Susan Orlean on Stagecraft (and How Writing Can Be Like Stripping…)

I just spent the past few days at the 21st Annual Book Passage Travel Writers & Photographers Conference. I was on a panel with  Andrew McCarthy, who made his name as an actor in “Pretty in Pink,” “St. Elmo’s Fire,” and “Less Than Zero,” and is now an award-winning travel writer for National Geographic Traveler and other publications. I also discussed the “Art of Attention” on a panel with veteran travel writers David Farley, Larry Habegger, and Georgia Hesse.

Book Group Pick: Lost Kingdom

Mahalo nui loa –  Hawaiian for thank you very much! – to the dozen or so book groups I’ve heard from around the country that have picked Lost Kingdom as their monthly or quarterly read. I’m truly grateful to all of you – from Liz Epstein’s Literary Masters groups (10 book groups in the San Francisco Bay Area) to Catherine Hartman’s lovely group of Stanford alum and other book-loving friends in Chicago to Jason Poole (The Accidental Hawaiian Crooner) who also organizes a reading group in Pittsburgh. I’m especially grateful to Julie Robinson of Literary Affairs, who organizes book events and moderates book groups in Beverly Hills and the Los Angeles area, for choosing Lost Kingdom as one of her recommended reads. Here are some questions to discuss on Lost Kingdom that come from Liz Epstein at Literary Masters. Hope they’re helpful and if you have other questions, I’d be delighted to skype or phone into your book group for a chat if my schedule permits.

Improv for Writers

I was at the bottom of a long wait list with faint hope of getting in. But just days before the start of a four-day improvisation workshop last month I got a call from BATS (Bay Area Theatre Sports) asking whether I’d like to join its intensive class led by the legendary teacher Keith Johnstone.

I dropped everything and did some swift scheduling improv of my own. I pushed an interview for a newspaper story I was researching into the following week and found other parents to drive my teenagers around. As it turned out, my last-minute scramble was worth it. It helped me regain my spark.

Book Group Expo: Shakespeare … or Sex?

Crowds of book group aficionados flocked to San Jose for the third annual Book Group Expo, above; below, author Frances Dinkelspiel debuted her book, Towers of Gold, at the convention.
dinkelspiel.jpg towers.jpg

There are conventions for everyone: dog lovers, tattoo artists, people who trade sports memorabilia, barristas, and hairdressers. They all have their annual gatherings to swap tales, make friends, and do business.
So why shouldn’t book groups have theirs? For the third year, an estimated 1,700 people gathered over a weekend in October for Book Group Expo at the San Jose Convention Center in California’s Silicon Valley to meet authors, eat chocolate, and engage in high (and low) book talk.
Some 75 authors also made the trip, including Andre Dubus III (House of Sand and Fog, The Garden of Last Days), Gail Tsukiyama (Women of the Silk, The Street of A Thousand Blossoms), Julia Glass (Three Junes, I See you Everywhere) and Will Durst (The All-American Sport of Bipartisan Bashing).
Since some book groups have started reading The House of Mondavi alongside King Lear, I was invited to participate in a panel called “Where There’s A Will….Shakespeare In The 21st Century.” And let me tell you: I felt pretty sheepish when I misstated the century in which Shakespeare wrote his plays. Okay, so I was off by a hundred years!

Book Reviews … and a Literary Reality Show?

Mrs. Magoo readies for her closeup; next stop, stardom as a cyber-TV celebrity book critic?
(Photo courtesy Mrs. Magoo)

In the fall of 2007, the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) ran a lengthy essay by Steve Wasserman, a former editor of The Los Angeles Times Book Review, titled “Goodbye to All That.”
It offers a fascinating glimpse into the dire state of newspaper book review sections and Steve began by tallying the vanishing coverage at major newspapers. To darken the picture even further, he then went on to correlate that with the exploding number of books published every year.
In the mid-1980s, he reported, about 50,000 books a year were published. Today, the total is three times that number. But the pages devoted each week to reviewing books has steadily shrunk, with entire sections folding in the wake of anemic ad revenues from book-related advertising.

The Wednesday Sisters and the Writing Life

Meg Waite Clayton and her creation.

For anyone who has ever dreamed of becoming an author, Meg Waite Clayton’s website is a delightful and inspiring place to visit.
Meg is the author of the bestselling novel, The Wednesday Sisters, a book about a group of women friends. They meet at a park in Palo Alto, California, in the late 1960s and form a writers’ circle. Along the way, as the war in Vietnam rages, American astronauts land on the moon and the Women’s Movement challenges much of what they think about themselves. They support each other through changes in their personal lives brought on by infidelity, longing, illness, failure, and success.
I loved Meg’s book in part because I was born in Palo Alto in the 1960s and the book helped me imagine what my own mother’s life might have been like at the time. I also loved The Wednesday Sisters because it celebrates the strong bonds and support that can be provided by a good writers group. And I am lucky to be a member of two such groups that helped me navigate the often treacherous waters leading to publication.
Long before I began the Wall Street Journal article that led to The House of Mondavi, I joined a long-standing group of women nonfiction writers who usually met every two weeks in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. We came to call ourselves “North 24th,” because we’d usually meet north of 24th Street.

