M.J. Stark’s life is picture-perfect—she has her dream job as a magazine editor, a sexy doctor boyfriend, and a glamorous life in New York City. But behind her success, there is a debilitating sense of loneliness. So when her boss betrays her and her boyfriend offers her a completely new life in California, she trades her cashmere for caftans and gives it a try. Once there, M.J. is left to fend for herself in a small beach town, with only the company of her elderly neighbor Gloria and an ocean that won't shut up.
One afternoon, M.J. discovers that Gloria has suddenly moved to Paris with her friends to honor a fifty-year-old pact. And in lieu of a goodbye, she's left a mysterious invitation to a secret club—one that only reads erotic books. Curious, M.J. accepts and meets the three other hand-selected club members. As they bond over naughty bestsellers and the shocking letters they inherited from the original club members, the four strangers start to divulge the intimate details of their own lives...and as they open up, they learn that friendship might just be the key to rewriting their own stories: all they needed was to find each other first.
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The Dirty Book Club CHAPTER One
Pearl Beach, California
Friday, May 18, 1962
IF GLORIA GOLDEN were being honest, she’d say that Potluck Fridays weren’t really about making the most of her newly renovated kitchen. Nor were they an excuse to connect with Dot, Liddy, and Marjorie, since best friends didn’t need excuses. Honest Gloria would say their weekly get-togethers were the one thing she could rely on and that she was tap-tapping her fingernails on the countertop because if the girls stood her up, the number of things she could rely on would fall to zero. But a gal with a successful husband, a healthy baby boy, and a beach house with state-of-the-art appliances had no business being sour. Not when she’s been told she bears a striking resemblance to a blond Ann-Margret. Not when children were starving in the Congo. So Gloria never said anything.
When the girls arrived (they always did) Gloria’s tap-tapping was instantly replaced by the popping tops of Tupperware dishes and a Neil Sedaka record spinning on the Magnavox.
“ ‘If you’re feeling low down ’cause your baby’s left town . . .’ ” they sang into serving spoons as they twirled across the Spanish tiles like dancers on The Ed Sullivan Show. “ ‘. . . Get out and cir-cu-laaaaaaaaate. . . .’ ”
Flushed and giggling after their big finish, Gloria checked the playpen in the living room. “Michael could sleep through an Elvis concert,” she said of her tranquil son. Then, the telephone rang and he began to cry.
“Who is it?” Marjorie whispered, as if they were still freshmen at Pearl Beach High and not twenty-two-year-old grown-ups.
“Leo,” Gloria mouthed. She found her reflection in the gas range. The ends of her honey-blond bob had wilted into L’s; she pinched them until they more closely resembled J’s.
Like rose petals in the sun, the ventricles of Gloria’s heart unlatched for her husband. It didn’t matter that he was calling from his office, fifty-five miles north, in Los Angeles. She could still see his caviar-black hair and denim-blue eyes, smell the bourbon that candied his breath, and feel the zing of his touch. That touch! How it filled her with orchestral crescendos and Technicolor joy, as if Walt Disney injected Fantasia straight into her veins.
“What does he want?” Liddy asked, raising those coarse eyebrows of hers.
Gloria shrugged, hopeful that eighteen months of Leo wheeling and dealing for Paramount Pictures had finally paid off. That he was being promoted to whatever it was that outranked his current job as producer. Then they could move to Beverly Hills, mingle with sophisticated intellectuals, and ride jumbo jets around the world. Not the way Marjorie was doing it—unattached and working as a stewardess for TWA—but the right way: with her wholesome family and Jackie Kennedy’s wardrobe.
“Good news, baby,” Leo said. He exhaled a gale of cigarette smoke. “I just lunched with the actress from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and you, my lovely wife, are now the owner of an autographed picture that reads: ‘Best wishes, Gloria. Audrey Hepburn.’ ”
“Neat!” Gloria said, twirling the telephone cord around her finger. “And what time will you and my autograph be home for dinner? I’m making your favorite—”
“About that . . .”
Gloria’s smile fell. Not again, she thought. Please, not again.
But Leo’s hands were tied. The powers that be needed their golden boy to charm some stubborn young starlet into submission. Dinner . . . drinks . . . whatever it took to close the deal by Monday.
Michael’s cries grew shrill, desperate.
“Does that mean another night at the Biltmore Hotel?” Gloria asked.
Leo struck a match, “I’m sorry, baby.”
