When I tell people about my book club—started by my mother, held at the local community center, and open to the public—the conversation sometimes grinds to a halt, ending in a semi-uninterested, “That’s so sweet, you and your mom.”
But when they hear about some of the guests we’ve had at the Book Forum, they’re intrigued. My mother, Flory, a retired, 30-plus–year English teacher at Beverly Hills High School, has picked up some connections along the way. Not that she spent most of her teaching tenure rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous (other than my personal favorite of her former students, Shawn Cassidy!); quite the opposite. But she did, over the years, collect a small list of accessible literati, whom she continually calls upon.
Mom is a master of the never-fading connection. Woody Allen’s biographer, Eric Lax, had a daughter at Beverly and offered to speak at English classes there—years later he was at our Book Forum (we read his history of penicillin, The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat); my mother met Helie Lee (Still Life with Rice; In the Absence of Sun) through a fellow English teacher who ran her own book club. My mother contacted Lee about speaking to her World Literature class, and the relationship went from there.
The very first distinguished speaker at our Book Forum was Joy Horowitz. Her book, Parts per Million, stemmed from a series of articles she wrote for the L.A. Times about the oil well located on Beverly Hills High School’s property. Royalties collected by the school district funded a professional-grade theater program and television station, but the carcinogens produced by the well were later thought responsible for several cases of cancer in teachers and students.
Years ago, after reading Mona Simpson’s 1986 debut novel, Anywhere but Here, my mother learned the author had attended Beverly and tracked her down (more difficult to do in the pre-Internet days) to attend another book club she belonged to—one on the Westside, with a group of friends. Susan Orlean is an acquaintance of one of our members.
My mother stumbled upon the magic secret to a successful book club: if you get the author, they will come. It doesn’t matter a hoot, as she would say, if the book is timely. We read Joanna’s Husband, David’s Father, published in 1987, because the author, Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey (author of the 1978 feminist novel A Woman of Independent Means), attended the same Episcopal church as my mother. Karl Fleming, author of the 2006 memoir Son of the Rough South, shared with us his experience growing up in an all-white orphanage in North Carolina and how, as a reporter for Newsweek years later, he was almost beaten to death in the 1965 Watts riots. He was the neighbor of a friend of my mother’s, and at 82, visited the Book Forum just a year before he died this summer.
Often, where there’s smoke, there’s fire: when Sean Wilsey, a friend of one of our members, flew in from New York to join us (we read his 2008 memoir, Oh the Glory of It All), we learned that his wife, Daphne Beal, had also written a book, In the Land of No Right Angles, as did his mother (a response to his memoir, titled Oh the Hell of It All), and we made a plea for future visitations. Jeanne Darst, our most recent guest and author of the 2011 memoir, Fiction Ruined My Family, mentioned at her appearance that two other “eastsiders” (meaning Silverlake, Calif.) would love to speak at the group and one of them—Rachel Kushner (Telex from Cuba) had already been a guest.
It all sounds very name-droppy, and it is. If you’re a novelist or nonfiction book writer in Los Angeles, a poor cousin to the city’s higher-paid, overcongratulated screenwriters, you gotta stick together. And there are more than enough to fill our roster. We’ll serve you snacks, buy your book, and come armed with lots of thoughtful questions. You just have to get to Tarzana.