Thursday, April 17, 2003

April 17, 2003
Murder, They Wrote, and Wrote

We are in the midst of a reader's dream, a publicist's nightmare and a best-seller logjam.

In the realm of high-profile mystery writing, an amazing convergence happens to be under way. Virtually all of that genre's big guns — which is to say its most celebrated and popular male practitioners — have managed to bring out new crime novels in the same season. Only so-called retirement and a sudden interest in the Crusades, respectively, have kept two big exceptions, Stephen King and James Patterson (whose 11th-century latest is "The Jester"), out of this all-star swarm.

Why now? Call it a mystery. For those who write like clockwork (i.e., Stuart Woods, the Nora Roberts of mystery best-sellerdom), a new book every few months is no surprise. For others, seasonal publication is as dependable as migrating geese. (If it's February, it's John Grisham time.)

Then there are those like Dennis Lehane, whose last book was so good that his new one seems long-awaited, even if "Mystic River" established his stature only two years ago. Now suddenly there is Dan Brown's dazzling "Da Vinci Code," the erudition-laced wild card that arrived out of nowhere and went straight to the head of the class.

The mystery field is broad enough to accommodate writers from Mr. Brown, who can hinge a plot on the difference between matter and antimatter, to Robert Crais ("The Last Detective"), who cranks out the printed equivalent of formulaic Hollywood thrillers. It can feature stand-alone protagonists or serial detectives as familiar as old friends. "As I walked through the room, the men stared at me," observes Robert B. Parker's Spenser in "Back Story," the 30th book in Mr. Parker's unflaggingly congenial Boston-based series. "Probably sick with envy."

The violence quotient varies greatly. Mr. Patterson and Jeffery Deaver get much of their mileage by exploiting tastes for the grisly. "He straightened up, considering what he might do to the still form in front of him," Mr. Deaver writes at the start of his latest Lincoln Rhyme book, "The Vanished Man," describing a homicidal sadist and his first female victim. This is a far cry from Daniel Silva, whose best-selling "Confessor" features the elite art restorer Gabriel Allon as its protagonist. Like Mr. Brown, Mr. Silva deals in characters who know art, roam Europe and might just say something in Latin.

Others, like Harlan Coben ("No Second Chance") and Jonathan Kellerman ("A Cold Heart"), whose new books arrive later this month, are much more insightful, sensitive and mild. "Bear with me," remarks Mr. Kellerman's Dr. Alex Delaware, a psychologist, with his typical patience. "I need to get some context." Then there is Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch (back in "Lost Light"), who has never unearthed an injustice that didn't make him moody.

Mr. Connelly, like George P. Pelecanos ("Soul Circus"), has been pivotal in reinventing the traditional gumshoe story for streetwise settings and more socially conscious times, without losing that genre's entertainment value. Mr. Pelecanos's Washington-based Derek Strange, in particular, has become a charismatic figure in this landscape, a sharp, affectionately drawn private investigator. Strange, whose shingle reads "Strange Investigations," digs thoughtfully into each case. Mr. Pelecanos, whose work gets better and better, continues to ascribe motives more wrenching than random ugliness to perpetrators whose lives have gone wrong.

But the single best example of this neo-noir crime writing has been "Mystic River," Mr. Lehane's deep, sorrowful story of a murder near Boston. While devising a classic crime story, Mr. Lehane escaped the limitations of the form to write a serious, ultimately devastating novel. It was clear from "Mystic River" that this writer, who began with more traditional detective fiction, had emerged from the whodunit ghetto as a broader and more substantial talent. Now he returns to the mystery format with the mind-bending twists of an eerie, startlingly original story.

"Shutter Island" unfolds in 1954. Its setting — a forbidding hospital for the criminally insane in Boston Harbor — is not automatically alluring unless you appreciate the classic constraints of an Agatha Christie puzzle; in that case it's irresistible. Shutter Island can be reached only by ferry. The doors of the institution are either locked or watched. The book's main character, United States Marshal Teddy Daniels, has been sent to investigate the disappearance of a patient, a barefoot woman who vanished from a locked cell and left behind an encrypted message no one understands.