As usual, Gloria said she understood. Only after the line went dead did she stab her thumbnail in the thawing pot roast and brand it with a pout.
She wanted to tell her friends the truth: that Leo had not been home in two nights and she was lonely. Then they could smoke cigarettes and say all the right things until Gloria felt better, just like they had in high school when Leo was busy with water polo and forgot to call. But Miss Matrimony, the marriage columnist in A Ladies’ Life magazine, forbade it.
Dear Wives, she once wrote. Kindly remind all prying busybodies that husbands expect their private lives to remain private. If it’s female support you’re after, try the new Merry Widow by Warners. For $16.50 it will whittle your waist and give you a lovely lift. Available in white, black, and beige.
“What’s wrong?” Dot asked, her full, cherry Chap Sticked lips puffed to a sympathetic pout. “Is everything okay?”
“Leo was thinking about me, that’s all.”
Gloria managed a breezy smile. “You gals get started. I’ll be right there.”
Dot and Liddy took their platters into the sunroom while Marjorie, not keen on following orders, lifted herself onto the cooking island, leaned back on her hands, and crossed her bare legs. Her cleavage, upthrust and crevasse-deep, was like an oversized change purse positioned to catch pennies from heaven. “Now why did he really call?”
Gloria crunched down on a celery stick. “I told you.”
Marjorie sighed. An auburn curl—one of the many to have freed itself from her too-loose-to-begin-with updo—stirred and settled on her cheek. “I know what will make you talk . . .” She was back on her feet, opening and closing cabinets. “Where do you keep the Smirnoff?” she asked, as if anyone would store liquor with the Lenox china.
“Vodka? It’s eleven thirty in the morning!”
“Wow, motherhood has turned someone into a real drag,” Marjorie reported to a studio audience that wasn’t there. Then, glimpsing the clock above the breakfast nook, she clacked across the checkerboard tiles, removed it from the wall, and hung it upside down. “There. Now it’s five o’clock. Might as well add some vermouth and olives while you’re at it. I like mine dirty.” She lifted her store-bought macaroni salad, bumped open the sunroom door with her shapely bottom, and slipped out.
The girls were seated at the Formica table in their usual spots: Marjorie at the head, Dot and Liddy on either side of her, with the butt, as they liked to call it, reserved for Gloria.
Typically, the sun burned through the marine layer by lunchtime, but that afternoon fog, silver as their rising cigarette smoke, blurred the palm trees that stretched above the vaulted glass ceiling and blocked their view of the outside world.
“Who’s thirsty?” Gloria asked, as if offering Tang, not crystal martini glasses sloshing vodka and vermouth.
“Finally,” Marjorie said. “Let’s get blitzed!”
Dot gasped. “Before Guiding Light?”
Liddy pinched the crucifix she’d been wearing around her neck since her twelfth birthday. “You can’t be serious.”
“Mon Dieu!” Marjorie said, having just returned from her first transatlantic flight to Paris. “The French always drink at lunch.”
Dot’s pigtails wagged to differ. “Businessmen, not ladies.”
“Everyone,” Marjorie insisted. “But I guess you’d have to leave town to know that.”
Dot stuck out her tongue.
Marjorie pinched it.
“Come on. Stop being such squares,” she said, distributing the drinks.
Liddy slammed down her ice water. “We are not squares.”
“You’re wearing a pink kerchief on your head, for Christ’s sake!”
“Why do you have to talk like that?”
Marjorie kissed Liddy on the cheek, marking her with a scarlet-red lip print. “You know I love you, Lids, but you’re more buttoned up than Dot’s blouse and Gloria’s mouth, combined!”
Dot pinched her Peter Pan collar. “Buttoned up is the fad.”
Gloria examined her lips in the blade of a butter knife. “What’s wrong with my mouth?”
“What do you know about girdles?”
Liddy and Dot purred with approval.
Conceived during their freshman year of high school, saying purr was their stamp of approval. It began with the cat’s meow, which was shortened to cat’s, then, meow, and finally, purr.
“It’s become a real bore, Glo,” Marjorie said, smacking a dollop of macaroni salad onto her plate.
“This whole, ‘I can’t confab about Leo’ thing.”
“We’re married! Our leather anniversary is two months away.”
“So, being husband and wife for two years and ten months is different than going steady in high school. I need to respect his privacy.”
“Christ, Dotty, stop correcting me.”
