National Reading Group Month – Special Author Event

Deborah BattermanA Celebration of Writing, and Reading!

By Deborah Batterman
It was four years ago, that the Woman’s National Book Association launched National Reading Group Month to mark the organization’s 90th anniversary. The annual celebration has become a way for chapter cities to honor authors and promote the Great Group Reads list of titles. This year’s New York chapter event, on October 20, coincided with the National Writing Project’s National Day on Writing – with #whyiwrite tweets flying fast and furious, more than 5,000 by day’s end – a serendipitous reminder that there’s no love of writing without a love of reading. About fifty WNBA-NYC members and guests turned out for the National Reading Group Month event, held at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. The sixth-floor loft on West 27th Street is part office, part workshop/event space, designed with the look and feel of a cozy reading room.

The evening began with brief introductions and a background of both the WNBA and NRGM by Acting President, Valerie Tomaselli and NRGM Chair/Event Coordinator, Jill Tardiff. Great Group Reads coordinator, Rosalind Reisner, served as moderator and introduced the stellar panel (and an international one at that) by inviting the authors to speak for a few minutes about their work.

Scott Spencer read a brief section from Man in the Woods, his tenth work of fiction. The book is often described as a thriller, he pointed out. It begins, like other novels of his, with ‘what if.’ “What if I killed someone with my bare hands and no one ever found out?” A related question being, “What would bring a man to kill?”

For Áine Greaney, author of Dance Lessons (as well as an earlier novel and short story collection), there was an underlying question of, “why a character would tell his mother dead” (i.e., emigrate from Ireland, marry an American woman, and lead her to believe he was an orphan). Dance Lessons is one of the 2011 Great Group Reads Selections.

Two other panelists whose books are on this year’s Great Group Reads list were Julie Otsuka and Annia Ciezadlo. Ciezadlo brings a world of experience as a journalist in Baghdad and Beirut to her eye-opening work of nonfiction, Day of Honey: a Memoir of Food, Love, and War. The ‘what if’ at the heart of the story she wanted to tell was, “What if Americans could see the everyday in war-torn Iraq and Beirut?” For example, the ‘street of books’ she writes about, Mutanabbi Street, is literally lined with books and magazines, her favorite being, “the samizdat copies of books that used to be outlawed, like Animal Farm and 1984.”

Cultural divides of another kind play their part in Julie Otsuka’s latest novel, The Buddha in the Attic, which was nominated for a National Book Award. Otsuka’s introductory focus was the collective ‘we’ that became the voice of the Japanese ‘picture brides’ arriving in the United States after World War I to meet the men they would marry.

Nayana Currimbhoy characterized her first novel, Miss Timmins’ School for Girls, as part murder mystery/part coming-of-age story. Set in 1974, at a boarding school in a small town in India where, as Currimbhoy put it, “Indian girls do Scottish dances,” the teacher/heroine at the heart of the story finds herself in a cultural crossfire of changing times. A perfect segue, and lead-in to the panel discussion, was Roz Reisner’s observation regarding the importance of the first page and opening lines of a novel. “They signal a lot to the reader,” she said. “How does a first page happen?”

From talk of first pages, the discussion moved to how characters take shape, or are shaped by, a work. A Q&A followed the panel discussion, with questions primarily addressing the panelists’ writing habits and process. For the audience of mostly writers it was reassuring, if not stimulating, to hear that the authors we admire are subject to the same uncertainties and distractions as the rest of us.

If you would like to contact Deborah Batterman about this story, please email her at: deborah@deborahbatterman.com.

Deborah Batterman is the author of Shoes Hair Nails (Uccelli Press, 2006; digital edition, 2010). A story from her debut collection was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her stories have appeared in anthologies as well as various print and online journals, including Many Mountains Moving, Sistersong, Dunes Review, The MacGuffin, The Alsop Review, Octavo, three candles, Ensemble, Standards: The International Journal of Multicultural Studies, Prose Toad, and The Potomac. She is currently at work on a novel.

Deborah just finished reading, The Language of Trees, by Ilie Rubie and began, The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka.

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