Writing with a crisp clarity that makes the layout of Shutter Island instantly cinematic, Mr. Lehane unfolds this story unfold straightforwardly at first. Then the tricks begin. The missing patient, Rachel Solando, seems to have been involved with a doctor who also disappeared. The doctors at the hospital seem a strange bunch. ("Men of violence fascinate me," one says insinuatingly to Teddy. The possibility of illicit drug experiments on human guinea pigs, also recently raised by Mr. Grisham in "The King of Torts," begins to loom. In this atmosphere, with a cast of certifiably deranged characters, it grows harder and harder to know what is true.

Teddy is increasingly haunted by the allure of his wife, Dolores, who has died but speaks to him in his thoughts as the investigation proceeds. When Teddy learns that the man he blames for Dolores's death may be a Shutter Island inmate, he hears Dolores telling him, "You've known."

The primary force of this book comes from Teddy's grief and his anguished memories of World War II, when he helped liberate inmates at Dachau. (Mr. Lehane can be elegantly succinct: "Charm had never come easily to Teddy. After the war, it had come harder still. After Dolores, not at all.")

But its hidden power has a different source: Mr. Lehane's insight into his book's most disturbed figures. Suffice it to say that this is a deft, suspenseful thriller that unfolds with increasing urgency until it delivers a visceral shock in its final moments. When it comes to keeping readers exactly where he wants them, Mr. Lehane offers a bravura demonstration of how it's done.

By comparison, Mr. Connelly's "Lost Light" and Mr. Woods's "Dirty Work" are enjoyable, but much more conventional. Each is part of a series, and each marks the return of the author's signature character. In the case of Mr. Woods (whose book is dedicated to Charlton and Lydia Heston), it is Stone Barrington, lounge lizard extraordinaire. Mr. Woods has become so invested in incorporating Elaine's, the Manhattan restaurant, into his fiction that he gives Elaine herself dialogue and informs us that she has stopped smoking.

Once he stops playing barfly and gets down to detecting, Stone is as disarming as ever, even if the plotting of "Dirty Work" is relatively subdued. Stone once cut a hedonistic swath through London, Hollywood and Palm Beach; this time he doesn't get far from Elaine's. This book involves an international hit woman and is set mostly in New York. Stone remains affable if not incendiary company. And he is the kind of detective who has a favorite brand of Champagne.

Mr. Connelly's Harry Bosch, who threatened to chuck his career in disgust four years ago and left the Los Angeles Police Department, is back to silence cries of "say it ain't so" from loyal readers. Now, in "Lost Light," the world-weary Harry is a former cop doing freelance work. He is summoned by a movie producer who prompts him to reopen an old investigation.

"The cases keep coming, Mr. Taylor," Harry tells him. "It's not like in your movies. I wish it was." (Harry's detecting skills are better than his grammar.)

While in career limbo, Harry sounded the quintessential blue note that endears him to noir-loving readers: "I was living like a jazz musician waiting for a gig. I was staying up late, staring at the walls and drinking too much red wine. I needed to either pawn my instrument or find a place to play it." But once Harry picks up his saxophone, figuratively speaking, he gets returns to well-worn, familiar Connelly territory. Thinking of the murder that draws him back, Harry experiences "a small tug toward the darkness I one time knew so well."

"Lost Light" is B-level Bosch, but it has been an instant hit. Almost all the books mentioned here have turned up on at least one best-seller list, just as Mr. Coben's and Mr. Kellerman's latest are apt to do. In cases like Mr. Parker's, this is merely the writerly equivalent of having a hit television series (which he already has, via Spenser). For Mr. Brown, the more relevant model may just be "Titanic." And for Mr. Lehane "Shutter Island" is liable to have the staying power of "The Sixth Sense."

