Ron Longe joins us to talk about his 15-year-old New York City book club, and how they recently transformed their meetings into smashing literary salons.
Ron, your book club has been together for a long time - how did this all begin?
My book club has been together for 15 years. This group began when the 5 original members - Erin Hennicke, Shannon McKenna, Kathleen Purcell, Kim Bouchard, and me - all worked together at Penguin Books. The group started originally with ten members (others who also worked with us at Penguin). As people left the group, we hovered at 6 members for several years until this year when we wanted to meet new people and add some new voices to the group.
This year you decided to try something different?
This year we decided to shake it up a bit. We host a literary potluck salon in our homes, invite the author of the book that we've selected and invite other book clubs and outside people to also make it into a networking event. Since I'm a food publicist, I choose a cookbook on which I'm working and everyone has to bring a recipe from that book so we're actually featuring 2 books at our meeting - a novel and a cookbook. And since several of us are freelancers we've invited people from publishing houses, non-profit organizations and other outlets so it gives us an opportunity to network for new business.
What were your meetings like before?
In the past we always met at restaurants in New York, but with the economy as it is, this is a more affordable way to meet and there is also the opportunity for professional networking. With the guest author, it has turned an average book group meeting into a literary evening. We are finding that local authors are more than happy to do this as long as we can get a commitment of at least 10 people and everyone buys the book.
So, it's been nearly a year since you launched your new literary salon. Can you give us some highlights from your meetings since?
For our first meeting in January we invited New York Times Notable author Joshua Henkin to come to discuss his novel Matrimony. In addition, we invited two people from non-profits, a journalist from Shelf Awareness, 3 people from publishing houses, etc. Recipes for the potluck were from Anne Byrn's What Can I Bring? Cookbook, with an Italian-themed menu and Italian wines. That was a hugely successful evening that allowed us to interact with some other book groups, and brought three new members into our book club. I also got the opportunity to join a non-profit committee that produces The Toast to the Children for Children of Bellevue which is chaired by Top Chef's Tom Colicchio. This opened the door for a great networking opportunity for me and two of my clients became honorees for this big New York City tasting event.
Another highlight from the past few months was another literary dinner that we hosted for Christina Baker Kline for her book The Way Life Should Be. This book tells the story of a young woman on a journey to find herself and discovers her passion for cooking. So we cooked recipes from the book and served them at a sit-down dinner for 9 people and had a lively discussion with Baker Kline. The real treat came after dessert, when Christina read a chapter from her new novel Bird in Hand which just hit bookstores.
I love the cooking idea, tell us more about that.
I'm a foodie by nature - my father went to cooking school and my mother owns a bakery/cafe/catering business in Vermont. So it was my destiny to be involved in food as well. I am a food publicist and have worked with some amazing food personalities. Alton Brown, Rick Bayless, Arthur Schwartz, the late Sheila Lukins (who is like my personal Julia Child), Steven Raichlen, and Anne Byrn, The Cake Mix Doctor. And, I love to cook. I welcome any opportunity to have friends over to eat. By combining it with the book club meetings, it creates a magical evening of good food, great friends, and wonderful conversation. When we do the literary dinners, we choose a current or favorite cookbook and assign recipes from that book to create a menu. In addition to the work of fiction or nonfiction that we are discussing that month, we can also talk about the cookbook and compare favorite recipes.
Wow! That sounds like so much fun, but also a lot of work for a monthly book club.
We alternate the author salon dinners with our regular meetings and meet at restaurants around the city. We try to always tie-in a restaurant or cuisine that goes with some aspect of the book we are reading. When we read A Thousand Splendid Suns we ate at a terrific Afghan restaurant; with The Abstinence Teacher, a pivotal scene occurs in an Indian restaurant. Most recently we revisited the Jane Austen theme - our very first book 15 years ago was Pride & Prejudice - and celebrated our 15 years together by going to a wonderful wine bar where we had the opportunity to sample wines and enjoy wonderful small plates.
Has the dynamic of the new, expanded group changed significantly from your original group?
We were a little nervous at first since we are such a tight-knit group; we didn't want new members to feel like outsiders. However, everyone clicked immediately with the three new members. And all three new members like to cook, too. One of our members, Barbara, is a serious foodie like me and we go on some restaurant adventures around the city separate from the book club.
The original version of the group was always to get together to have a good meal and talk about books. Since we now all work in different jobs and industries, the book group has been an important way for us to stay in touch with each other over the years - and allowed us to remain very close friends. So there is the social element of the group. We all share a love of books so the book discussion is very important as well. So a typical book group begins with us all catching up before moving on to the discussion of the book. After the discussion, we end the evening by talking about what we are working on professionally. Since four of us in the group are now freelancers, the brainstorming and networking that goes on is quite helpful.
How do you choose your books?
We have always been very democratic about the book selection. Each member is assigned a month and the group goes with the book that person chooses. That's the one thing that we haven't changed with the new members. I think this is one of the reasons that we have been together for so long, because we never argue about what to read. And, honestly, doing it this way has gotten us to read books that we probably would never have picked up and enjoyed. Since we do the larger events with authors, outside people, or other book clubs every few months, we can remain true to how we wanted the original group to be but also shake things up a bit occasionally and meet new people.
What's it like having the author present? Do you miss the critical discussions you may have had in your more traditional meetings?
With the author there, we have to be more tactful in any criticism. The generic "oh that sucked" won't cut it. At these meetings we appreciate hearing the writer talk about his or her craft. Hearing the author's perspective on the book can dramatically alter what we thought about the book while reading it as well. It also brings to light themes and sub-plots that we may have missed. These findings usually lead to more insightful questions and not just a critical appraisal of the work. I would say that our discussions even with the authors present are still frank. We ply the authors with a little wine before hand so any criticism won't sting as much. (laughs)
Do you do something extra-special for the holiday meeting?
In December, we don't meet as we normally do. Instead, I host a holiday open house with my partner who is an executive at a major NYC nonprofit. Everyone in the book club comes with their significant others. The discussions somehow always come around to the books that we have read in book club and it's a great networking and social opportunity for all. Each holiday party also ties into a cookbook that I'm working on. A couple of years ago when I was working on the 25th Anniversary of The Silver Palate Cookbook, I made all of the classic recipes from the book, including Chicken Marbella. This year, I'm working on several Italian cookbooks, so the menu is set.
Without contacts in the publishing and publicity, or experience in event planning, how might other book groups go about inviting authors and making a real event of it?
We are very fortunate in this area. Three of the members do publicity, one is a magazine writer, and one does event planning. All it takes is a few phone calls to get an author and a couple more to get more people to fill a room. But you don't have to work in these industries to make this happen. Look to see if there are any authors living in your community. You can find this out by asking your local bookseller or by attending author events at a store. Also, many novels now include reading group guides at the back. There is often contact information in these guides - or on the author's website - telling readers how to invite an author to a book club meeting. Although less personal, many authors attend book club meetings via telephone. Authors want to sell books, so the one thing that we promise authors when they are invited that we will have more than 10 people and we require that everyone buys a copy of the book.
Thanks Ron. We love what you've done with your book club, and I'm sure it will inspire many of our readers.