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May 14, 2009

Meg Waite Clayton: Readers' Worlds

Posted by carol

Have you ever seen yourself reflected in a character in a novel? Meg Waite Clayton shares how some of the book club members she has met with to talk about The Wednesday Sisters (now available in paperback) have closely identified with the women in the story--- and why one in particular stands out.

Meg is also the author of The Language of Light. Click here to read her previous guest blog post.

Twenty years into a wonderful marriage and two months after The Wednesday Sisters was published, I accepted my first blind date. I agreed to spend an evening with a book group I like to call my gang; like on internet dating sites, these readers had never met before, but had arranged online to share a glass of wine together at an agreed-upon public wine bar --- with the goal of forging a literary relationship rather than a romantic one.

I'll confess to being leery of joining them: Was gathering with absolute strangers any way to forge long-term relationships? But this random group of readers who had no connection other than what my dad likes to call "geography suitability" and a love of reading --- okay, and a taste for wine, too --- was one of the most delightful groups I've chatted with.

When I stopped to think about it on the way home afterwards, I realized these readers weren't much different from my own book group, or than the characters in The Wednesday Sisters, for that matter. In my novel, the mere happenstance of someone reading a book in a park is the beginning of a five-woman friendship that lasts a lifetime, as they come to know each other first over discussions of the books they read, and later over sharing their own writing with each other. And my own book group initially shared only the same neighborhood my fictional characters do, although after almost five year years of gathering over books like Possession and Three Junes and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, we're all good friends, in no small part because of the books we've discussed.

My experience visiting book clubs --- in person, by phone, and on the internet --- suggests friendships built over books is as common as...well, as internet dating now is. Several of the groups I've chatted with have been newly-formed groups inspired to gather after reading the story of Frankie, Kath, Linda, Ally and Brett, my fictional Wednesday Sisters. But most have been meeting together for years --- often twenty or thirty or more.

I've joined friends who've raised children together like the Wednesday Sisters do, and found careers, and buried husbands and friends. I've spent lovely evenings with readers who've introduced themselves by saying, "I'm Linda, although my name is Mary or Sarah or Beth; Linda's story is mine." Or, "I felt just like Frankie did when I first moved here." "I was like Brett --- I loved science when girls weren't supposed to." "I know how Ally felt; I struggled with that, too, but it just wasn't something you talked about." One of the things I love about book group visits is that the talk is of all our stories, not just the stories of the characters in my book.

Perhaps the most moving story I've heard at a book group was from a self-described Kath. Kath is a character who has a misbehaving husband, and she's the one character most of my readers want to shake to her senses. This reader, though, said, "Thank you. I've never seen my story described before. It's an awful thing to think you're the only one who did what Kath did." She shared her personal story that evening with friends she'd been meeting with for thirty years --- a story that, despite that long friendship, she'd never shared. She walked me to my car afterwards, too, just to say thanks again. And I told her I know how she feels: Kath's story isn't mine, but there's more of Kath in me than I generally like to admit, and it's comforting to know that I, too, am not alone.

Ursula Le Guin says that readers "are making the world with you. You give them the material, but it's the readers who build the world in their own minds." My book group chats are always a reminder of the truth of this, and an affirmation of how many really amazing and thoughtful minds there are out there, building remarkable worlds.

---Meg Waite Clayton