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  • Author Jenna Blum tells Blurb is a Verb: How Book Clubs Saved My Life
Author Jenna Blum tells Blurb is a Verb: How Book Clubs Saved My Life
Contributor
Written by
Sarah Pinneo
October 2011
Contributor
Written by
Sarah Pinneo
October 2011

SheWriters, I bring you an incredible success story by New York Times bestselling author Jenna Blum.  She helped march her novels Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers up the charts in the most amazing way.  I get shivers reading this.  Jenna, take it away! —Sarah P.

By Jenna Blum
When my first novel, THOSE WHO SAVE US came out, I was underwhelmed to learn I’d have to participate in my own publicity.  For years I’d heard writers bemoan the legwork they had to do to promote their novels and I’d thought smugly: I’ll never be like that.  
 
Then THOSE WHO SAVE US was published and I ranted to my agent:  Why hadn’t the novel been reviewed by the New York Times? Why had my publicist confessed, “I haven’t actually read your book”?  When my agent advised me to think how I could publicize the novel, I raved, “But I’m a WRITER. Isn’t it enough I WROTE the damned book?”
 
My agent, who’s French and inimitable, said, “Non.  Your publicist is overworked. She has 20 other titles besides yours. So go do whatever you have to.”
 
I did.
 
My publicity method consists of throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. For THOSE WHO SAVE US, I hired an independent publicist—a hybrid of a Jewish Audrey Hepburn and Cujo—to get the novel to Jewish audiences.  I did stand-up for the Jewish Book Council, schvitzing through my dress while trying to entertainingly explain why Hadassah members should read a novel about a German woman.  I stuck business cards on Starbucks bulletin boards and under windshield wipers.  I paid to fly to any bookstore that’d have me, from Chicago to Seattle to Minneapolis, reading to audiences of, sometimes, two: my mom and a homeless person who’d come in from the cold.
 
But like many things having to do with writing—the perfect sentence that descends from nowhere, the agent who takes you on after 47 rejections—what really helped was a stroke of Providence I couldn’t have foreseen.
 
I teach at Boston’s Grub Street Writers—the best writing school anywhere—and one night a novelist in my workshop, Chuck Garabedian, asked, “Would you consider speaking to my mom’s book club about THOSE WHO SAVE US?”
 
At this point, THOSE WHO SAVE US had been out a few months in hardcover, a.k.a. the Family & Friends Edition.  That’s who’d bought it so far.  I’d written the novel because I was in love with its characters and their stories. Anything I could do to get it into people’s hands was worth doing.  Anything.
 
I said, “Sure, I’d love to.”
 
A week later, I sat in front of Mrs. Garabedian’s house in my car.  I hadn’t been so nervous since interviewing Holocaust survivors for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors Of The Shoah Foundation.  Then, as now, I’d rung strangers’ doorbells and stepped inside.  Now, as then, I hoped my reason for being there would trump my fear of making an ass of myself.
What happened at Mrs. Garabedian’s book club was much like what happened in survivors’ houses:  everyone was as nervous as I was.  I walked into a beautiful living room.  There was a chair set out for me.  There was a pot of coffee and a plate of small cakes.  The difference was, there were ten women instead of one survivor.  And everyone had my book.  It was so weird to see it in their hands instead of in untouched stacks on a bookstore table.  It felt so good. 
 
I sat in my chair and began: 
 
“Thank you,” I said. 
 
Then I answered questions about my book for three hours.  What a privilege!  What a delight!  How long had it taken me to write the novel? Where did the idea come from? Were the characters based on real people? Why was there so much sex in it? What did my mom think about that?  Why hadn’t I used quotation marks?
 
By the time I left, I felt I’d made a roomful of friends. 
 
The next week, another woman emailed me.  She’d heard about Mrs. Garabedian’s book club; would I visit hers? The following week, I had two invitations.
 
The next month, five more.
 
By the time THOSE WHO SAVE US jumped onto the New York Times bestseller list two years later, I was speaking to three book clubs a day.  Drinking way too much coffee and talking way too fast, like the Tasmanian Devil.  But loving every second of driving to women’s houses, meeting their families, talking about my own babies—my books—and making new friends. 
 
Book clubs keep books alive.  My readers have passed my novels from hand to hand, mother to daughter, friend to friend. I still get bookings the same way:  women write via my website and ask, “Will you come?” And no matter where they are—MA, FL, NH or NY—I do.  By phone, by Skype, or, my favorite, in person.  Because my readers have given me a gift beyond even the bestseller list.  When I was a kid, I was fat and bullied by my peers, with the result that as an adult, I called myself a misanthrope.  “Writers aren’t supposed to like people,” I growled.  “We’re solitary. We’re supposed to be set apart.”  But really, I was scared.  I used writing as an excuse to hide.
 
