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July 30, 2008

Jennifer McMahon: You Tell Me

Posted by carol
Guest blogger Jennifer McMahon offers her perspective on discussion guides...and why she looks to reading groups to help her answer questions about her novels. Jennifer's most recent book is Island of Lost Girls, and she is also the author of Promise Not to Tell and the YA novel My Tiki Girl.

I am a waffler. I can stand for a full five minutes in the grocery store trying to figure out which toilet paper to buy --- those little rolls are cheap, but is it a good deal, and what about how often you have to change the roll? I could buy the 36-pack --- but then my cart will be full, and how will I stuff them all under the bathroom sink? And wait, there's this recycled kind --- what do I care about saving 85 cents per square foot when the fate of the earth is in my hands? You get the idea. I hem and I haw and I waver, whether it's toilet paper or the great issues of our day. The trouble is that I've always been good --- too good maybe --- at looking at things from all possible sides, at seeing things from others' point of view. It's been great for my career as a novelist, not so great for dinner parties.

So when it comes to my novels' reading group guides, it's probably no surprise that I hope no one ever asks me most of the questions.

When I'm working on a novel, I've usually got a question, or sometimes a series of questions, in mind. Who is this character? What happened to her? Who did it? Why? With Island of Lost Girls, the big questions were about the nature of forgiveness. So of course, into the reading group guide went "Are there unforgivable acts?"

An interviewer turned that question back around to me recently and I stumbled over my words, giving her a thoroughly confused answer that basically translated into "I have no idea." I write the book thinking that maybe it will be bring me closer to understanding, to forming my own opinion, but what actually happens is that I just come away with more questions.

But then, this really cool thing happens: I get to put some of those questions in the reading group guide. When I'm honored enough to be invited to join a book club that's read one of my books, readers inevitably have found things that I had no idea were there: themes and metaphors, patterns and surprises. And sometimes they use my questions as a springboard. So there I am, glass of wine in hand, listening to these bright, passionate people discussing the questions that baffle and intrigue me, arguing about them even, sharing stories from their own lives that my novel brought to the surface. It doesn't get any better than that.

---Jennifer McMahon