No matter how huge the deluge of mysteries, they have a tireless, eager readership. Escapism is not going out of style.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company |

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Publishers Weekly

Boston's Uncommon Bestseller
By Edward Nawotka -- 4/14/2003

Dennis Lehane takes life, success and the mystery genre in hand

When Dennis Lehane smiles, small wrinkles form at the corners of his mouth; his freckles rearrange. It's a dramatic difference from the scowling young man with a single loose forelock staring out from the photos on his early books: he is much better looking in person, and not necessarily the guy you would pick out of a lineup to write some of the most menacing and absorbing detective fiction in the last decade. A lot of mystery writers have based series in Boston, two of the biggest being Robert Parker and George V. Higgins—but, arguably, neither has captured the same degree of social and psychological nuance Lehane has in his seven novels so far. Now creeping up on 40 years, Lehane is starting to show a little silver around the edges of his short auburn hair. The overall impression is one of confidence and youth. Maybe it's the way he's dressed, like a college kid fresh from finishing school: in khakis, with a black blazer over a charcoal-gray merino crewneck. He may have grown up on the mean streets of Boston, but he's left them behind this afternoon.

We meet on Newbury Street in the heart of fashionable, moneyed Boston. Lehane has parked his navy blue Toyota SUV in the same parking garage where he first worked as an attendant after returning from college and graduate school in Florida. It's across the street from the original Ritz Carlton Hotel, where Lehane still knows people who have worked there since the days when the hotel owned the parking garage. As PW approaches him in the lobby of the Ritz, he's chatting to one of the hotel staff, describing a summer home he's rented and suggesting she and her husband come up for a visit.

There are few jobs in Boston for a kid with a master's degree in creative writing—"The guys in the garage would give me a hard time about it"—and back in the early '90s Lehane had published only the first of his seven crime novels, the best known and bestselling of which is 2001's Mystic River. That extraordinary novel described the Boston of Lehane's childhood, a place "cramped with corner stores, small playgrounds, and butcher shops where meat, still pink with blood, hung in the windows" and where "Days, the mothers searched the papers for coupons. Nights, the fathers went to bars. You knew everyone; nobody ever left." The new Boston, as exemplified by the wealth of Newbury Street, is populated with the young, beautiful and well-to-do who have made their fortune in the city's tech boom (now waning) and driven property prices to among the highest in the country. "Now that's something we can be proud of," Lehane quips. "We're now more expensive than San Francisco."

Change for the Better
Boston's surface streets may have changed but in its heart, it's still an old seaport. The city is so close to the ocean that on warm spring days the scent of saltwater wafts in from offshore. But that same breeze can quickly turn into a Nor'easter. One only has to think back to Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm to be reminded of the sorrow bad weather can bring.

Perhaps it was from Junger that Lehane took a cue for the milieu of his seventh book, Shutter Island, due for a 150,000-copy, one-day laydown on April 15. At the center of the novel is a dramatic storm that hits the eponymous island in outer Boston Harbor—home to a federal prison for the criminally insane—just after U.S. Marshall Edward "Teddy" Daniels arrives to help search for a murderess who has mysteriously escaped from her locked cell. The year is 1954—this is Lehane's first historical fiction—and the stage is set for Daniels to become an unwilling participant in a government plot to manipulate innocents, murderers and WWII vets in McCarthy-era America. Suitably, Wolfgang Petersen, the director who adopted Junger's The Perfect Storm into a movie, has bought the film option to Shutter Island.

If the story sounds melodramatic, well, Lehane admits that he is heavily influenced by the movies, going so far as to call himself a "fanatic" and citing the 1970s cult movie The Wicker Man as a strong influence on the book. One might also catch echoes of the Frank Sinatra vehicle The Manchurian Candidate or The Ipcress File, which was based on Len Deighton's first novel, or even the Michael Douglas film The Game, from the late '90s.

When PW meets Lehane, one of the first things he says after sitting down to lunch at a modest Italian restaurant is, "I expect Shutter Island to get bad reviews." Lehane provides a flurry of reasons for that curious statement. "It's the first book I ever outlined in my life. I knew everything that was going to happen before it wrote it. A full third of the people who read it will figure it out before the end. The book is not Mystic River, it's something very different, and it's always a danger to change when you have success."

