Michael Chabon had just won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay when he spoke in front of the Sacramento Bee Book Club. The crowd of 700 (mostly women) seemed somewhat tense when the strikingly handsome writer strolled across the stage to the microphone—maybe they were a bit intimidated. "Let me ask you one question," Chabon began. He unfolded the Bee's lifestyle section from the day before. On the cover was an interview with him, and dominating the page was an accompanying color photograph. He held it up for the audience to see. "Does this picture make me look fat?" he asked. The audience melted in laughter.
I've overseen the BBC, as we call it, since 2000. Anyone can attend our author events for free. Our speakers have included Harlan Coben, Robert Crais, Dave Eggers, Barry Eisler, Lisa Gardner, Julia Glass, Carol Goodman, Alice Hoffman, Edward P. Jones, John Lescroart, Jonathan Lethem, Armistead Maupin, Frances Mayes, Walter Mosley, and Jane Smiley, among many others. But not every event has been as stress-free as Chabon's.
For instance, I arranged my third BBC event with the help of Ron Shoop, the Northern California district sales manager for Random House. He helped me book the eccentric but charming Tom Robbins. Two hours before Robbins was to take the stage inside the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria, which is where most events take place, Ron and I stood in the shade of a tree in the parking lot, sweating in Sacramento's blistering summer heat—and sweating the possibility that no one would show up. After all, my second BBC author, who I'll refrain from naming, had drawn only 50 readers to a space that holds 900.
Our concerns were soon forgotten as we watched a steady stream of Robbins fans file into the auditorium, for a final count of 750. But where was Robbins himself, 15 minutes before show time? Turned out his driver—hired from a private firm by Random House—delivered him to the wrong address. At precisely 6 p.m.—the event's official start time—a limo pulled up and out popped Robbins, wearing his trademark sunglasses and multicolored socks. Whew.
Even the on-time authors can make me sweat a little. Not long after Robbins, I booked another big name: Amy Tan. Anticipating a major turnout, we rented space at the Sacramento Convention Center. More than 1,300 fans turned out to hear Tan's superb presentation. What they didn't know was that the cloth bag hanging around Tan's neck, which was mostly hidden by the lectern, held the author's two tiny Yorkshire terriers. I watched from backstage, wondering if they might break free and run loose into the audience. Thankfully, they stayed put.
Some authors are more interactive—literally. The hilarious Lisa Scottoline showed up with two cases of Tastykakes, which she tossed, one by one, to the cheering crowd during her presentation and q&a. Scottoline was the opposite of the prickly Walter Mosley. During a q&a with him, a fan stood in front of the audience microphone and asked, "I'm trying to write a novel. Do you have any advice?" Mosley may have not been joking, but he got a laugh when he suggested the would-be writer buy his book The Year You Write Your Novel.
Fans run the gamut, too. Most are upbeat and seem glad to be members of the club. But the mostly male science fiction/fantasy readers who've attended events for Kim Stanley Robinson, Terry Brooks, and Greg Bear seem almost dour. In contrast are the female fans who flock to meetings that feature such authors as Diana Gabaldon, Rita Mae Brown, Perri O'Shaughnessy (the pseudonym for sisters Mary and Pamela O'Shaughnessy), Suzanne Brockman, and Karen Joy Fowler.
One question that regularly arises is, if the Bee makes no profit from the BBC, why does it bother?
I have three answers. First, the newspaper has a sincere commitment to literacy and community, and the BBC fosters both. Second, the BBC sells books, in an era when the existence of print newspapers is in growing jeopardy and editorial space devoted to books coverage continues to shrink. Oh, and lastly: the BBC is also a heck of a lot of fun.
Allen Pierleoni, a senior writer at the Sacramento Bee, oversees the Bee Book Club.