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BookBrowse interviews Librarian Terye Balogh of The Milpitas Library Book Group shares some excellent advice about inviting authors to your group, managing large discussions, and keeping your group engaged. about all aspects of their book club.

Book Club Interview (see full list)

Librarian Terye Balogh of The Milpitas Library Book Group shares some excellent advice about inviting authors to your group, managing large discussions, and keeping your group engaged.

BookBrowse interviewed Terye in 2010, and again in 2015. The original 2010 interview is below, followed by the 2015 update.

Hi Terye! Tell us a bit about your group

The book group first began in 1999. I took over facilitating the group in 2004. Currently there are 33 members. The average number of members that attend a meeting is about 17. This number has dramatically shot up since we've moved to our new library, which has lots of parking and a beautiful auditorium for our meetings.

Wow, that's a big group! Tell us a little about your members.

The ages vary - I would say from about early 30's to early 70's. The group is mainly women, but we do have 3 men in our group. I feel very lucky that our group works so well together. We have a nice mix of people. If I had to describe the personality of the group I would say, gracious and welcoming. I've been very impressed with the hospitality they have shown not only to new members, but to our guest authors as well.

What kinds of books do you read?

We read a great variety of fiction and non-fiction, with a classic thrown in once a year. The group enjoys reading about different cultures, different eras, and non-fiction of lesser known figures or events in history. I enjoy finding titles that got lost in the madness of bestsellers - lost gems, as it were.

You've brought some amazing authors to visit, tell us about some of them.

Khaled Hosseini was the first author we had at the library - this was in 2004 and The Kite Runner was just beginning to gather a huge following. I had just taken over the book group and had never interviewed an author before. He was very gracious, very sweet and had wonderful stories to tell. All of the authors that we've had here have been fantastic. Barbara Quick gave a very dramatic reading from her book Vivaldi's Virgins. Kate Moses charmed us all with her tales of researching her book Wintering: a Novel of Sylvia Plath, and brought to us an even deeper understanding of Ms. Plath's struggles. C.W. Gortner, author of The Last Queen, was another crowd pleaser. He had some wonderful stories about the life of Juana of Castile.

Image right: Barbara Quick
Image left: Kate Moses

How do you structure the meetings with an author present?

I introduce the author to the group, reading biographical information on them, and then start off the discussion with a question or two. The event is also opened to the public and the audience is invited to ask questions or give comments to the author. I act as a host, making sure everyone gets heard.

How does having the author present affect the readers' experiences or opinions of the book?

I have seen instances where a visit by an author has completely transformed readers' perceptions of the book. A book that they may have thought of as unbelievable, or a subject too sad, suddenly becomes a book that they adore and cherish. I think we all come away with a new and greater appreciation for the craft of writing after an author visit. All of the authors speak very passionately about their characters, with reverence and awe. And with each author, we learn something different about the writing process.

Tell us about some of the books that have generated the most interesting discussions?

The first book that comes to mind is Bold Spirit : Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America by Linda Hunt. This is a true story of an immigrant mother of eight, who in 1896, reads about a dare from an anonymous sponsor, promising $10,000 to the first woman to walk across the United States. All aspects of her journey were extremely fascinating, but the ending was heartbreaking. Her family, seeing her as selfish and willful and not appreciating the sacrifices she made for her family, never talked about this event in her life. A distant relative found her long lost journal and published the story. This brought forth a wonderful discussion of the appreciation of our ancestors, with many members sharing stories of forgotten triumphs their family members undertook.

What types of books do you think make the best discussions?

I find that the books with the most conflict, and really well-defined characters lend themselves best to discussion. Lesser-known books tend to garner more discussion as well; as we discuss the merits of this little know gem, we all share a sense of discovery. We have read a great variety of topics: pioneer women, gambling men, tales of life in far and distant lands, adventures from present day and long ago. With each of these books, there is the sense of learning something new, of connecting with a topic not before known, or finding a character we haven't encountered before makes for a great discussion.