Lehane needn't fear change. Early reviews of Shutter Island have been enthusiastic, including a starred review from PW. Prior to his breakthrough with Mystic River, he made a respectable living as the author of an award-winning series of five crime novels, all set in Boston and starring a pair of gritty private eyes, Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro. (The first, A Drink Before the War, was published in 1994 and won the Shamus Award for best first P.I. novel.) It was the standalone Mystic River, however, that proved Lehane's breakthrough book, spending more than nine weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and selling 100,000 copies in hardcover. The novel was recently filmed by Clint Eastwood, starring an A-list roster of stars, including Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon as three neighborhood friends—all haunted by an incident in childhood when one of the boys was abducted—who are thrown together when the daughter of one of them is murdered. The movie is scheduled for release this autumn.

No Mystery
Lehane's publisher, Michael Morrison at Morrow, calls Mystic River "a huge leap." He attributes some of the book's success to a new strategy at Morrow that identified Lehane's sales potential and did the right things to exploit it. "It's a result of cause and effect," says Morrison. "It's no mystery." One of the most important decisions was to alter Lehane's covers, which until then had been very dark, often using gemstone-colored type on a black background. Mystic River was given a plainer cover, with black type on a white background, that announced "novel" instead of "noir."

"It was a more inviting look," says Claire Wachtel, Lehane's editor at Morrow. The approach was so radically different that bookstores started displaying the novel front-and-center, while price clubs such as Costco and Sam's picked up Lehane for the first time.

"He'd always had good numbers and devoted fans," continues Wachtel, "but we wanted to keep growing his readership." She says that the change booksellers were responding to wasn't just due to marketing, but involved the type of book Lehane was writing: Mystic River was a much more emotionally and psychologically complex tale than the Kenzie/Gennaro crime stories. Lehane had hit his stride and everybody knew it. Commenting on Lehane's decision to abandon the Kensie/Gennaro crime series, Lehane's agent, Ann Rittenberg, says, "He's always had a distinctive writing style and, and when he told me that he was going to 'alter the face of crime fiction,' I knew he would. He's like a top athlete who because he's in shape can change his game."

Wachtel says she knew she was onto a winner with Mystic River just as soon as "other agents and editors started calling me to have galleys sent over." The early buzz on the book built to a crescendo once Mystic River was chosen as a Book Sense 76 #1 pick. "The stars just lined up," she adds.

"I was living with Mystic River for 10 years before I wrote it," Lehane tells PW. "I had said everything I had to say about the two detectives and wanted to move on to something different. Ann [Rittenberg] and Claire [Wachtel] both encouraged me to do it."

Though he describes himself as a "control freak," Lehane's ability to stick to the job of writing, while allowing others to lobby on his behalf, has probably been one of his biggest assets. Rittenberg says that because Lehane wasn't greedy early on, he was able to "build" a career rather than have himself jettisoned into the marketplace with a big printing—and the accompanying bigger critical and financial risks. "His sales and his advances moved up like steps," says Rittenberg, who sold A Drink Before the War to Wachtel for a mere $8,500 in 1993. It took until Prayers for Rain, his fifth book, before she was able to "break the $100,000 barrier" for advances, she says. "Dennis told me that he'd always been poor and could live that way a little while longer. I always thought he was worth more." Prior to delivering Mystic River, Lehane's contract was for three more books and was priced far less than his current level. The quality of the manuscript prompted Rittenberg to call Morrison for a lunch to talk about Lehane's commitments to the company. "When I told him how much I wanted, he almost couldn't finish what he was eating," Rittenberg jokes. Lehane's renegotiated contract with Morrow, which covers both Mystic River and Shutter Island, as well as three more novels, amounts to more than $3 million, with a bonus promised if the books meet sales goals.

Cause and Effect
There's an old saying that goes, "Money doesn't change you, it just gives you the opportunity be the person you really are." So what is Dennis Lehane like after all this heady critical and financial success? Apparently, he's not much different than he was before finding his name on the New York Times bestseller list. He still lives in Boston with his pair of bulldogs, Marlon and Stella. He still writes at least three drafts of each novel, the first by hand, the second on the computer. He still listens to music when he writes—rock for action sequences, classical for the more contemplative scenes. (For Shutter Island, he listened to Sinatra singing Rodgers and Hart). He still has the same group of friends he's had since childhood, guys who are blessed with having their names immortalized as drug dealers, murderers or other criminals in Lehane's novels. According to him, the one concession he's made to hitting the A-list is buying a new pool table (an eight-foot competition model) and a wide-screen plasma television.