Literary Salons and Book Groups

Book lover Liz Epstein guides groups through the classics; below, at Book Group Expo, panelists Sara Davidson, Po Bronson and Elizabeth Gilbert interact with moderator Sam Barry — and the book group community.
Top photo from; bottom photo from

If there is a modern American equivalent to the French salons of the 17th and 18th centuries, it may be found in the thousands of book groups that gather regularly across the nation in living rooms, public libraries, and local coffee houses to discuss literature and ideas – often passionately, and with a great deal of wine and laughter involved.
For those who complain that America has become a nation of non-readers, don’t try telling that to my book group, which began eight years ago and has remained sturdily and stubbornly afloat all this time. Some of our original members have dropped, to be replaced by others along the way. But we’ve almost always had a large group of about eight to 10 members, all of whom are mothers who love books.
I helped found our group with my friend Liz Epstein. Like me, she had recently returned to the U.S. after living overseas for many years. Although we both lived in London during the 1990s, we never met each other there. It wasn’t until our first-borns enrolled in the same kindergarten class that we realized we had a lot in common – including both feeling culture shock after returning home to the states.
The book club we formed as a result helped reduce some of that shock, partly through the friendships we formed but also by reading wonderful British fiction together, such as Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. Since those early days, Liz has gone on to earn a Masters’ in English Literature and to launch a business moderating book clubs called Literary Masters.

“Sex and the City?” Please don’t forget me!

Who knew such a dainty garden setting would occasion talk of “the two Ls”?

I’ve met a lot of wonderful people while touring to promote the paperback release of The House of Mondavi, but surely one of the most memorable was Helen Dufficy.
Helen, a lively 91-year-old who lives in a retirement community called The Tamalpais, came to the annual fund-raising talk and lunch for the Moya Library/Ross Historical Society in the small town of Ross, Calif., last week. The library is housed in an octagon-shaped building at the center of the Marin Art and Garden Center and is the oldest surviving structure of what use to be the estate of a founding family of the town. Tucked behind a pond near the library is a folly that delighted our sons when they were small – a fairy tale house that looks as if it came from the pages of one of the Grimm Brothers’ stories.
I’d been invited to be the guest speaker for the fund-raiser and had fun talking about my book to a group of 50 or so people which included my mother, several of her closest friends, and neighbors – some of whom I bump into at our small town’s local post office nearly every day. The average age of the group was perhaps 70.
After my talk, we had an al fresco lunch by the pond, and I had the great pleasure of being seated next to Mrs. Dufficy, who explained that her late husband, Dr. Rafael Dufficy, had often been asked whether the nearby town of San Rafael had been named after him (in jest, presumably, since the city of San Rafael dates back to California’s Mission Era). Mrs. Dufficy had been coming to the Art and Garden Center for years. “I’ve loved this place since I was young,” she told me.

Christina Meldrum and Madapple

Christina Meldrum
Christina Meldrum

I read the galleys of my friend Christina Meldrum’s stunning debut novel, Madapple, over a single, rainy afternoon a few months ago. I refused to get up off the couch, despite the requests of my husband and sons, until I’d finished the last page. What a book! I truly couldn’t put it down. Christina has written a gripping page-turner that explores the dichotomy between religion and science. Reading it, I felt as if I’d entered into a dream state where nothing was quite what it seemed.
Christina began her book nearly a decade ago, while she was still working as a high-powered litigator at a big law firm’s San Francisco office. She would rise at five a.m. daily and write in the darkness of dawn for about an hour, her computer providing the only light, before heading to her San Francisco office. She had majored in religion as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, and then went on to Harvard’s storied Graduate School of Law. Although she had the drive and intelligence to be recruited as an associate by one of the top law firms in the world, Christina didn’t find what she was looking for in the practice of that profession.

“Friend-raising” for our public libraries?

Burlingame Library Foundation invite
Above, an invitation to Burlingame’s library fundraiser …
Image from
2004 Salinas library closure protest
… While in Salinas in 2004, readers protest “death of the libraries.”
Photo from

On Saturday, May 3, the Burlingame Public Library Foundation hosted a lunch that was as much about building community as it was about raising funds. As one of the organizers put it, the afternoon was an exercise in “friend-raising.”
Michael Krasny, the host of the San Francisco Bay Area public radio station KQED’s Forum program, talked about his new book, Off Mike: A Memoir of Talk Radio and Literary Life, published this year by Stanford University Press.
Michael shared his often hilarious experiences interviewing everyone from Bill Clinton to the Merry Pranksters’ Ken Kesey, detailing the journey that took him from host of a show called “Beyond the Hot Tub” in swinging 1970’s Marin (the county north of San Francisco best known for hot tubs, peacock feathers, and the self-actualization movement EST) to “Bay Area cultural institution,” as author Michael Chabon describes him.
Henry H. Neff, a teacher at the private San Francisco boys’ high school Stuart Hall, spoke about his experience writing The Tapestry, a series of young adult novels that our 10-year-old son, who’s anxiously awaiting the next installment, describes as “like Harry Potter, but even better.” Charming, funny, and articulate, Henry’s next book comes out this fall – news that our son was delighted to hear.