“Gosh, Marjorie, stop blaspheming him!”
“I’m sure he doesn’t speak highly of me, either, Lids.”
“Fine.” Gloria pushed her empty plate aside. “You want to know why Leo called?”
The girls leaned forward. Gloria surprised them all by taking a Marjorie-sized gulp of her martini.
“He got me an autographed picture of Audrey Hepburn and couldn’t wait to tell me. That’s why.”
Marjorie placed a pitying hand on Gloria’s knee. “Oh, honey, even I know what an autograph means and I’m in the clouds three days a week.”
“Well, I don’t.”
“It means Leo isn’t coming home tonight.”
Gloria lit a cigarette.
“Every time Leo stays in Los Angeles for work”—Marjorie emphasized work with air quotes—“he gets you an autograph. Janet Leigh, Debbie Reynolds, Tony Curtis, and now Audrey. Do you want to know why?”
Gloria shook her head no.
“So he doesn’t feel guilty about—” Marjorie connected her index finger to her thumb and then poked the hole with a cocktail weenie.
“Are you suggesting my husband is—”
“Marjorie is not suggesting anything,” Dot said. “She’s simply pointing out a pattern. Aren’t you, Marj?”
“No, I’m suggesting.”
Gloria put out her cigarette with a firm How dare you? stamp. “There isn’t any pattern. Leo has to close a very important deal, that’s all.” She lifted the platter of deviled eggs and passed it to Liddy. “Now, let’s eat before the mayo turns.”
The platter made a full rotation around the table before it was returned to its original spot.
“So,” Dot said with an enthusiastic clap, “someone has a date with Patrick Flynn tomorrow night.”
Blotches formed instantly at the base of Liddy’s neck. “It’s nothing,” she said, rubbing them redder. “He’s just a friend from church.”
“Well, I heard he’s studying to be a pastor.”
“Past-her sweater and under the bra,” Marjorie teased.
“Just promise us you won’t wear that old periwinkle thing,” Dot said.
“What’s wrong with my Easter dress?”
“All that pilling reminds me of Lenny Guzman’s zits.”
“You’re twenty-two, Lids,” Dot continued. “Most decent men are already taken, and Patrick is a real catch. Whom, might I add, has made a believer out of every spinster in town. Did you see how full those pews were last Sunday?”
Liddy folded her arms across her ivory sweater set.
“Hold the phone!” Gloria hurried into the house and returned with her Ladies’ Home Journal. “What about this tangerine shift? Jackie wore something exactly like it on her visit to India.”
Liddy palmed the scarf around her short brown hair. “A peekaboo back?”
“Foxy, isn’t it?”
“He’s a man of God, not a nightclub owner.”
Dot grabbed the magazine, studied the photo. “It’s a cinch to make. I could scallop the neckline if you want.”
Marjorie shuddered. “Don’t scallop the neckline, lower it. Show some skin and he’ll never look at another spinster again.” Then with a wink, “Besides moi, of course.”
“Patrick doesn’t want skin.”
“Honey, every man wants skin.”
“Tell that to the good book,” Liddy said. “Timothy 2:9–10.”
“Doesn’t sound like a good book to me,” Marjorie said.
Dot reached into her straw bag and pulled out a tome, thick as the American history text they used to lug home from school. The cover looked like a wedding invitation—glossy white with gold script that read, Prim: A Modern Woman’s Guide to Manners, by Alice Eden. “This is my bible.” She flipped to one of the dog-eared pages and began reading with a faint British accent, though both she and Mrs. Eden were American. “And I quote: ‘A girl should don her prettiest dress on a date, something modest and suited to her age. A boy wants to see her as he remembers her, not as an overdressed older woman of thirty, nor as someone his friends might assume is easy.’ ”
“You carry that brick in your purse?” Marjorie asked.
“Robert and I are engaged.” Dot said, her deep-set blue eyes wide. “I have to know things.”
“Jesus!” Marjorie made a show of pulling out her own hair. “The Bible, Prim . . . They’re rule books, not good books.”
“I like rules,” Liddy said.
Dot and Gloria agreed.
“Rules don’t inspire people, expériences do.” Marjorie lifted her martini above her head. “Viva la France!”
“What’s so great about Frahn-ssss?” Gloria asked.