Any that haven't proved to be such great discussion-starters?

One that didn't work in a discussion format would probably be The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. While we all loved the book, we found it hard to discuss. The characters were interesting, the story very good, but it was as if we enjoyed it too much to break it down and dissect it amongst ourselves.

Are there any books that bombed? If so, why do you think they did?

One book that did not go over well at all was My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk. The story was interesting, but difficult to follow, as there were too many voices in the book. A dog, the color red and a murdered artist were just a few of the voices of the book. The book was also printed in rather small print, making it that much harder to read.

Another book that the group continues to bring up as an example of a book they didn't like is Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I was rather surprised at the reaction. This is one of my favorite books, but many in the group had a hard time liking Ignatius J. Reilly. When I shared information about the author there was a newfound sympathy for Mr. Toole's life, but still not much for poor Ignatius. I also tried Timothy, or, Notes of an Abject Reptile by Verlyn Klinkenborg. This story told from the point of view a tortoise was not a crowd pleaser. It was, not surprisingly, slow.

Can you tell us about how you encourage discussion and participation from your members? It must be a challenge with such a large group?

I learned a great lesson in participation from another book group leader. There was a woman in her group that didn't join in the discussions. As leader she was asked by the other members to talk to the woman and tell her she needed to participate. When she spoke with her she learned that the woman had suffered a great loss in her family, and by being in the group she was able to feel a part of something. She enjoyed the books that were selected and she enjoyed hearing the discussions, but through her grief was unable to bring her self to join in.

I like the idea of creating a place where someone can feel comfortable in the presence of books, and of book discussions. I have had members that were new to the English language and I did let them know that the books I choose might not be easy to read, but they stayed for awhile, learning the art of discussion and the joy of reading.

Are there any tips that you'd like to pass on to other book clubs, particularly for libraries who are interested in starting a new group, or generating interest in an existing one?

Stop worrying if the members will like the books. Not everyone is going to like every book. The fun of this group is reading books you wouldn't normally read. The best discussions come from books that hit a note with the group, and that's not always ones that they like. It makes for a very boring meeting if everyone agrees and likes the book, as the discussion stalls rather quickly.

Don't be intimidated to ask an author to your group. I prefer to ask the authors directly, usually through their website. This garners a faster response and it's so much easier to coordinate when you're not going through a publisher or publicist. Authors love to talk to readers. Every author I've had at our group has been tremendously thankful for book groups.

Mix things up a bit. Present a wide variety of books to read. Have a book/movie tie-in. We read The Ox-Bow Incident and then later in the week showed the movie in the library. It was very enjoyable. For the months where you usually have low attendance (August and December for us) do something different. In the past we've read plays, and now we're doing book chats; a topic is given and everyone reads a book on that topic, fiction or non-fiction and then shares the book with the group.

Use your local independent bookstore! I've enjoyed a great relationship with Books Inc. Though not in Milpitas, the store in Mountain View has been invaluable. From book suggestions, author suggestions, a generous discount and being available for our author visits to sell copies of the authors book, I would not have the success I've had if it weren't for them!

For libraries, make good use of your Friends groups. The Friends of the Milpitas Library group has been extremely helpful. They purchase the books for our group and they also provide the honorarium for our authors.

Excellent advice! Your group sounds wonderful. Thank you, Terye, for sharing your experiences with our members.

In August 2015 BookBrowse checked in with Terye to find out what the club's been up to recently:

Hi Terye, It's been a few years since we chatted. How is the club doing?

Our book group is doing well. A year ago we lost a beloved member, Hugh, who died suddenly while out hiking. His early death certainly touched us all, and he is indeed missed as he was so humorous and so knowledgeable. Hugh certainly kept me on my toes when I was researching a book for our group, as I was determined to find some fact that he wasn't aware of!

Our numbers have stayed the same, with some members moving off, and  new members added. I still count myself incredibly lucky to have such a wonderful group of readers who continue to show kindness and enthusiasm to new members. And our Friends group is still a huge asset, purchasing our books for the group, which makes it easy for member  to get a hold of a book we're reading.

