Mission: Possible

Have hat, love books, will travel:
Adventures of a Book Club Buccaneer

I receive a short communication, usually in a digital format, but occasionally by phone. Most of the time the message comes from a person whose name I do not recognize. It’s better that way, I think; better for my contact to reach out to me anonymously before getting too involved. Once I’ve agreed to accept the mission and have received my instructions, there’s no turning back for either of us.

At the designated time I get into my car, catch a plane or a train, and head to the rendezvous. Despite having undertaken dozens of similar assignments, every engagement is a new adventure, different in every detail, and I try to prepare accordingly.

As I approach my destination my heart pumps faster. I double-check my coordinates. I arrive. I put on my hat. I’m M.L. Malcolm, novelist and Book Club Buccaneer. I’ve been invited to visit another book club, and I am THRILLED to be there!

Even before my first novel was published I was a huge book club advocate. My own book club experience grew out of a “play group” made up of five professional-women-turned-at-home-Moms and our five toddler boys. The play group disbanded on the day we sent our darlings off to kindergarten. At our official “farewell” lunch one of the other Moms turned to me and asked, “Why don’t we start a book club? We can each invite a couple of friends, and meet once a month to talk about books.”

She called me two hours later. “Have you talked to anyone about the book club yet?”

“Yes,” I replied. “It’s amazing. I’ve already talked to four people who practically leapt through the phone line they were so excited about the idea.”

“Well, we’d better stop there,” she said. “That makes fourteen people already signed up.”

That group became the S.O.F.A. Babes of Atlanta. (S.O.F.A. stands for “Save Our Flannel Attire.” Yes, it’s a long story, and yes, I’d be happy to share it. Just email me if you want to hear “all the gories,” as my Aussie friend says. But I digress….)

At first we S.O.F.A. Babes were a friendly bunch, but not necessarily a tightly-knit group of friends; in fact the bonds of friendship within our group sometimes shifted like the orbit of an aggravated electron circling the nucleus of an unstable atom. But the focus of our interaction was always our love of books, and our desire to share them with people with whom we felt comfortable. Meeting regularly to discuss books gave each of us a sense of community, an experience sorely lacking in modern life.

Through our mutual love of reading, the synergy of our individual relationships created an entity that was much more than the sum of its sometimes discordant parts. Over time the S.O.F.A. Babes became more than just a reading group. We were there for each other during many personal trials and tribulations, including the death of one of our members from cancer. Being a member of that group enhanced my life in inestimable ways.

When my first novel was published I made a determined effort to reach out to book clubs. I’ve spoken to clubs that have just started, and to others that have been going strong for years. One of my favorite clubs refers to itself as, “A Drinking Club with a Reading Problem.” Another one of my favorites is, “The Burned Out Sisters,” who live near San Diego. These women all lost their homes in the devastating Scripps Ranch fire in 2003, and formed a cooperative to help negotiate with insurance companies, construction firms, and the governing powers that supervised everything while they rebuilt their homes. When their houses were finished, they decided that they all liked each other so much, they didn’t want their regular meetings to end. So, they formed a book club. I’ve been invited twice to visit with “The Burned Out Sisters,” and feel privileged to now call some of these wonderful women my friends.

Not every book club is made up of soul sisters or life long friends, but my experience has taught me that books bring people together in wonderful ways. And being in a book club often gets you out of your comfort zone in terms of what you normally like to read, so that you expand your literary horizons (one of the few positive modes of expansion available to “women of a certain age”). In addition, participating in a book club is something you do for yourself, at a time in life when many women spend much of their time doing things for others. A book club can function as a social and intellectual oasis.

Perhaps one of the reasons that my “clubbing” has been so successful is that I write historical fiction with a lot of depth, so that my books provide a lot of good fodder for conversation. My first novel, “Heart of Lies,” is set in the tumultuous time between the two World Wars. It’s about a young Hungarian, Leo Hoffman, who inadvertently involves himself in an international counterfeiting scheme. Falsely accused of murder, he flees with his lover to Shanghai, the only place he can go without a passport or a visa, only to discover that the gangsters who run the decadent city from the shadows do not intend to let him outrun his past.

Because everything that happens in the book is based on actual historical events as well as my husband’s family history, and because the characters are often forced into situations where survival requires them to make choices that are never cut-and-dried, there’s always a lot to talk about. Controversy begets conversation. When readers find out that the book is based on by real events, they often become willing to share their personal stories, which as an author I find fascinating and inspiring. In addition, I always encourage extreme candor, and I love provocative questions; my interaction with readers invariably enables me to improve my writing.

My second novel, “Heart of Deception” won ForeWord Magazine’s silver medal for Historical Fiction Book of the Year in 2009 (under its original title, “Deceptive Intentions”), and will be reissued by Harper Collins next year. It continues the story of Leo Hoffman and his family, so I’m hoping it will inspire lots of good conversations as well.

Then there’s my hat collection, which provides its own source of entertainment. I own at least fifty hats, and love to wear them. Despite the fact that a hatbox is an awkward piece of luggage with which to travel by plane, I seldom travel without at least one hat. In fact, if I’m in an airport toting a hat box, there’s a good chance I’m going to a meeting or event that has to do with books!

I love visiting with readers so much that my husband (whose previous job involved a lot of international travel) gave me all of his frequent flyer miles so that I can fly all over the country to visit book clubs. Using these miles, I’ve been to visit over forty clubs in eight states, often visiting clubs I knew nothing about other than the fact that at least one of their members had read my book and liked it, and that the club had issued me an invitation. I have not had one bad experience; to the contrary, I’ve met with several clubs I wish I could’ve joined!

I’ve had so much fun visiting clubs that, with the blessing of my publisher, Harper Collins, we’ve started a new program. It’s called, “Buy the Book, Get the Author FREE!” I’ll visit any book club within a two-hour drive of any major airport in the U.S. If the meeting is organized through an independent book store, my publisher will even pay for the wine! All we ask is for a commitment to purchase 20 books. If a visit isn’t feasible I’m always happy to Skype or conference call into a meeting, and/or answer questions in advance via email.

If you are in a book club or just love to read, I would love to hear from you. Please email me at mlmalc@aol.com, and check out my website, www.MLMalcolm.com. That’s me: M.L. Malcolm, Book Club Buccaneer: love hats, love books, will travel!

Reprint with the kind permission of Marsha Toy Engstrom, “The Book Club Cheerleader,” http://www.bookclubcheerleader.com/celebrating.books.html

2 Comments

  1. Posted August 11, 2010 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    Hey Mary Lee, I started your book last night (Heart of Lies) and can’t put it down. Very interesting story. I’m trying to finish it by Saturday so I can pass it on to members at our Bayou Writers’ Group meeting in Lake Charles. I will definitely be in Lake Charles to see you on the 25th, is it? I want my 84 year old mother to read it so I can bring her to meet you. She’d get such a kick out of it. Thanks for checking out the blog for me.
    Lori

  2. M.L. Malcolm
    Posted August 11, 2010 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for your kind words! I will be in Lake Charles on the 25th, at the library, as a guest of the Southwest Louisiana Pulpwood Queens Book Club, and look forward to seeing you and your mother there. Don’t forget to wear a hat if you have one!

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