Guest Post: Author Robin Maxwell Talks About Book Clubs

It is my pleasure to welcome Robin Maxwell, author of the new historical novel Signora da Vinci, as a guest blogger today!  Robin, a veteran of many book club meetings, shares here how book groups keep her on her toes.

robinmaxwellscan9smThe world of book readership has changed dramatically since I started back in 1997 with Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn.  That was the period of ascendancy of the chains, Borders and Barnes and Noble, and for Diary I went on an old-fashioned national author tour, speaking at more than 100 venues from coast-to-coast.   Now with  my seventh historical novel, Signora da Vinci, I’m on my first “virtual book tour,” reaching out online, with an emphasis on book clubs.  Not only did I sign up for two book clubbing promotions, but my publisher (who had me include a “Readers Guide” in the back of the book) did a third, and very large promotion geared to their list of book clubs.


coversignorafrontEveryone in publishing is well aware of the strength and importance of readings groups.  They are, along with literary blogs, the most vibrant aspect of the book world today. It means so much to me, as an author, that book groups are reading and discussing my novels.  I see the groups as modern-day “salons” that perpetuate culture and ensure that literature continues to survive and thrive in such uncertain times. I’ve done a number of in-person book club events, and a few remote ones — on a speakerphone from the comfort of my own home.  It’s amazing to be able to feel the warmth and excitement of the women exuding through the wires and the cold machinery.

I never feel nervous or intimidated in these situations because, first, I know my subject so well.  By the time I’m sitting down for a chat about a book, I’ve been living with it for at least two years (between research, writing, editing, publishing and promotion).  I know the characters, the period, the politics and the aesthetics like the back of my hand.   And since I’m not afraid to say “I don’t know the answer to that,” it’s rare to be caught with my pants down.  Of course, if I’ve been invited to speak, I can pretty much assume the group liked my book enough to have me there in person.  I can’t imagine getting an invitation from a club that couldn’t stand what they’d read.  I just expect that I’m walking into a sympathetic situation — six to twelve intelligent women who love to read and discuss literature, at ease in a comfortable living room.  And usually there’s a wonderful meal afterwards!

At one event —  it was a mixed group, men and women — a man, in a rather confrontational tone, challenged me to defend the actions of my protagonist, Grace O’Mally, of The Wild Irish.  She was a 16th century Irish pirate, rival to  Elizabeth I, and “Mother of the Irish rebellion” against England.  He demanded to know why, as a writer, I was sympathetic to Grace, even though after her historic meeting with Elizabeth, she had gone back on her word to the queen to fight on England’s behalf against all the world.  Grace had, indeed, agree to help Elizabeth in exchange for the release of her son from an English prison.   

This was a legitimate question, and not a simple one to answer.  I really had to think on my feet, because not only did I not want to look foolish in front of these readers, but I didn’t want to let down one of my favorite heroines of all times.  I offered the thrust of my defense — that Elizabeth was the first to go back on her word — on another crucial promise she had made to Grace.  But the man parried, refusing to back down, calling Grace a liar, and not worthy of the readers’ respect.  I thought to myself “This man may be a raging Anglophile who simply has no sympathy for the Irish, a people who had been invaded, colonized, enslaved and murdered by the English,”  but that was no defense for the question at hand.  So I went for the emotional argument.  I asked him if he was parent.  He said he was.  I asked “If it was your child locked unlawfully in a tyrant’s prison, wouldn’t you say or do anything to secure his release?  Would you make promises to that tyrant?  Would you go so far as to lie?  Grace O’Malley was one of the great patriots of Ireland, but at that moment she was a mother first.”  Maybe it wasn’t a perfect argument, but the man thought about it and backed down.  Thankfully, somebody asked another question and we moved on.

In the last book group I attended face-to-face, while we were having our lunch afterwards, and everyone was at ease, I learned something interesting about how some readers feel about the questions put forward in the “Readers Guides.”  There was quite a bit of complaint that some of the questions were either irrelevant or obtuse, or that they were only answerable by the author.  These women took pride in devising their own questions for discussion if they didn’t like the ones offered in the guide.  I think that’s wise, and if you do find yourself with an author in your living room or on the other end of a phone line, it’s all right to put forth challenging questions.  It keeps us on our toes.  That man’s question challenging Grace O’Malley — it may have been the most difficult one I’ve ever had to face, but it certainly was the most memorable.

To learn more about Signora da Vinci, which is about the mother of Leonardo da Vinci, check out Amy’s review at My Friend Amy, or this terrific review at Passages to the Past.

Robin Maxwell is the author of 7 historical novels, with an 8th on the way!  Her website can be found HERE.

Discussion questions for Signora da Vinci can be found HERE.

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