Interesting you say that about the Friends group as in our recent survey we found that three-quarters of Friends of the Library members are in a book club! I hear your book club hosted Karen Joy Fowler recently. Do you publicize author events so that all library patrons are aware of them, or are they exclusively for the book group participants?

When I invite authors to speak at our book group, I always let them know that I will be opening up the event to the public. I also let them know the size of the book group and invite them to attend on the regular date that the book group meets. This is because I can count on members to be available on that date so I usually can guarantee a group of 16, which is the average number of members that attend our meetings. The authors that have spoken at our book group often say that they really enjoy speaking to book groups that have read their book, as they know they're going to be in for a very lively discussion.

Do the dynamics of the group change when people from outside attend the author events?

At the opening of the meeting, before introducing the author, I explain that while this is a book group event, it is open to all. I give some background as to how the event will run - the key detail being that I will be asking the author questions, but that at any time if someone has a question or a comment they are free to raise their hand and I will call on them. I want to make sure that everyone understands that this event is put on by the book group, but not exclusive to the group.

I'm very happy to report that our loyal book group base continues to be supportive of all that wish to ask questions or comment. I always look out into the audience for people that are new to an author event to see if they have questions. I want all to have a great time and to feel included.

How do you spread the word so patrons know when an author is attending?

Within the community, we make up flyers to put in various locations, such as Starbucks, Peets, and the Senior Center. In the library, we will have flyers up, with quarter sheets that the patron can take home. We put the information up on the outside electronic bulletin board and also broadcast it on the inside electronic bulletin board, which, is on a TV screen, and is situated in the checkout area. I also let the other branches know of upcoming author programs, and the events are prominently promoted within the Santa Clara County Library website and Facebook page.

With Karen Joy Fowler, we beefed up our publicity quite a bit. I had already contacted Glen Robbe at Books Inc. in Mountain View to be on hand to sell Ms. Fowler's books at the program and asked him if it would be possible for Books Inc. to promote the event on their website. I was thrilled when he agreed to do so. There is a relatively new position at headquarters that is responsible for publicizing events, so my supervisor was instrumental in reaching out to them to spread the word. We had articles in the San Francisco Chronicle which brought in some people from outside our normal Milpitas/San Jose area. I did reach out to Bookshop Santa Cruz to see if they could publicize it as she was speaking there a couple of days before our event, but their policies prevented this. Never hurts to ask though!

How do you go about approaching high profile authors to visit?

I was nervous having Karen Joy Fowler speak to the library. My first worry was that she wouldn't be able to attend. I wrote to her a year ago, in the summer of 2014, way before she was nominated for a Man Booker Prize, and was thrilled when she accepted. Then, when she was nominated, I couldn't shake this sense of dread that she wouldn't be able to make it due to her hectic and demanding schedule. I was so relieved when she said that she would indeed be able to attend our program.

Then reality hit, and I began to have new worries. I read everything I could get my hands on about her, her work, the book We are All Completely Beside Ourselves (which was the one we were going to be reading) and all the excitement surrounding her nomination.

How do you interview someone that has been interviewed by NPR, and every other newspaper out there? I was nervous when Mary Roach came to our book group, as the thought of having to follow a Jon Stewart interview was daunting, but this…yikes!

Add to that, that I suddenly became mute with the author. We take the authors out to dinner before the event, as a thank you for attending and also to be able to relax with them beforehand and to help establish a rapport with them. At the dinner, which included 3 other book group members, I suddenly fell mute. It was like she was a Beatle and I a star-struck teen. I was nervous that when it came to the interview I would just sit there with a blank stare on my face! Thankfully she was gracious and so easy to talk to that the interview went very well, and the audience asked fantastic questions.

Nerve-wracking indeed! Is there any central system for finding local authors? Or do you just keep your ear to the ground? And how do you go about contacting the author?

