Anyone who attends a Bouchercon mystery convention has seen the rail-thin figure of Gary Warren Niebuhr, usually in the center of a boisterous crowd—the eye of the storm. My girlfriends and I refer to him as Gasa-Gasa Gary because he always seems to be on the move. A career librarian and die-hard mystery fan, Gary has written books about his passion for the genre, the latest being on how to conduct a book club.
Book clubs can be a godsend for midlist mysteries. As an author, I’ve done my share, ranging from a Japanese-themed dinner in Phoenix to a phone conversation with a group in Seattle. Many were arranged by friends and acquaintances, but some resulted from contact through my website. Normally no Angeleno would invite a stranger to her home—no Angeleno would think of going to a gathering of complete strangers in a home, but books serve as a bridge.
Gary’s book is designed for readers and librarians, not authors. But we can learn much from his tips and experience. So, Gasa-Gasa Gary, speak out!
Tell us about the reference book you just released.
READ ‘EM THEIR WRITES A HANDBOOK FOR MYSTERY AND CRIME FICTION BOOK DISCUSSIONS is a guide for people who want to lead a crime fiction book club. The book reveals how to organize your group, get participants, select book club titles, prepare for the meeting, and conduct discussions. The main content of the book is a breakdown of 100 titles that can be used for discussion purposes. For each book, information is provided including biographical information on the author with web sites and reader’s guides, a short plot summary, geographic settings, time period, series information, subject headings, appeal points and read alike suggestions. Then, I provide about a dozen questions that can be used to discuss the selected title.
Did Greenwood approach you or did you approach them?
I have had such good luck falling into the publishing business. My first book (A READER’S GUIDE TO THE PRIVATE EYE NOVEL. G. K. Hall, 1993) came about because I answered a one-inch ad running in Drood Review for someone to do a book in the series G. K. Hall was putting together on various sub-genres in the field. My second book (MAKE MINE A MYSTERY, Libraries Unlimited, 2003) came about because I attended a children’s author lunch at the Public Library Association and decided to sit down next to the acquisition editor from Libraries Unlimited.
This book was offered to Libraries Unlimited after MAKE MINE and they loved the concept. I loved doing this book and by far, it was the easiest to complete.
Can you tell us a little about your background? How long have you worked as a librarian? And tell us about the library you current work at.
I was born, schooled and worked in the city of Milwaukee for my entire life. While attended college and attempting to spend five minutes in every major that they offered, I came to the realization that my part time job as a shelver in the Milwaukee Public Library could be a career path. After earning an M.A. in Library Science from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I worked two years for an engineering college (like living amongst aliens) and two years as a clerk in a public library (in a building that is now a funeral parlor). Then, for reasons still undetermined, the Greendale Public Library hired me to be its library director and I have been there for 26 years.
When did you begin reading mysteries?
I read all types of books growing up including Freddy the Detective and the Hardy Boys. But I gravitated to science fiction for most of my youth despite still having the complete Sherlock Holmes collection my parents bought me when I was a teen. When I went to college at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I took literature classes as time off from my other classes. Looking back now, I wish I had realized what really appealed to me and just read my way through the university experience.
After exhausting all the science fiction, fantasy and utopian electives in the English Department, I enrolled in a crime fiction survey course that began with THE BIG SLEEP by Raymond Chandler. This set me on a lifetime of reading mystery and crime fiction. Early in my reading of this genre I was able to ground myself in the history including reading everything from Carr, Christie, Sayers, Stout, etc. However, I always found myself drawn to the private eye.
Around 1978, I formed a mystery book discussion group with Beverly DeWeese (1999 Bouchercon Fan Guest of Honor) and some other civilians. The group met at my house. I no longer remember what we read or even how we operated. Eventually we heard that a mystery book discussion group called The Cloak and Clue Society had formed at a brand new mystery bookstore in town. Deciding it was silly to have two groups, we merged the two groups and that is how I met Beth Fedyn (2005 Bouchercon Fan Guest of Honor).
Cloak and Clue has been meeting ever since. While for a time my attendance was spotty (I was too busy doing community theater because I enjoyed wearing makeup for legitimate reasons), I have had a long association with this group and could not have done the new book club book without the experience I gained with this group.
In a conversation I had with Otto Penzler in 1981, who was discouraging me from trying to buy every work of crime fiction ever published like Allen Hubin had, he suggested that I specialize in the type of detective that I enjoyed the most. So, I now have 6,000 private eye novels in my basement. So much for specialization.
Somewhere in the eighties, while selling mystery books out of the basement of my house, I met Ted Hertel (2002 MWA Robert L. Fish Award recipient and current MWA-Midwest President) and we have been steadfast friends ever since. Ted, Bev, Beth and a host of other fans created EYECON’95 to honor the Private Eye Writers of America by having a convention in Milwaukee in 1995. Four years later in 1999, the same crew ran Bouchercon in Milwaukee.
During the Bcon experience, Ted and I met Sandy Balzo (2004 MWA Robert L. Fish Award recipient). After Bouchercon, Ted and Sandy had this crazy idea to form a crime fiction writers group. So The Noirsketeers have been meeting for six years. Ted and Sandy were the first readers for READ ‘EM.
