Ann Hood (The Red Thread, 2010, The Obituary Writer, 2013) has made a name for herself writing compelling, bestselling novels with sympathetic characters caught up in life-altering events. Her most recent work, The Book That Matters Most, is no exception: It follows a woman named Ava who, after her husband leaves her, joins a book club—an act that alters her entire existence. In her starred Booklist review, Tracy Babiasz recommends The Book That Matters Most to “those enjoying the recent trend of books about those who love to read as well as readers who enjoy the relationship novels of writers like Jacquelyn Mitchard and Luanne Rice.”
We had to get Hood on the phone. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island, but spent much of her summer in Europe. We caught up with her in Scotland.
Why did you decide to write about book clubs?
About 14 years ago, my family had a tragedy: My five-year-old daughter died of a virulent form of strep. In the aftermath, I couldn’t read. That part of my brain just would not work. And I needed it! Reading has always been a comfort, like spending time with friends. At the time when I needed it most, it was gone. But when it came back, it was such a joyful feeling. It wasn’t that long ago, really, and I was wondering how I could explain it. How can I write about the joys of reading and all the thing it gives us?
I started [The Book That Matters Most] about five years ago, and it dawned on me that book clubs are a more active way to talk about reading. It’s hard to write about something like reading; it’s such a passive thing. Book clubs were the vehicle for me to write about the joy of reading and what books give us, how they teach us about the world in which we live.
Have you ever been in a book club?
In the late 80’s, I was in a book club and I loved it. I’d been living in Manhattan for years. [Then] I was living in Brooklyn, before it was cool. I don’t mean to be hyperbolic—it was a 20-minute subway ride—but the divide is real, and I needed friends that were in my neighborhood.
[The book club] helped me form a community in a new place. Also, it made me read books that I honestly never would have read. One of the guys wanted to read classic novels by Emile Zola and Thackeray, books I hadn’t read since college. Someone else really liked biographies, and I wouldn’t even pause in that section of the bookstore. Book clubs really open up your world.
We eventually disbanded because we all moved away. Although we all left, we had a very good time for a couple years. I really liked it, and I’m not a good group person, so that’s really saying something.
What’s it like to visit book clubs as an author?
I love doing it. In the years that I’ve been visiting them, I sometimes feel a little jealous of really good book clubs. They help each other. They go to each others’ weddings and grandchildren’s christenings and support each other during illnesses. The bonds that can be formed are quite strong in good book clubs. I’ve met people who’ve told me they’ve met once a month for 30 years. That’s incredible.
Every book club different. Some that I’ve visited hardly talk about the book—and that’s not because I’m there. It’s more a way for them to be together and socialize. Other book clubs are more interested in the writing life and have other kinds of questions. And some go all out. When The Obituary Writer came out, I visited a lot of book clubs. The book takes place in 1960, and one club made all the hors d’ouvres: spray cheese and ham salad, those little weenies in jelly sauce, and deviled eggs. It was great!
I’m visiting 60 book clubs for this book. It was a challenge that my publisher set for my 60th birthday in December. Several of them are going to be over Skype, some are through bookstores, and some in person. I’m really excited. But there is a little bit of fear involved [in visiting a book club]. What if they don’t like my book? Then you’re stuck eating chicken salad in a hostile environment for three hours . . . Still, it’s lovely when they have wine.