After spending an afternoon eating and drinking with Lehane, it's evident to PW that the author remains as down to earth and as dedicated to writing as the master's degree–wielding parking garage attendant he once was.

His modesty as an adult may be a result of his modest upbringing. Born and raised in Dorchester, one of the poorest Boston neighborhoods, Lehane was the youngest of five children of a pair of Catholic working-class Irish immigrants from Cork. His first book was the Bible. "I read it cover to cover. It was cool," he says without irony. "If you singled out the times in Mystic River with religious symbolism, I mean you're practically in a Scorsese film."

As a teen, Lehane's dream was to become a writer. During his childhood, Lehane's Boston was not the cozy, overpriced college tech-town it is now. Instead, it was a racially divided, parochial city suffering from poverty and drugs. During the era of forced busing (memorialized in Anthony Lukas's book Common Ground), violence ran rampant. One of Lehane's friends was murdered during this time, and the first thing the future writer did when he got the chance was to get out: after dropping out of UMass Boston, he moved to Florida, finishing his B.A. at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg and then taking an M.F.A. from Florida International University, where he studied with novelist John Dufresne and mystery writer John Sandiford.

In college, Lehane learned how to write. "John Dufresne is one of the great writing teachers," he says. "Dufresne calls fiction 'the lie that tells the truth.' " Although Lehane doesn't say so, it's clear that, after an extended writing apprenticeship with the Kensie/Gennaro series, it was in Mystic River that he at last fully embraced Dufresne's dictum to tell the truth—including the traumatic truth of the emotional aftermath of his own difficult youth—through fiction.

Lehane has been so inspired by his experience in writing classes that he's begun teaching them himself, first at Tufts University and later this summer at the Harvard Extension School. "I had some really good teachers and I try to give back, you know, send the elevator car back down. It's great to see someone who has got the chops—maybe they're six years, nine years away from publication—and be able to tell them 'stay on the road, you're going to make it.' " He adds that if anyone comes to one of his classes looking for a how-to on how to write a bestseller, he tries to "scare them right out the door."

Lehane doesn't have much time for the high/low debate that has created two opposing literary camps over the last 40 years. "You can't separate character—which is what the higher set champions—and plot—which is what the other side defends. They are both in service to each other," he says with a hint of exasperation. "If you go to any great work of art, you talk about plot all day and then you talk about character all day. Just give me a well-written book."

Both Mystic River and Shutter Island deliver on this demand. For his next, Lehane is promising a trilogy that begins in 1918 with the Boston police strike and traces the reverberations it had in American society. "The strike changed everything," he says. "It had a big effect on the unionization movement, and Prohibition came on the heels of that, then Calvin Coolidge promising to break the unions. That's all linked to what's going on now." Lehane describes it as a five- or six-year project. "It'll be an epic about small-scale violence," he says with finality.

© 2003 Reed Business Information

Publishers Weekly

Trying to Get Away

by Adam Dunn -- 3/17/2003

We'll use the back room." Andrew Vachss leads the way through a nondescript bar, reached after a labyrinthine drive down rain-slicked streets. It is not yet noon and heavyset men are already lining up for beer. Since their attention is focused on the sports action on the overhead TV, they don't notice the intense man with the eye patch slipping into a storage room off the kitchen, where he quietly shuts the door. No pat down comes, surprisingly; perhaps Vachss feels airport security has actually done its job.

This is not a movie. After a lifetime pursuing and prosecuting serial offenders, Vachss displays the innate caution that people outside of law enforcement (or the military) might label paranoia.

