out in the novel?” or “Where do you see the characters going at the end?”

Black: I think thought-provoking questions are ones that help readers feel some creative ownership in the work. That means that the best questions have no definitive answers. You aren’t testing the readers’ knowledge of the work, you’re trying to get them engaged in discussion—which often means debate. So, I tried to look for points of ambiguity in my stories and direct the readers toward those.

I didn’t exactly see it as interviewing myself. I saw it as a way of helping other people find a creative path into the work. That’s how fiction stays alive once it’s written. By having other people continue to wrestle with it, question it, as they read. I tried to craft questions with that in mind.

coverTorday: The idea [of providing a reading syllabus online] was that presenting readers with material for book group discussion would be a more exciting prompt than being too heavy-handed in asking questions directly. The most exciting material we unearthed was a letter from Fitzgerald to his daughter, imploring her to read The Brothers Karamazov, which he called the “masculine influence” on The Great Gatsby. Here I had written a book in which the characters read Gatsby and then literally visit the site of a mansion in Baltimore where Fitzgerald and Zelda lived for years. And one of those characters believed himself to basically be a character out of a Dostoevsky novel.

So, in a way, I guess the question in a traditional readers’ guide would’ve been just to point these facts out and say something like, “Isn’t that cool?” or “I don’t know what to make of that—what the hell do you make of that?” It seemed more fun, and apt, to simply present the material and let it do the work.

Do you have any advice or tips for other authors writing their own reading guides?

Hauser: One thing I learned through the process of revising my reading group guide is the importance of knowing your audience. In addition to book clubs, students at the graduate, college, and high school levels have read The New Kids. I tried to keep different age demographics in mind while coming up with prompts and questions.

Black: Try to craft questions for which there are no definitive answers. Try to engage the reader in an imaginative process. And don’t forget that reading fiction has this oddly social aspect to it. Readers form relationships with characters, so it makes sense to have a question or two that recognizes that attachment, questions along the lines of: “What advice would you have given to so-and-so?” or “With which character would you most want have lunch? Why?” It can sound a little hokey, I guess, but I think it’s important to have questions to which readers with different levels of sophistication can relate.

Sohn: Don’t talk down to your readers. Assume they read a lot and can engage with fiction. Think about what might provoke discussion but also think about what might provoke internal thought. Books move people. The readers’ guide should help readers to think and feel more deeply about the book.

Greenslade: Questions should be open-ended, not easy to answer with a simple yes or no. Go with problems that engaged you as you wrote and turn them into questions. Try not to sound too much like a literature class.

Image via Wikimedia Commons





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4 Responses to “Conversations With Myself: An Author’s Guide to Writing Reading Group Guides”

  1. Anonymous
    at 5:28 pm on June 13, 2012

    I think I’ll be anonymous, for reasons that should be obvious. I hated writing my reader’s guide. I think I always assumed that big publishers had rooms full of experts who did that sort of thing–ha! Along with the enormous publicity budgets…anyway, I found it really difficult. I admire these authors for taking the task on so cheerfully. For myself, I felt oddly unqualified, even mystified, like a swimmer in a river who was being asked to describe what she looks like from a vantage point on the shore. I was writing my book from the inside; I couldn’t look at it from the outside.

    My experiences in book clubs have been both depressing and exhilarating. The questions I’m asked, and the opinions readers have, seem to be either incredibly stupid, or brilliant–things I never would have thought of either way.

    Even though I know it was necessary, writing my own reader’s guide, like most promotion, just felt so narcissistic, and required a skill set that I barely have. I’ve got a mental list called “Someday I’ll Be So Famous That I’ll…,” and this post reminds me that I should add “Never Have To Write My Own Reader’s Guide” to it–along with “Win a Booker,” “Be Paid To Go On Tour,” and “Be On A Out Of Print T-Shirt.”

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