I caught up with Elizabeth Musser at the ICRS conference in Atlanta a few weeks ago. I enjoyed talking to Elizabeth about her new book The Sweetest Thing and book clubs.
What have been the benefits to you in having relationships with reading groups?
I love hearing from reading groups/book clubs! I find it so encouraging. I’ve received photos of different book clubs, each holding a copy of my novel on the beach or at a special meeting. Knowing book clubs are reading, discussing and enjoying my novels is an answer to prayer—I especially like hearing about discussions in which people of different religious points of view were touched by the messages in my novels.
Because my novel The Swan House (Bethany House, 2001) takes place in Atlanta and has several scenes which occur at the real Swan House (now a part of the Atlanta History Center), many, many book clubs throughout the years have journeyed to Atlanta and had lunch at The Swan Coach House (where a scene from The Dwelling Place is set) and then toured the Swan House. For years, there was a docent who took book clubs on a special tour, pointing out all the things that were mentioned in the novel. I have so enjoyed hearing from different book clubs which have done this. And it has been a special privilege occasionally to join a book club on a tour and/or for lunch at the Coach House.
Where would you like to see your relationship with reading groups grow? How do you think your goals can be met?
I enjoy interaction with reading groups and am happy to speak to groups by phone, skype or in person. Living overseas, it is harder to organize phone calls because I am 6 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time and often reading groups meet in the evenings, which is the middle of the night for me. So I’d like to figure out ways that I can interact—perhaps by answering a few questions ahead of time. I’d also like for the groups to be aware of all that is available on my website: discussion questions and lots of other information about my novels, updates about our ministry in France, a ‘my favorites’ page, photos from book signings, etc. www.elizabethmusser.com
I have a recently launched fan page on FaceBook which offers photos and updates about reviews, interviews etc. and interaction with readers: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Elizabeth-Musser/149546181768451#!/pages/Elizabeth-Musser/149546181768451
Do you have a set size a reading group has to be before you’ll talk to them on the phone or in person? What do you feel most comfortable doing?
I am happy to talk with any size reading group by phone or Skype. Since I do many speaking events when I am back in the States, I like to invite reading groups to come hear me if they want a more formal presentation. But I have often spoken to groups of 10-15 readers in a home or church setting or in a restaurant, etc.
Which type of book club meeting do you prefer? Why?
I enjoy all types of meetings, but I suppose I prefer being able to share a bit about my background and reasons I wrote the novel and then interacting with the readers in an informal question and answer time afterward.. I need a little bit of structure—I speak more clearly when I have an idea of the format of the meeting.
Do you learn about your book and yourself from book club meetings? If so what?
It is extremely humbling to hear positive comments about my novels from the readers’ perspective. Honestly, I at times get tingles running through me to hear that readers have been touched by my words, moved to laughter and tears, and have even drawn closer to the Lord as they contemplate the message of my stories.
I often hear that readers are also inspired by my life. That too is very humbling and a bit unbelievable to me, and it is clearly God using what I offer Him—in fear and trembling—for His glory. What an answer to my prayers. I love to tell readers that their gifts and talents too can be used in surprising ways to glorify God.
I really enjoy listening to a readers’ perspective on a character, a scene, a theme from a book.
Did you learn more about your characters than what you had originally intended? Have you been surprised by readers’ reactions to one of your books? Characters? If so, which ones?
Many times as I am in the process of writing a novel, I find my characters doing things that surprise me—as I delve into their personalities. However, I’m careful that they remain true to themselves—so sometimes those surprising actions get edited out. As an author, I need to know a lot more about my characters than I can show in the novel—for instance, their background, their likes and dislikes, their fears, their secrets. Many of these things come out during the course of the novel, but not all. Still I need to know so that it all holds together.
Oh, I love to hear readers’ reactions to my characters! Surprised? Well, yes. In The Swan House, I have a character called Ella Mae—she is an African American who serves as a maid in the 1960s South. I felt I was very honest about the unjust way she was treated by her employers—not unkindly, but condescendingly—and I feared that the society I was describing (elite Atlanta) would not look favorably on my honest appraisal. But quite the contrary, many readers have told me, in tears, that they had an ‘Ella Mae’ in their lives and family and that I described their feelings exactly. Pure love and yet a naïve misunderstanding of racial issues. They were thankful I tackled this issue through my character.
I chuckle too at how vehemently some readers express their disdain for villains in my novels—especially Jean-Claude Gachon and Ali Boudani in my first novel, Two Crosses. But even Spalding Smith in The Sweetest Thing has gotten some very negative reactions (well deserved, I must admit!)
Mostly I hear that my readers find my characters so real and they can identify with them—and this is exactly what I want. I say that although I write inspirational fiction, ultimately what I want to communicate to my readers is the truth—and that is accomplished by creating characters with depth.
Has your book club experience – getting feed back from reading groups – helped you in writing future books? If so, how has it helped you?
Yes, I glean information that I can use to help me as I write future novels—hearing what readers like most about my novels. I’m all ears! Mostly, the input I get from reading groups confirm that what I am writing is being well-received by my intended audience and I should continue in my goal of writing what I call ‘entertainment with a soul.’ Probably the comments I most often receive are that my novels deal with real issues and that I depict realistic spiritual struggles in believable ways. Hearing that someone has gained a better perspective on God or been helped through a difficult period in life by my novels makes me feel all the more responsible to communicate God’s wonder and power and my characters’ need for Him in ways that depict truth.
Thanks for your book club insight Elizabeth. I know how much I learn at book club meetings about the book, situations and each other. It’s very interesting to hear what you as a writer enjoy and experience through book club events. Really enjoyed meeting you at the ICRS Conference and learning of your novel journey.
We are featuring Elizabeth’s new book The Sweetest Thing at The Book Club Network. We’re having a give away opportunity on Monday, August 29th at 9p.m. Bethany House Publishers will be giving away 10 copies of her books. Mark your calendars. Thanks to Nicola Martinez, Edi tor-in-Chief of Pelican Book Group, for donating a Kindle to be given away on the same night. It’s going to be a fun, fun, night.
Until Next time.
The Book Club Network