“French women don’t worry about going to hell, being gossiped about at Crawford and Sons Grocery, or becoming spinsters. They do what they want, when they want, with whomever they want and they’re only 5,652 miles away.” Marjorie lit a Gauloise. Raw and dark, the tobacco’s stench was more Lawrence of Arabia than Marjorie of California. “Even their cigarettes are unfiltered.”
Liddy fanned the air.
“I’ve got a transatlantic flight on Tuesday. Come with me! I’ll prove it.”
Liddy reached for her crucifix. “I’m not going there.”
Marjorie turned to Dot. “What about you?”
“And I have a baby,” Gloria added, wondering if Leo would even notice she had gone.
“Then, I’ll wait.”
“Wait?” Gloria asked. “For what?”
“For your kids to grow up and your husbands to die. And when they do we’ll move there together.”
“What if we die before our husbands?” Gloria asked, her tongue heavy with vodka.
“Impossible,” Marjorie said. “Men come first, men go first. It’s a fact.”
They paused to consider her logic.
“Come on, girls, who’s with me?” she asked, her green eyes crackling with hope.
Dot gazed up at the overcast sky. “There’s a full moon tonight. That’s why you’re acting all crazy, right?”
“She’s not acting,” Liddy said.
Gloria giggled. “I mean, if we really do become widows someday, maybe France would be nice.”
The others nodded, deciding that a plan B was better than no plan at all.
“Fab! Let’s make it official,” Marjorie said.
Without waiting for their response, she put four Lucky Strikes between her lips, lit each one, and quickly doled them out before anyone could object.
It had been that way since the sixth grade. Whether she was debasing an innocent game of truth-or-dare, encouraging them to glug the Dewar’s from her father’s liquor cabinet, or stuffing socks in their bras before a dance, Marjorie was their pied piper of mischief; You’ll never get caught and you’ll thank me a lot—her seductive tune.
“I, Marjorie Shannon,” she began, “hereby call secret pact number thirty-three into being. On this day—”
“Wait!” Dot quickly flipped to the notes section of her address book. “Pact thirty-three was to not like the Beach Boys. This is thirty-four. Start again.”
“I, Marjorie Shannon, hereby call secret pact number thirty-four into being. On this eighteenth day of May, in the year 1962, we promise to move to France when the kids grow up and the husbands croak. All in favor inhale.”
The girls drew on their cigarettes.
“May this smoke deliver pact thirty-four to the secret spaces inside our souls so it dwells within us forever.” They held their breath for fifteen seconds (the amount of time it takes a pact to find a secret space), then exhaled.
Four sabers of smoke crossed and rose as one.
“Pact thirty-four is sealed,” they said together.
“Time for presents!” Marjorie announced, never failing to bring them something from her travels. She reached inside a TWA airsick bag and handed every girl a chain—each with a different key hanging from its center. “I swiped one from every hotel I stayed at.”
While they gushed and fussed with the clasps, Marjorie slapped a thin green paperback on the table like a winning hand. There were no glossy photographs or formal typography on the cover, just: The Housewife’s Handbook on Selective Promiscuity by Rey Anthony, written in modest, black letters. “Now, this, my friends is what I call a good book.”
“What is it?” Liddy asked.
“A little something I picked up in Paris.”
They purred and then leaned past the Lenox china to get a closer look.
“It’s an autobiography about a young girl named Rey who had loads of questions about sex and no one to ask so she hides out and reads dirty magazines.”
“Then what?” Dot asked.
“Marjorie!” Gloria hissed, pointing at the Smoots’ house next door. “Not so loud.”
“Does she ever get caught?” Liddy asked, the tips of her ears reddening.
“No. She becomes a sex maniac. Listen to this . . . ‘I kissed his body, his stomach, his penis, his testicles—’ ”
Dot snatched the book and wrapped it in her Prim: A Modern Woman’s Guide to Manners cover. Then she shyly raised her hand. “Question.”
“Did her husband want to be kissed in those places?”
“Her husband didn’t know about it,” Marjorie said. “She was doing that stuff with her doctor. Rey didn’t believe in monogamy. She thought it was unnatural to stay with one person for the rest of her life, and I agree.”
“She circulates,” Gloria said, quoting Neil Sedaka.
“It’s just sex, Lid,” Marjorie said to the lipstick that was still on her cheek.
“Exactly. She should keep it to herself.”
“That’s how I feel when you girls swap recipes. I mean, what’s the point of going public with that?”
“To find new ideas.”
“To know if we’re doing it right.”
“To get better.”