And when did you decide to have a mystery book club at your library?
In 1992 I began the Greendale Park and Recreation Crime Fiction Book Discussion Group. People who want to be a part of the group sign up through Park and Recreation and pay a small fee. We meet in the Community Room of the Greendale Library from September to May (skipping December). We read one book for each session. There is no food.
Explain how you set up your book club. Is it different every year? How do you select your books?
Every year in May I create a list of about fifty books I think would make a great book discussion title. I pass the list out to the current members and let them vote on which title they would like to read. After gathering the ballots, I try to see a pattern in the top vote getters so that I can establish a theme for the next year. Here are some examples of the last few years’ lists:
2006-2007 THE SINS OF THE FATHERS AND SOME BAD MOTHERS TOO
9/26/06: Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s THE SHADOW OF THE WIND
10/26/06: Carol Goodman’s THE SEDUCTION OF WATER
11/16/06: Donna Tratt’s THE LITTLE FRIEND
01/25/07: Anita Shreve’s THE WEIGHT OF WATER
02/22/07: Jonathan Lethem’s MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN
03/22/07: Jodi Picoult’s THE PLAIN TRUTH
04/26/07: T. Jefferson Parker’s SILENT JOE
05/24/07: Minette Walters’ ACID ROW
2005-2006 THE SUN NEVER SETS ON YOUR BODY IF YOU DIE IN THE BRITISH EMPIRE
Minette Walters’ THE SHAPE OF SNAKES
Mark Haddon’s THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT with Michael Chabon’s THE FINAL SOLUTION: A STORY OF DETECTION
Jacqueline Winspear’s MAISIE DOBBS
Ian Pears’ AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST
Erin Hart’s HAUNTED GROUND
Rhys Bowen’s MURPHY’S LAW
Michelle DeKrester’s THE HAMILTON CASE
Darren Williams’ ANGEL ROCK
2004-2005 MURDER THEY WROTE, MURDER WE READ
Dan Brown’s THE DA VINCI CODE (2003)
Alice Blanchard’s THE BREATHTAKER (2003)
Thomas Cook’s THE CHATHAM SCHOOL AFFAIR (1996)
Minette Walters’s THE BREAKER (1998)
Matthew Pearl’s THE DANTE CLUB (2003)
Alexander McCall Smith’s THE NO. 1 LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY (1998)
Carolyn G. Hart’s LETTER FROM HOME (2003)
Donna Andrews’s YOU’VE GOT MURDER (2002)
2003-2004 OVER THERE: MYSTERIES IN INTERESTING PLACES
Giles Blunt’s FORTY WORDS FOR SORROW (2001)
Robert Wilson’s A SMALL DEATH IN LISBON (2003)
Elizabeth George’s A TRAITOR TO MURDER (2001)
Anthony Piper’s LOST GIRLS (2001)
Larry Watson’s MONTANA 1948 (1993)
Minette Walter’s THE ECHO (1997)
Ken Breun’s THE GUARDS (2003)
Elizabeth Inness-Brown’s BURNING MARGUERITE (2002)
What makes a mystery a good book club selection?
I talk a lot about this in the book but let’s cut to the chase. The best titles for book discussions are ones that have a strong theme and along the way do something to piss people off. With varying degrees of strength, all novels have plot, character, setting, subject matters and style. While you can hook a discussion on any of these elements, it is my contention that it is theme that will anger people the most and make them really want to discuss a title with someone.
I wrote READ ‘EM because I got so tired of people asking me how we could discuss crime fiction for 15 years when the only thing to discuss is "who did it." If they only discussable element of the book is the plot, you have picked the wrong crime fiction book to discuss.
How can an author help book clubs?
Authors need to understand the difference between books that are great entertainment and books that are great book discussion titles. Some books are never going to work as a book discussion title. Be kind to those who do not feel confident in discussing your title.
However, to help, an author could put a readers’ guide on your website with some suggested discussion questions.
What makes a good book discussion question?
We cover this extensively in the book, but the first rule is never write a question that can be answered yes or no.
Do you network with many other libraries or book clubs?
I do connect with other book discussion leaders. We all have the same problems and the same joys. Some ambitious book discussion leaders have started one city one book discussions (a concept invented by Nancy Pearl in Seattle) where an entire community (libraries, schools, private groups) all read the same book. Some libraries have book discussion kits. There is a lot of cooperation.
If a group is planning to launch a book club for the first time, what tips do you suggest?
Believe in the book and stay focused on a discussion about it. It is a great way to express yourself, learn about others, and feel the joy of sharing stories.
Thank you, Gary. And looking forward to seeing you at Left Coast Crime! Here’s more info on his book:
READ ‘EM THEIR WRITES A HANDBOOK FOR MYSTERY AND CRIME FICTION BOOK DISCUSSIONS
Libraries Unlimited; $35.00
Ordering information for the book can be found at http://www.greenwood.com/catalog/LU3039.aspx.
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