By Richard Wiley (Korea 1967-69)
A couple of weeks ago I was invited to (and attended) a book club here in Los Angeles … the oldest book club, I later found out, in a part of L.A. called Westchester, not far from Marina Del Rey and Venice Beach … really just an couple of hour’s hike, if you were in the mood and had good shoes, from the western shores of our continent. So you could go down there and try to find Catalina Island on the horizon (which many of us know is ‘twenty-six miles across the sea’).
I was invited to the book club because its members had chosen my own recent novel The Grievers’ Group to read last month, and they had questions. By that I don’t mean questions like “How dare you write about grief? You don’t know grief from shinola!” but well-thought-out, literary-minded questions regarding my collection of characters (five women and two men), how I came up with them, what their backstories and motivations were … good questions, every one.
When I say it is the ‘oldest’ book club in Westchester, I’m not only talking about the fifty-odd years it has been in existence, but also that its membership is made up of septua-, octo-, even nonagenarians, so me being of the ‘septua’ variety myself, I felt right at home.
Some of the members — about half — were grieving themselves, over the loss of a family member… a spouse, a brother… so I was concerned that my quasi-comic novel might offend them, since my characters were wholly made up and often as irreverent as I am, in real life.
But no, they seemed to like the book, especially the parts of it that strayed away from the grievers’ group conversation itself, into what was going on in my characters’ ongoing lives. They very much wanted to talk about the pregnancy of one man’s barely-teenaged granddaughter, for example, and were interested in the fact that another had gone to prison for shooting the very lover she had … wait for it … joined the group to grieve!
One book club member said she had attended an actual grief therapy group for a while, but had disliked it because of all the handwringing. She seemed to want a “Let’s get on with life” approach, and when I told her that the working title for my novel had been The Mopesters she said it fit the group she’d quit perfectly.
There was wine and charcuterie, camaraderie and cookies, at the book club. I tried my best to sound knowing and erudite, but there are two reasons that I wanted to write about my experience with the book club in this essay today: one is a confession and the other, I think, is something truly great.
Okay, here’s the confession: When they asked me where I got the idea for The Grievers’ Group — a simple question — I drew a bit of a blank, remembering only half of how it had come to me. Maybe there are random septuagenerian neuron misfirings going on inside of me, then, that I should worry about, I don’t know, but I told them that I had first intended the book to be set in Las Vegas, and that it would concern itself with goings on in that unique city, when the original and deeper impetus for The Grievers’ Group was this: Earlier in my life I had read The Canterbury Tales as well as The Decameron — the first involving a group of pilgrims engaged in a nightly storytelling contest (in middle English, no less); the second a collection of seven young women and three young men encamped outside of Florence in the 14th century, and telling each other stories while staying clear of the Black Plague. So I thought, if Chaucer and Boccaccio can do it, why not me? I, too, would create a bunch of idiosyncratic characters and give them stories to tell, only the plague they would encounter would be that which makes us all feel so deeply and sometimes permanently bereft … namely, grief.
I wish I had told the book club members that, but I didn’t, so I’m telling it you.
Now to the thing I thought was great:
Two members of the club were unable to attend the meeting I went to. One of them had been unable to read any book for several years, due to vision problems. All of the club’s recent selections before mine, however, had had audio version available. Since my book didn’t have an audio version yet I couldn’t help wondering … was that the reason she stayed home?
No, it was not. She stayed home because she was ill, AND, she had ‘listened’ to my book even without a proper audio version, because the other club member who couldn’t make it that night, went to her home over the course of many days in order to read it to her aloud. An audiobook in the flesh, as it were. I mean, how great is that?
For me it showed a love of literature that I hadn’t run across before, and that I will not forget.
Postscript . . .
If anyone has a book club that would like to choose The Grievers’ Group to read, whether in L.A., Tacoma, Las Vegas, or parts farther away, I will do my best, if invited, to attend. No cookies or charcuterie necessary, though a cold white wine might grease the wheels of the conversation.
Or maybe we’ll just read it out loud.
Pop Quiz … Why do many people know that Catalina Island is twenty-six miles across the sea?
Richard Wiley (Korea 1967-69) is the author of ten works of fiction. His first novel, Soldiers in Hiding, won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1987. He has also won The Maria Thomas Award, and the Washington State Governor’s Award. His most recent novel is author, most recently, of The Grievers’ Group. He is an emeritus professor of English at UNLV and currently resides in Los Angeles.