“Same reasons I read about sex.” Marjorie lit a cigarette. “It’s not like you three are going to teach me anything.” Then to Dot, “If you think Robert would rather have you read about table settings than”—Marjorie closed her mouth around a Kosher dill and poked it against the inside of her cheek—“you’re more blitzed than you look. And, Gloria, try what Rey does on page 126 and Leo will never stay at the Biltmore again.” Then to Liddy, “Rey even does it with women.”
“Why do you always look at me when you talk about lesbians?”
“I don’t know.” Marjorie smirked. “Why do you always get so defensive?”
“What else does Rey try?” Gloria asked. Because what if Marjorie was right? What if this book could teach her things, things that would bring Leo home more often?
Marjorie raised an eyebrow. “I could read it to you, and if you like it I know where to get more.”
Liddy reached for her crucifix, accidentally grabbing the room key instead.
“How many more?” Dot asked.
“One for every full moon from now until we board that airplane to France. We can start our own secret club.”
“Robert would not approve.”
“It’s a dirty book club, Dot! No one would approve,” Gloria said, imagining what old Mrs. Smoot would think of a mother who reads about sex while her baby is napping.
“That’s why rule number one should be: tell no one.”
Eyes closed, lips nibbling on a prayer; Liddy seemed to be saying an act of contrition—preemptively repenting for the sins they were about to commit.
“And rule number two is: a husband’s right to privacy cannot and will not be respected,” Marjorie added. “We have to talk the way we did in high school.”
“I thought you were against rules,” Dot snipped, as she wrote them all down in her black notebook.
“Not my own, honey,” Marjorie said, with a playful wink. “Never my own.”
Dot flipped to a fresh page. “So what are we calling pact thirty-five?” Her pen hovered anxiously above the margin.
“The Dirty Book Club,” Marjorie said, with a credit-where-credit-is-due nod to Gloria. Then she lit four Lucky Strikes, sealed the pact, and began reading The Housewife’s Handbook on Selective Promiscuity; starting a fifty-four-year tradition that would save them all.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Dirty Book Club includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Lisi Harrison. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
M. J. Stark seems to have it all—her dream job as a magazine editor, a sexy doctor boyfriend, and an exciting life in Manhattan—only it’s just an illusion. In reality, she’s still reeling from loneliness after losing her parents and sister. So when a promotion doesn’t go her way and her boyfriend suggests moving out to Pearl Beach, California, to be with him, she jumps at the chance: only to discover that life in California isn’t all beaches and sunshine.
When M.J. finds a mysterious envelope from her elderly neighbor, Gloria, with an invitation to inherit a “dirty book club” started by Gloria and her friends in the 1960s, she and three other women chosen by the original members may just have found a lifeline. As M.J. and the other women bond, each is challenged to rethink her life. Inspired by the women who recruited them, the women in the present-day Dirty Book Club find courage through the power of their burgeoning friendship.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. As The Dirty Book Club begins, the narrator tells the reader that for Gloria Golden, “Potluck Fridays weren’t really about making the most of her newly renovated kitchen” (page 3). Why are Potluck Fridays so important to Gloria? Why is she wary to admit the true reason that she looks forward to them? Do you think, as Gloria does, that she “had no business being sour”? Why or why not?
2. In a letter to the next generation of the Dirty Book Club, the founding members write, “A dirty martini will make you admit things to other people, but a dirty book? That will make you admit things to yourself” (page 104). Discuss this statement. What, if anything, do the DBC members discover about themselves as a result of their reading selections? Did you find any of their discoveries particularly shocking? If so, why?
3. Describe the women whom Gloria and her friends choose to carry on the tradition of the Dirty Book Club. Given how different each of the women are from one another, did you think that the DBC would last? Why or why not? Why do you think these particular women were selected by Gloria and her friends?
4. Gloria tells M.J., “[E]very day we’re alive is a special occasion” (page 54). Do you agree with her? What do you think M.J.’s life philosophy is when she first meets Gloria? Compare it with Gloria’s. In what ways are the two women alike? Were you surprised by Gloria’s actions toward M.J.? Which ones and why?
5. Addie defines love as “accepting someone for who they are, not for who they’ll be once you change them” (page 180). How do each of the other women in the Dirty Book Club define love? How would you describe it? Discuss the relationships in The Dirty Book Club. Which ones, if any, exemplify your definition of love?
6. M.J. looks on as Gloria giggles with Liddy and Dotty during Leo’s shiva, “amazed by Gloria’s lightness during such a dark time,” and wonders “[w]ere her friendships that strong, or had her relationship with Leo been that weak?” (page 77). What do you think? Describe Gloria’s friendships with her friends. How have they helped one another get through difficult times? Do you have any friends like Liddy and Dotty? Tell your book club about them.
7. Liddy’s actions lead to the disbanding of the Dirty Book Club in 1987. What does Liddy do that causes the other members to lose the ability to trust her? Were you surprised by their reaction to her disclosure? Do you agree that she betrayed the other members of the book club? Explain your answer.
8. Describe M.J.’s relationship with Dan. Do you think that they were well suited for each other? During an argument, M.J. tells Dan that he “sold me on a life that doesn’t exist” (page 197). Is M.J. right? What kind of life was she expecting in California? What were her reasons for moving there?
9. How do the book selections of the Dirty Book Club aid in your understanding of the club’s participants? Have you read any of the DBC’s selections? If so, what did you think of them?
10. What was your first impression of Addie Oliver? Did you like her? Why or why not? Did your feelings about her change during the course of the novel? If they did, talk with your book club about what made you change your mind.
11. When Marjorie is critical of Gloria for that “‘I can’t confab about Leo’ thing,” Gloria responds that she’s married. Do you agree with Gloria that “being husband and wife . . . is different than going steady in high school” (page 8)? Are Gloria’s friends wrong to expect the same level of intimacy with Gloria now that she’s married? If so, why?
12. At Addie’s party, M.J. reminds herself that Dr. Cohn, her psychologist, has said “recovery was about progress, not perfection” (page 153). Do you agree with Dr. Cohn? Do you think that M.J. is on her way to a full recovery? How has M.J.’s past influenced her current behavior? Did you notice any signs that she was on her way to healing? If so, talk with your book club about them.
13. When M.J. tells Gloria that Dan is her best friend, Gloria’s response is, “Now that’s a problem” (page 65). Discuss Gloria’s statement. Do you agree with her that it’s problematic for Dan to be filling the role of best friend for M.J.? Do you think that a romantic partner can fulfill the same needs as a best friend? Why does Gloria think that the two roles should be separate?
14. Although M.J. “didn’t have to do it all,” she did. “Work was her escape” (page 29). What is M.J. using work to escape from? Do you think her coping mechanism is a healthy one?
15. M.J. views Gayle’s decision about changes in City’s management as a betrayal. Why does she have this perspective? Do you agree with M.J., or do you think that Gayle is genuinely trying to do “what’s best for the magazine” (page 39)? Explain your answer.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. If you haven’t read the Dirty Book Club’s selections, pick one as a group and discuss it at your next book club meeting. Do you have the same reaction to the book as the characters in The Dirty Book Club do? Does reading about their discussions change the experience for you? If so, how?
2. Often an individual’s name has an interesting history. For example, M.J.’s full name is May-June. Like the rest of her family, she was named after her birth month—or birth months. As M.J. tells Dan, “I was born at midnight . on May 31, so they gave me June [as a name], too” (page 43). Discuss the importance of names with your book club. Why did your parents choose to name you as they did? If you have children, do your children’s names have any special significance?
3. Leo bemoans the current state of films, telling M.J., “I was a producer at Paramount for forty-eight years. Back when people who loved films made films” (page 60). Watch some films from Hollywood’s Golden Age with your book club and discuss them. Which films are your favorites? How do these films compare to Hollywood’s current offerings? Do you agree with Leo that movies today simply are not as good as they were during the Golden Age of Hollywood? Why or why not?
To learn more about Lisi Harrison and her YA novels, visit her official site at LisiHarrison.com. You can also follow Lisi Harrison on Instagram at @authorLisiHarrison, Facebook at facebook.com/TheLisiHarrison, or on Twitter at @LisiHarrison for regular updates on her writing and life.
A Conversation with Lisi Harrison
Your young adult novels have been wildly successful. Ten of the books in the Clique series have been #1 New York Times bestsellers. Did you feel any added pressure when writing The Dirty Book Club for it to be a commercial success? If so, what did you do to deal with it?
I felt tremendous pressure. Not necessarily for the DBC to be a commercial success but for it to be considered a legitimate adult read by my peers. I had many stern conversations with myself in the mirror, hoping to combat this neurosis. Those didn’t work. The only thing that helped was imagining that I was writing for my YA audience, the girls who read the Clique. I felt safe with them, like we understood each other, so I’d picture them. It worked. The cool part is that the girls who read my YA series when it was first published are now old enough to read The Dirty Book Club, so technically, I really was writing for them.
