Since the launch of That Summer in Puglia in March 2018, my events schedule has been somewhat intense (you’ll get a sense of it if you click on the Events page, here). However, until last week I had never had the experience of a Skype chat with a reading group.* With this post, I’d like to share what made it work, trusting it may be helpful to other authors and readers. Much of what I’ve learnt from the event I owe to my friend Alice and her fabulous book club colleagues, whose preparations were impressive. The group was warm, well organised, intellectually rigorous and wise – ‘visiting’ them was an absolute joy.
Around Alice’s table in Harvard, MA, sat 14 members of a 17-strong reading group (which makes it a relatively large one). I ‘sat’ at one end of the table… on a television screen: in actual fact, I was on the other side of the Atlantic, in the mountains to which I had escaped from London to write my second novel.
Alice and I last saw each other twenty years ago, when we completed a Master’s degree together. This past autumn she read That Summer in Puglia and proposed it to her fellow book club members, who took up her suggestion. She contacted me after that, wondering whether I might be open to a Skype chat with the group. This was nearly two months before the eventual call; a few days before it, we tested the Skype connection. We also exchanged by email some questions about the novel.
Tip 1: contact the author a couple of months (or more) in advance. This will ensure: (1) a higher likelihood of finding a date convenient for the writer and for a large number of group members; and (2) ample time for all participants to have read the book
Tip 2: test the Skype connection and your equipment in good time. I discovered that I had to use a different computer from the one I normally carry, for better network reception and microphone quality
Tip 3: (for authors) if you’ve never done an ‘author visit via Skype’, starting with a group of which you know one member will ensure it doesn’t feel daunting in the least
Tip 4: exchanging questions in advance by email is helpful to the readers and the author. On the night, only some of these questions were expressly posed, as awareness of them meant they could be addressed in the flow of conversation, out of which spontaneous ones could (and did) then emerge. This made it possible to get rapidly into deep discussion.
There were some lovely surprises:
- the call lasted an hour, but it felt much shorter. It was a real pleasure, and we covered a lot of ground
- the technology and the human warmth, combined, made it feel as if we were all sitting in the same room
- although participants were nearly 4,000 miles away, and the novel is set in Southern Italy, their understanding of, and engagement with, it erased that distance.
The group’s questions were insightful, their observations thoughtful and thought-provoking, ‘spilling’ from the world of the novel into the ones we inhabit. Someone asked whether the book could have had a setting other than Puglia, and the answer to that is, in many respects, no, but from another perspective, yes. In the story, Puglia provides the ‘framework’ which shapes and tests the protagonists; the region’s simultaneous bridging and clashing of contradictions – the result of its layers of history and cultures – are integral to the conflicts within and between my fictional characters. At the same time, those conflicts, those emotions, can and do arise at all longitudes and latitudes, though their specific triggers and expression may vary.
What other aspects made the event so pleasant and – dare I say it – meaningful for all of us? Here are some more pointers from the evening.
Tip 5: let all group members introduce themselves to the author at the outset. Putting names to faces, and in some cases mentioning something relevant about people’s backgrounds, helps establish a real, personal connection
Tip 6: to get the most out of the opportunity to discuss a book with its author, it’s well worth giving it attentive reading. It’s very much a case of ‘what you put in, you get out’ – insightful questions and observations are bound to elicit thoughtful responses: trust me, the author will be as genuinely intrigued as you are by the questions you pose
Tip 7: if cuisine plays an important role in the book, consider holding the discussion over a dinner which reflects it – it’s fun, immerses you further in the world of the novel, and makes the evening more memorable. Alice went to amazing lengths to cook or buy some of the Apulian dishes which appear in That Summer in Puglia. Another wonderful reading group I visited in London in October did the same (there, I could actually taste the orecchiette and the burrata).
In the novel, Puglia’s cuisine and wines feature for several reasons: they evoke vivid memories for the narrator; they connect characters and point to their evolution; they hint at truths the protagonists cannot face head-on; they are quiet carriers of centuries of embodied culture and history. For example, cartellate, the honey-dipped rosettes served in Puglia for Christmas, are identical to Crete’s xerotigana and to the diples of other parts of Greece, revealing the region’s Ancient Greek past; originally, they were offerings to the goddess Demeter, and, centuries later, to the Virgin Mary. These and other traces of Puglia’s multi-layered past are integral to the story, whose protagonist must ‘excavate’ layers of his personal history to be able to move on. (For more on the broader subject of why history in fiction matters, see here.)
Tip 8: arrange for the reading group to be assembled 15-30 minutes before the Skype call, so that everyone may be settled before you connect with the author. This ensures: (1) that all participants (the writer included) can relax and concentrate on the conversation; and (2) that the time available for asking questions is used to the fullest
Tip 9: continue the conversation among reading group members after the Skype call is over. What did you appreciate most about it? Which of the author’s answers or other participants’ comments added a fresh perspective of particular value to you?
Tip 10: thank each other by email the next day (if you can, provide feedback). The Harvard group sent me emails and photos overnight, expressing their enjoyment and warm appreciation of the event – and all their reasons why. I enjoyed and appreciated our encounter no less than they did, and wrote back to say so.
My first experience of a ‘Skype visit’ to a book club has been tremendous, and one I’ll gladly repeat. I hope this post will be helpful to you – whether you’re a fellow author or a reader – and encourage you to give the experience a try.
* I’m here using the expressions ‘reading group’ and ‘book club’ interchangeably, reflecting their common usage. Neither is to be confused with a ‘book sales club’.
That Summer in Puglia cover photo: © Salvo d’Avila; all rights reserved; reproduced with kind permission of the artist. Book cover graphic design: Edwin Smet.
Skype Chat Call video calls. Reproduced under free licence from Pixabay.
Photos of book club evening: courtesy of Alice and Mary Ann.
Orecchiette al pomodoro: photo by P. Turo, retouched by Al Mare, in Wikimedia Commons, reproduced under Creative Commons licence.
Burrata di Andria: photo by FM433, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence.