Skip to main content


June 29, 2009

Carol Cassella: Why I Love Talking to Book Clubs

Posted by carol
Carol Cassella's novel Oxygen is the story of Marie Heaton, an accomplished Seattle anesthesiologist involved in an operating room disaster. As her life and career fall to pieces, she uncovers the fault lines of responsibility, betrayal and truth that can divide us, and discovers that conviction and love --- like oxygen --- can sustain us. "This novel is written with a clear, even hand, and the reader feels like a part of the heady world of high-stakes surgery.... Oxygen is a great read with some juicy surprises," wrote our reviewer on

Today's guest blogger, Carol --- a practicing anesthesiologist herself --- shares some of the benefits to personally connecting with book clubs.

People in the book business are always telling me who my readers are. Book store managers, publicists, agents, editors --- the demographics and stereotypes fly when they discuss where to shelve Oxygen, which blog or magazine or radio talk show to target. But after a year of meeting with book clubs all over the country --- in person whenever possible --- I know the people who are reading my novel way better than any statistics could summarize. I've eaten dinner with my readers. I've copied down their lasagna recipes, compared the relative clutter of our living rooms, discussed childrearing, aging parents and, of course, the miracles and pitfalls of our healthcare system.

Any writer, particularly any novelist, can confirm that the world of writing a book and the world of marketing a book are not always compatible. Writing forces you to turn off all those critical voices and get naked with yourself. Alone. Marketing, on the other hand, forces you to shut down your nurtured internal muse, change out of your coffee-stained bathrobe and transform into a cold-call salesman. And it might seem like offering my presence at book clubs is just more marketing in disguise. But book clubs fall into their own category entirely; a sweet spot in between the private and public life of an author. I'm not there trying to sell your club my book --- you've already chosen it. I'm not dancing around to avoid spoilers and plot twists --- you already know them. You've read Oxygen, or at least skimmed it to get to the meeting in time for the appetizers. You've entangled a bit of your imagination inside the black and white words that originated in my own mind. We are now, in a way, siblings. Or, better, co-parents of this small brain-child I produced.

Without your participation my novel would never really come to life. It's sort of a literary take on the Koan --- those famous Zen paradoxes designed to foster enlightenment: "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" "Does the falling tree make a sound if no one is there to hear it?" Can a book find its true soul until it travels the full circle from my keyboard to your mental movie? Sure, the same question might be raised about almost any artform --- paintings need eyes, operas need ears, perfume needs noses. But a book is a participatory experience too. I can only choose a few details out of millions of possibilities when I build my characters and scenes; a few metaphors that resonate with my concept of the story. Ultimately, I can only offer you a sketch. From there on it's you, the reader, who animates the child's face and shades in the particular hue of that blue sky or sunburned skin. I hand you the template for what has to become your own private journey.

I could add plenty of other benefits to personally connecting with book clubs: so far everyone has been really nice to me! They share their list of favorite books. There is always good food --- homemade, and way better than my cooking. I know one author who asks for the simple payment of a six pack of beer --- imported preferred, but only if you can afford it. I'm plenty happy with a glass of wine and a good chair, which I can provide myself if we're meeting over the phone. You pay me with fresh insight on my characters, their motivations and secrets. I hear what parts of my novel made you cry or laugh or rage, and what parts left you wanting more. I learn even more about the complicated relationship between doctors and patients. But the hands-down best payment is that I come away from your book club a better writer because I listened to you, my readers --- the critical silent partners in the art of fine story-telling.

---Carol Cassella