Before you were an author, you worked as senior director of series development at MTV. What made you decide to become an author? Were there any skills that you developed in your role at MTV that helped you make the transition to author of a young adult series?
The question should be What made you decide to work for MTV?, because I always wanted to be an author. I just had no idea how to make that happen, so I took the job I was offered. Thankfully, I did. So much of what I experienced and witnessed at MTV informed my YA novels. And since the half-hour shows were divided by long commercial breaks, I was trained to write using cliffhangers, so the audience would want to stay tuned. I was also taught to write in three acts, and that format stayed with me. Is it “proper”? No idea.
Although you’ve written many YA novels, The Dirty Book Club is your first novel for adults. Was the experience different from writing a YA novel? If so, how?
The self-loathing in my head now had a megaphone and it shouted: “EIGHT HOURS FOR ONE PARAGRAPH? WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU? YOU PEAKED IN 2008. UNPLUG AND GO TO AN ASHRAM. THIS DOESN’T SOUND LIKE THE NOVELS YOU READ. THOSE ARE GOOD. THOSE MAKE SENSE. AND THIS? BEER GOGGLES COULDN’T MAKE THIS ATTRACTIVE. In other words, I was terrified that I wouldn’t be worthy of a seat at the adult table. Now that the novel is done, I realize that it is a huge success. Not because of sales. I am answering these questions in March 2017. The book won’t be out for seven more months, so I have no idea how it will be received. But I finished it. I’m happy with it. I took that megaphone, shoved it up that self-loathing voice’s ass,[*] and then I kept writing. Success, indeed.
Now that you’ve published your first adult novel, is there any guidance you wish you had received prior? What would you like other authors looking to make the transition from YA to adult writing to know? Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
When things get hard, give yourself permission to quit. Yep, I said it. Tell yourself to rest your elbow on the delete key and be done with it. If you do, problem solved. If you don’t, it means you’re writing this because something inside you has decided you have no choice. So shove the megaphone up that self-loathing voice’s ass and carry on. After you do, imagine one person who completely gets you and write just for them. Then trust your future self to make it shine another day.
All the characters in The Dirty Book Club are so vividly described that they seem real. Are they based on anyone in your life? How did you come up with the characters?
The general idea was inspired by my own Dirty Book Club, but the characters are pure fiction. I find real people too limiting because they never do what I say!
Can you tell us about your writing process? Did you know how M.J.’s story was going to end when you began writing The Dirty Book Club?
I always knew how M.J.’s story started and how I wanted it to end. That last chapter was in my head from day one. The rest took years. I must have written the first one hundred pages ten times before I got them right.
You’ve been a proud member of your own Dirty Book Club since 2007. What made your book club decide to make dirty books its focus?
Long story medium: I had moved from New York City to Laguna Beach, California, in 2007, and I didn’t know a single person. I joined a mothers’ group, a bunko group, and a book club, hoping to meet people. And I did. I met very kind people, but what kind? I wanted self-deprecating, full-disclosure, hilarious potty mouths. Then I met Becky and Lisa at a party, we got to talking, and somehow Judy Blume’s 1975 novel Forever came up. We laughed at how dirty it was and how naughty we felt reading it back in the day. I suggested we read it again as adults and then meet to discuss it. We did. They then brought Michele, Kelly, and Shien-Lin, and so it began. . . . We vowed to read a dirty book once a month and then meet to discuss it. And let me tell you, when the subject is sex, you bond pretty quickly.
M.J. and her peers were given fairly detailed instructions from the original Dirty Book Club on how they should proceed. Do you have any advice for readers who are interested in starting a Dirty Book Club of their own?
Keep it very small. No more than six people. You want it to feel intimate and safe.
Is there anything you’ve found particularly rewarding about publishing The Dirty Book Club? If so, what?
Yes, publishing it. I never thought I’d get here.
What would you like readers of The Dirty Book Club to take away from the book?
At its core, this a story about the power of female friendship: a force to be reckoned with.
Are you working on anything now? Can you tell us about it?
I’m working on being patient while my next idea forms and silencing that damn voice.
[*]I could never have said “shoved it up [someone’s] ass” in a YA novel, so that’s a different experience right there.