Authors and reading groups

February 15th, 2013

Talking to a reading group is one of the most delightful – and alarming – invitations an author can get. It’s much more intimate than addressing a festival, and they’ve all read the book. I was invited to a friend’s reading group after they read my Lovers & Liars . I asked them what they’d most like to know. The answers were:

1) How closely is the novel based on real life?

2) How do you write the sex scenes, and are you worried about your family/friends/ the postman reading them?

3) Who chooses the cover, and why did they choose this particular one?

These three questions are the ones that crop up the most often. Lovers & Liars was originally inspired by a friend’s divorce. She discovered that her husband had been lying to her throughout their marriage. However I soon went off on my own tack, interviewing psychologists, divorce lawyers and specialist domestic abuse counsellors, and reading expert books about domestic abuse.

I discovered that Tolstoy was wrong when he said that all happy families were the same but each unhappy family was different. Families affected by psychological abuse have countless similarities, which we discussed in the group. Abusers withhold money and affection, using them to control partners. They persuade partners to give up their jobs, wear different clothes or even have unnecessary operations. They undermine partners by criticising them, then saying ‘it’s only a joke’ or ‘I’m only trying to help you.’ There is often an air of physical menace, even if the abuser prides himself on ‘never hitting women’. Two women a week are killed by their partners. Some abusive partners will draw attention to these deaths over the breakfast table, saying ‘of course, the courts understand that a man can be pushed too far. She asked for it.’

Which brought us onto the sex scenes. Sexual abuse isn’t just about paedophilia. It’s about men – and women – belittling their partner’s performance in bed, telling them that their organs are undersized or baggy, making them have sex when they don’t want to, comparing them to previous partners, being unfaithful and then blaming them for everything. These are painful scenes to read, and painful to write. I researched them as I would any other scenes (talking to experts, victims and reading books), then metaphorically stuck my fingers in my ears, sang ‘la-la-la’, and wrote them, very relieved that my husband doesn’t read my novels (he’s strictly a non-fiction reader).

We also discussed how the issues in Lovers & Liars are reflected in today’s news. There is always a high profile case or a domestic murder where the defence is that the accused was under pressure or treated badly. Psychologists know that sometimes the person who is presenting themselves as a victim may actually be the abuser. It is a minefield. Abusers are very quick to blame someone else. They can be very convincing.

It’s hugely enjoyable for an author to talk about their book with a group who have read it, and are interested in how it was written. Book groups are generally very tactful about anything they don’t like, and generous about what they do like, so it was really heart-warming to hear Lovers & Liars described as ‘fast-paced’ and ‘compelling.’

Criticism often seems to be focussed on the covers, if they don’t think it reflects the book, and I know other authors find this too. What readers seem to dislike is when the cover seems to place the book in a genre, such as chicklit, that they don’t feel is appropriate. But, on the other hand, what is a good cover? Publishing companies spend a fortune trying to find out, and I try to explain the pressures they – and we, as authors – are under.

Finally, groups usually ask what books I myself enjoy reading. I always forget to prepare myself for this one, and find myself looking at the ceiling saying ‘Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel’ over and over again, interspersed with alot of ‘um’ and ‘er’, and, more worryingly, talking about Jack Reacher as a hero for today.

Have you got advice for talking to a reading group? And if you belong to one in Kent or South London, and would like me to talk, do contact me on Twitter (@ninabellbooks).

2 Comments already, do join in...

  1. anne stenhouse graham Says:

    February 15th, 2013 at 11:43 am

    This is a very reflective article, Nina, both because I’ve often thought talking to a book group would be daunting because the circs are really quite intimate and because of the topicality of domestic abuse. We’ve had a couple of authors at the book group I go to. Being yourself seems to work well, although even quite intelligent folk are over impressed by the fact of a published book.

  2. Nina Bell Says:

    February 15th, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    Thanks, Anne. I took a look at your website – it’s great. There seems to be a good writing community in Edinburgh.

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