No reader of Vachss, novice or devotee, would be surprised that he's written a new novel laced with themes of crime, punishment and innocence lost. But there have been rumblings through the book world and beyond about his new novel The Getaway Man. That it's not a Burke book. That it's a Vintage trade paperback instead of a Knopf hardcover. That it looks more like a dime pulp novel from the 1950s than a slick 21st-century Bertelsmann product. That it's set in rural Southern locales ("Appalachia, more than Southern," he corrects). That it's less a crime novel and more a thriller—no, that's not right. Just what kind of book is it anyway? A romance. A romance?

"It's not a bodice-ripper, obviously," Vachss explains, in a voice that sounds like an especially lucid 45 r.p.m. recording playing on 33. "This is a story about an innocent man who maintains his innocence, and the purity of that innocence, through a whole series of life experiences, and finding what he believes to be love. Look at the sacrifices he makes for it. It's a love story. It's got other elements, but how could you call it a thriller?"

The Getaway Man is the story of Eddie, a survivor of the "kiddie camps" (aka reform school), who has made his way up the crime world's food chain to become the wheelman for a professional stick-up crew. Eddie walks a fine line between the crew chief, a hard case named JC who Eddie knows from prison, and JC's enigmatic girlfriend, Vonda, who shows more interest in Eddie than the criminal code would permit.

What's most unusual about Eddie's story is that he tells it himself. Only one of Vachss's other novels, Shella, shifts the narrator's voice to a damaged child's point of view. But the protagonist of that book, Ghost, is cut from the same cloth as Burke. Eddie has been drawn as a far more approachable (and likable) protagonist than any of his predecessors.

"It was my belief that you can do the classic, very moving crime story in such a way that it was a novel, rather than the reverse," says Vachss. "I wanted to do something that happened in real time almost, where you can actually engage with the character. People who identify with Burke identify with some things that he does, but not with him directly. But I wanted to write a novel—that I knew people would call a thriller or something else—that actually goes back to the days when novels appeared in that form. Many novels in which crimes were committed were about larger things. That was my goal with this. [And] I wanted to do that in as few words as I could."

The result, from its slimness to its signature Richie Fahey noir-styled cover, is a package radically different from the Burke line, as well as Vachss's other writing forays (such as Hard Looks, his collaboration with Dark Horse Comics). To begin with, there's the look of the book, which hearkens back to an earlier breed of crime novel. "The cover is intended to get right in your face and tell you, 'This is what I'm about.' " Vachss says. "I don't like the term 'pulp' because I think it's overbroad. I think there are people who wrote, for example, for Gold Medal in the '50s and '60s, who were some of America's best writers. I think there's been a sort of class distinction between paperback and hardcover that I don't hold with. That style of writing can sometimes be clearer and cleaner and purer than the sort of overwritten literature that people seem to ascribe to the best kind of novels. In other words, you're compared to Chandler instead of Cain, and I don't mean James M., I mean Paul."

The cover, along with the book's intricate story line, has apparently thrown some reviewers off track ("One reviewer said this was a book about a kid who was in love with stealing cars. I felt like I'd been hit in the head with a hammer"), and Vachss hopes this forum will clarify his message to readers. "Eddie doesn't want to steal anything," he declares. "His vision of the end of the road is not living in Vegas with cashmere suits and rooms full of hookers—he wants to be the driver, so he can actually go someplace." Eddie's one guiding vision is of himself at the wheel of a phantom car, a metaphor for asserting control over a life that has been hitherto guided by the forces of crime and punishment. "He's not a criminal in his heart. But his every bonding experience has been in crime." Eddie's heart beats for driving with a passion that borders on the sexual: "It felt like there was a wire running from my hands direct into the front wheels, like I was bending my own body around those curves." And unlike Burke, "Eddie stays innocent. He's not somebody who becomes a perpetrator."

Time (and sales figures) will tell if The Getaway Man is the start of a viable new direction for Vachss. But all the criteria are there: the new approach to character and story arc; the distinctively designed package; and the new format (with its lower price point). And Eddie's shy, boyish openness (compared to Burke's bitter, middle-aged paranoia) may be just the ticket, in the words of Vachss's Vintage editor, Edward Kastenmeier, to "bring readers back to Andrew."

