What seemed preposterous just a few minutes before was now a reality.
Joshua Henkin, the 44-year-old author of
, this month's book-group choice, was on speaker phone, his voice chattering away from its somewhat precarious perch on the window sill behind the couch.
The usual book-group regulars of three Ph.D. psychologist moms, two schoolteacher moms, and one journalist mom sat listening over plates of Barefoot Contessa orzo and glasses of pinot. Thank goodness, for once, nearly everyone had read the book.
How had this happened? Was Henkin - who has visited more than 80 book groups in person or on the phone and, believe me, will visit yours even with only a few hours' notice - a marketing genius, an author stalker, or a little of both?
"He's really kind of off the charts on it," said Wendy Sheanin, senior marketing manager at Simon & Shuster, who oversees book-group marketing, a valued word-of-mouth niche in this day of Oprah.
Although many authors will consider some kind of phone- in to groups, Henkin - along with Kelly Simmons of Bryn Mawr, author of
, who has visited close to 70 groups - appear to be unmatched in their desire to recruit readers, living room by living room.
Oddly, Henkin's latest visit with yet another group of women he had never met - by speaker at the Jersey Shore group - was entirely initiated by . . . Henkin.
Here's what happened.
One member had rated the book on Goodreads.com, a social-networking site based on books. Despite the mixed review she gave (3 out of 5), she found herself on the morning of the meeting with an e-mail from the author himself.
"Shelley - Thanks for rating MATRIMONY on Goodreads. I don't know if you're in a book group, but I've been participating in a lot of book-group discussions of MATRIMONY, and I'd be delighted to participate with your book group. Let me know if you'd be interested. Best, Josh."
Wow. Um, OK. Well, Josh, as a matter of fact, it's tonight.
A couple of e-mails later, and the group had Henkin's phone number and a time to call, 8:15 p.m., which led to a slightly comical frozen panic at the moment of truth, and then, there he was, Josh from Brooklyn, live on the phone.
Though most of the visits are initiated by readers, Henkin said he also contacted people through various book blogs that have reviewed
, that have done
giveaways, and where he has guest-blogged. Henkin is also on Facebook.
"There's a book link on Facebook, and I've contacted people who have reviewed the book favorably and offered to meet with the book groups."
Henkin and Simmons readily admit their motivation is selling books and building readership. They do not charge for visits (a Web site from New Zealand lists dozens of authors willing to visit book groups for $100). Henkin asks for a minimum of 10 or 12 when he is driving, and tries not to travel more than two hours from his home. For the year after the book came out in 2007, Henkin and his wife lived in Philadelphia.
"When I was living in Philly, a couple times of week, I'd put the kids to bed, and then I would drive up the New Jersey Turnpike, stay there for a couple of hours," he said. "I was living on the turnpike."
But they also get a little hooked on the feedback, and on the interaction with real people, fodder for writing to which computer-bound novelists are not always privy.
Occasionally, it seems as if maybe Henkin is just a little bit of a glutton for punishment. (Which would be life imitating art imitating life: In
, there are scenes where the main character, aspiring novelist Julian Wainwright, goes to workshops in which his work is torn apart.)
"The book is the book," he said. "I make no apologies for anything in the book. People have made convincing arguments. It's not a democracy."
Henkin has repeatedly had to explain the title. It's not a perfect fit, which bothers some readers and strikes others as nicely unsettling, since matrimony itself is maybe a problematic way to define a person or a life.
In one vaguely uncomfortable moment, Henkin was asked a question he said he had never been asked: Why does he start writing from Mia's perspective only midway through the novel?
(Answer: Because originally, the book was more formally divided into alternating voices in alternating chapters, and his editor told him it wasn't working.)
But, for the most part, book-group members have been polite and engaged by the unusual nature of the evening.
"I had mixed feelings about it," said psychologist Nina Stolzenberg of Northfield, N.J., who had asked Henkin about Mia's voice. "Initially it felt kind of strange because it's almost breaking through this wall. Usually you get to talk in your own group, and you get this whole group culture. And then there's somebody coming in, and it's not just a new person, but it's the person who you're talking about."
"What was funny, I almost like his talk about the book more than the book itself," she said, "which made me think it was a clever marketing technique."
Laura Brodsky's Mount Laurel group hosted Henkin in May and served desserts themed to geographic sections of the novel. "It was great," Brodsky said, although she also took issue with the title. "I was very open that I didn't think
was the best title because it's not really about marriage."
Marci Foster of Haddonfield has raves for her evening hosting Kelly Simmons, whose book features a suburban journalist mother who suffers panic attacks, a natural for book groups if ever there was one. "She's really forthcoming," Foster said. "She was funny and fun and laid back."
Henkin said the discussions have helped to clarify what is of most interest to actual readers, rather than critics. He said the most common and vehemently discussed issue in book groups, one character's decision to leave a spouse because of something that took place nine years before, was not even mentioned in reviews.
Simmons said she valued the open, even confessional, discussions she has become part of. But she is pragmatic. "People tend to like your book even a little bit more after they meet you," she said. "Even if they don't think they like it and they like you, they'll dislike it a little less. And I know publishers believe in the momentum of book clubs."
For Henkin, now, the question is not whether the visits are worth his time. The book, well reviewed, has sold well. Instead, it has become a time-management issue, with his new novel overdue to its publisher. For a guy who took 10 years to write
(see what you learn when the author is on speaker phone?), this is not a good thing.
If nothing else, Henkin and Simmons have become experts in book-group culture. Henkin said he wished groups talked less about whether they like a character and did not all read the same six books. Simmons noted there are two kinds: "Book clubs that drink. Book clubs that don't drink."
Then there's the food. Henkin observed that for a group called at 8 p.m., don't expect dinner; whereas 6 or 6:30, definitely; 7 or 7:30 could go either way. "The food's been great," he said. "I've had a lot of really great meals.