Going from house to house, being greeted by strangers with smiles, taught me I really like people.  That as Anne Frank said, most people are truly good at heart. Every time I think of this, I say thank you to the orchid Mrs. Garabedian gave me after my first book club.  I still have it, and it still blooms.

 

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Comments
  • Patricia Gligor Promoting

    Jenna's personality really came through in this post. Besides being a gifted writer, she's obviously a kind, humble and honest person. Her gratitude to those who helped her become a best selling author made me smile!

  • maggie brooke

    great idea but i live in one small town with one small book club. there are five libraries in the region, though... maggie brooke

  • Meg Waite Clayton

    >Going from house to house, being greeted by strangers with smiles, taught me I really like people.  That as Anne Frank said, most people are truly good at heart.

     

    I so agree with this, Jenna. Really, there are so many intelligent and thoughtful readers out there. Visiting book groups is always such a heartening experience. And clubs are definitely what keeps books -- or at least novels -- alive.

  • Jenna Blum

    Hey, everybody.  Sarah P kindly notified me about all your comments (and was so awesome in soliciting this post from me in the first place!), so here I am to say:  I am BLOWN AWAY by your emotion and generosity.  It humbles me to have been at all helpful, let alone inspiring, and I'm so glad to see you drawing strength from the miraculous thing that happened to my book--and from each other.  It seems to me that goodwill builds exponentially.  My book club story AND this blog are proof of that.

    Write on!

    xoxo

    Jenna.

  • Nancy Dorman-Hickson

    Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful story. I am just getting started promoting the book I co-wrote with Joanne King Herring, her memoir Diplomacy and Diamonds, but yours was by far the most comforting advice I've received about how to go about doing that. I appreciate your sharing.

  • What a wonderfully inspiring tale of a "grassroots movement." Definitely makes the whole platform-building process less intimidating and accessible. Thank you for this delightful idea. I wonder how many other acclaimed authors have shared similar experiences? It'd be a blessing for any writer to follow in your successful footsteps.

  • Sarah Pinneo

    Jamie- at Blurb is a Verb that's always a risk! There are so many different contributors. Actually I emailed Jenna a little while ago to tell her that there were so many lovely comments here for her. But I got an auto response saying that... she's traveling for 11 days for her book Storm Chasers! How fitting, no?

  • Jamie Rose

    Sarah, really, it just made such a difference in how I feel. Really really needed this. Thank you for posting it (BTW, I realized after the fact that I sent you a message thinking you wrote the piece--now I understand that it was written by Jenna Blum.)

  • Sarah Pinneo

    I am so glad you all felt just as strongly as I did about Jenna's post. It really is inspiring.

  • Miriam Polli Katsikis

    After reading this, I'm going to order a copy of your book.  Continued good luck with sales, and of course, writing.

  • Lynne Favreau
    Wow. Thanks for posting this Sarah. To have such a personal, one-on-one or one-on-ten interaction with ones readers sounds like an amazing experience. These book groups, having given her words careful consideration, wanted to engage with her, ask questions, and share insights--how fulfilling and rewarding for a writer. If I ever get there I'll be sure to remember how beneficial this type of engagement was, for her and I'm sure her readers.
  • CJ Rice

    That's a fantastic can-do story and one for a writer to learn from. I'm a librarian, the quiet type, still I can imgine talking with book clubs about my novel and loving every minute of it.

  • Janet Oakley

    Very nice and heartfelt. When my book club said they wanted to read my novel, TREE SOLDIER, I was both flattered and scared. Would they like? Pan? After all, they are retired reading teachers and we read the most wonderful works, fiction and non-fiction. After a couple of weeks, I started getting emails about how much they loved the book. And when we sat down to discuss it a few weeks later, I was blown away. They wanted to recommend it to other book clubs in cities down the road, put together a book club kit for our local library. Four book clubs are reading it for this season. I look forward to meeting them. Maybe someone will give me an orchid too.

  • Tulasi-Priya

    All glories to you for taking positive action, on your own behalf, and on behalf of all who might never have read your book if you hadn't. I hope to follow in your footsteps, and I'm now totally psyched to read your book!

  • Carol Egbert

    I haven't read your book yet, but will...thanks to the fact that you shared your book club story.

  • Catherine McNamara

    I totally agree with book club sittings. This is part of my plan to make my book succeed too. Glad to hear it worked so well for you and looking forward to read your much-loved novel. Ciao cat

  • Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan

    I read your book, too, on loan from a friend who read it in her book club. Thank you for your honest sharing of your experience.

  • Virginia Williams

    I read Those Who Save Us a year or so ago--it was a beautiful book. So happy you shared this story.