Book clubs grow up
Readers get together in groups, at conferences or online to talk about works.

by Courtenay Edelhart
April 14, 2003

Book club meetings tend to be informal affairs. Friends agree to read a book and then gather at somebody's house to discuss it over lunch.

That's still how a lot of book clubs operate, but a growing number are far more sophisticated. Members of the Sophia book club in Indianapolis, for instance, pay dues and elect a board. A few times a year, their discussions include the book's author, and this summer, a handful of members will attend a national conference in Atlanta.

Bolstered by the success of "One Book, One City" and Oprah Winfrey, who is bringing back her club with a new focus on the classics, local clubs throughout the country are flexing newfound muscle.

Some of the larger, more organized groups have the clout to lure out-of-state authors, negotiate book discounts and receive a heads-up when new titles are close to release.

Indianapolis-area Borders stores take 20 percent off the month's selection when club members agree to meet at a store. Many Waldenbooks locations display area club selections.

That's not the only proof that book clubs are growing up. If you don't have time to visit a club in person, there are now virtual clubs online. Barnes & Noble last month launched a book-club section on its site (www, and the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library operates a Chapter a Day book club in which members receive chapters via email (

It's good business to cater to book clubs, said Borders spokeswoman Emily Swan. "They've just exploded, so we try to keep their books in stock when we know about them."

Indianapolis author LaTina Tunstall, 34, estimates she's been to about 15 book club meetings to promote her 2002 novel, "Different Shades Friends Come In" (First Books, $14.95), and she'll do the same for "Financing a Dream" (First Books, $14.95), a novel coming out this year.

Most of the clubs Tunstall has visited have been local, but not all. She's traveled to Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Virginia to discuss her work with readers.

Tunstall prefers visiting book clubs to signing books at stores, where people haven't necessarily read her work.

"You're just sitting at a table," she said, "and somebody wanders by to ask what your book's about and you try to give them a one-minute synopsis."

At book club meetings, people have read the book and ask thoughtful questions that ultimately improve her craft, Tunstall said.

Reader-writer gathering

Curtis Bunn, 41, is a sports reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes novels on the side. He's promoted his work at more than two dozen book club meetings and found them so invigorating that, in August, he'll hold a conference in Atlanta for readers and writers of black literature.

It's Bunn's first time organizing a conference, but he's already got about 150 people from 21 states registered. There are 20 authors coming, including big names like E. Lynn Harris and Walter Moseley.

"The response has been phenomenal," said Bunn, author of "Baggage Check" (A&B Publishers, $21) and the forthcoming "Book Club" (A&B Publishing, $21), a collection of short stories about book club members.

People have loved books for centuries, so it's natural to want to gather and talk about them, Bunn said.

"I found myself leaving book club meetings feeling like I felt when I left church -- revived and stimulated," he said.

Still, there are drawbacks to the evolution of book clubs into, well, small businesses. Once you reach the level of 50 members or more, it's hard to get a word in edgewise. And forget about choosing next month's book. Your turn may not come for years.

Some like it simpler

That's why Kent Kollman, a 70-year-old retired insurance executive, prefers the small, informal group he participates in at the Irvington branch library on the Eastside.

"Nobody's asking me to volunteer for any committees or anything," Kollman said. "I just read and come when I feel like it."

But Danielle Walker, a 37-year-old human resources executive, said there are perks to participating in a group like Sophia. Dues are minimal at $5 a month, and the money goes for a good cause.

Members get gift certificates on their birthdays, and presents on special occasions such as the birth of a child. The group also gives gift baskets to disadvantaged families at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Mainly, though, Walker likes meeting the authors.

"It really helps to be able to dialogue back and forth with the writer about why they wrote a certain scene the way they did, or how they developed a character," she said. "You get a lot of 'ohs' and 'ahs.' "

National Book Club Conference

• What: For readers and writers of black literature.
• When: Aug. 1-3; deadline for registration is June 30.
• Where: Atlanta.
• Cost: $230 each, or $200 each for groups of 5 or more.
• Information: National Book Club Conference or 1-888-406-6222.

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