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November 3, 2009

Susan Meissner: Books that Speak Beyond Their Pages

Posted by webmaster
Susan Meissner, today's guest blogger, talks about being both a reading group member and a writer whose works are read by book clubs. She offers her thoughts on why books can make strangers the best of friends...and what she thinks readers deserve when they journey through one of her novels.

Susan is the author of
White Picket Fences and The Shape of Mercy, named by Publishers Weekly as one of 2008's one hundred best novels. You can learn more about her at

I was sitting in a cozy fire-lit room a few weeks ago with a dozen other women. Chocolate, mugs of coffee and glasses of merlot were scattered about our copies of The Help, and the book's mellow, butterscotch cover blended in nicely with the room's fall colors. There was laughter, tender moments, tense moments, and more laughter. A casual observer might have thought, "Look at those women over there, talking and laughing and listening to each other. They're probably at this bed and breakfast for a reunion of some kind. Probably classmates who've known each other thirty years."

Truth is, my book club is comprised of women who collectively have known each other less than three years. Some of the women are so new to the group, we don't yet recognize their cars when they arrive for book club.

But when we gather to discuss, dissect, digest a book, we come across as old friends who seem to have known each other since kindergarten. A good book can do that --- bring together the people who've read it into an immediate fraternity of souls, like survivors of the same hostage situation. I would venture a good book, read by a dozen strangers, could have those strangers exchanging email addresses one hour after being placed in a room with Starbucks, comfy chairs and discussion questions.

Consider this. A book like The Help, which is a fabulous book club read, is not just a book about a twenty-something aspiring writer in the early '60s penning the stories of Mississippi maids. It's a story about servitude, prejudice, ambivalence, ingratitude, injustice, grace, resilience, choices, desperation and dignity. A book that rises above its own storyline and makes us itch to talk to someone about it is why book clubs have made best friends of ordinary booklovers.

I admit, when I write a novel, I think about the book club readers who will read it, internalize it and then relive it in someone's living room or patio. Will they want to talk about this book when they are done? Will I be able to put enough flesh on this imaginary person that she seems real? Will these readers laugh with her, cry for her, shake an angry fist at her? Will her journey --- and every protagonist is on one --- matter to these readers?

When I was piecing together The Shape of Mercy, and more recently White Picket Fences, these were the questions that haunted me as I wrote. I am highly aware of the promise I make when I begin on page 1. You, dear reader, deserve a story that will touch you at a level that the morning newspaper does not. You deserve a story that somehow leaves you different than before you read it. I write to entertain, of course. But that which is merely entertainment is often quickly forgotten. I don't want you to forget what I write. And that means I have to create a story peopled by unforgettable characters. It is a tall order. But I love every minute of the labor to give you what you deserve.

An author friend of mine recently finished The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which I loved, loved, loved. She posted how much she enjoyed the book on an online writers group, and I couldn't help but comment on her post. I told her those characters are so beautifully real to me, I want to get on a plane and go to Guernsey right now and meet them --- 70 years after the war --- as if they are still living there. As if they were living there. As if they were living.

This is what I want to do for you. I want to give you characters who seem real to you, characters whose choices you pick apart while you sip spiced cider in a room full of people you may have only just met. Characters who make you think about things that matter. That keep you thinking long after you've turned the last page...

---Susan Meissner