Oh how I wish there was a central system! I’ve contacted other book group facilitators in other library systems, and there is much interest in setting up such a system, but as of yet…nothing is in place. Sigh.

I look anywhere for authors. I will check book store websites, attend bookstore author programs, I look at different websites, such as the Historical Novel Society (which was very helpful in getting authors for the historical fiction panel) and the Woman’s National Book Association.  A book group member suggested Karen Joy Fowler, to which I will be forever grateful.

I find that contacting the author directly works best. I will send them an email and ask if they are available for a speaking engagement at our library. I mention our fee that we provide and then give a brief description of our group  and that the event will also be open to the public. I normally start looking a year in advance for an author to speak at our library. I always presume that an author is working on their next bestseller, or busy with speaking engagements or writing workshops, so I like to give them as much notice as I can. Once an author has agreed to speak to your library, invite them to dinner before the event. This is a great way for both of you to relax before the event!

What do you consider a good turnout?

Hmmm, what is a good turnout…that is tough.  We of course would love to see high numbers. With the Karen Joy Fowler event, we had 35 in the audience. Which is great, but I honestly thought that we would have more due to the extra publicity. But when I looked in the crowd and then looked at the attendance (I have a sign in sheet so book group members can sign in and those that wish to join can leave their contact information) I realized that I had at least 15 in the audience that were not in the book group, and one person from Washington who had changed her plans to attend. So, I was pleased with the turnout. Another factor is that Ms Fowler's book of short fiction, Black Glass, was re-released that day and she was doing a lot of book store and book fair visits around that time, so that might have had a bearing on the attendance.

Do you find many join the group as the result of attending an author visit?

Yes!  This one of the benefits of having our book group host an author. I also find that some of the members enjoy talking to the new audience members and let them know about our book group, between the great authors and welcoming book group members, our numbers keep increasing!

Can you tell us about another recent author visit?

A month before Karen Joy Fowler visited, C.W. Gortner came to talk about his new book Mademoiselle Chanel, a historical novel about Coco Chanel, and I was very disappointed that we had only 17 in the audience. Again that was heavily promoted, but that week, for whatever reason was very light on attendance to our library programs. He's a huge favorite here in Milpitas and he was very well received, but still, personally, I wished there were more.

A couple of years ago I put together a historical fiction panel for our library system's Summer Reading Program, which truth be told, would not have been possible if not for C. W. Gortner and his help and guidance. This went to 7 branches in all, with Milpitas being the last event. We had a great crowd of 41 in attendance, but at other branches, it was a much smaller crowd.

I think the attendance numbers can be more frustrating for librarians, than the authors, or at least that is what I have heard from the authors that have had events here at Milpitas. At our events, I think the least amount I had for an author program was 12, and while I was apologizing to the author, she said she wasn't disappointed at all.

All the authors that have had an event with us say the same thing. They truly enjoy library events and enjoy promoting their work in libraries and with book groups because they have an audience where most (if not all) have read the book and are ready with great questions and comments. I think their expectations for a library event and a book store event are completely different. I make sure that we have a book store representative to sell their books, but not all libraries are able to do that (sadly not enough book stores out there!)

What advice would you give to other librarians?

If there are librarians that are hesitant to ask an author because they have a small library, or they think it might not gather a large crowd, don't let that stop you. Let the author know the amount of people you have in your book group, assure them that the event is open to the public. Honestly, I've never had an author ask how many will there be in the audience. In fact, authors have told me they've gone to other events to find only one or two people there. In the case of one author where that happened, she felt badly for the two people in the audience, but they were thrilled and the author had a great experience as well.

I also recommend Running Book Discussion Groups by Laruen Zina John particularly the chapter: Booking an Author and Planning an Event, that has some great information.

Thank you Terye. It's been great to catch up!

© March 2010.

If you feel that your book group has something unique to offer, and you would like to tell others about it, please contact us with brief details, and maybe we can feature you in the future.

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