The Book Groups

The plural is important. I’ve been waiting to show you The Book Groups for months. It’s a short story that I was commissioned to write – actually my first-ever commissioned short prose – for the West Midlands Readers’ Network. That’s an organisation which does a just unfathomably huge and wide range of work with readers, libraries and anything to do with books. I think this is their best idea: they commission six writers and then pair them up with six reading groups.

I got a group in Combrook, near Stratford on Avon. (Actually, they might disagree with that definition. Sorry. It’s just that the two times I went, I pointed the car at Stratford and it seemed to work out.)

So I got to see the group twice. The first time I went to sit in on one of their meetings and have a natter about what we all particularly like in fiction. It started so sensibly. I took proper notes. Lots of notes. You should see the notes. More ideas than I could capture. Every author in the programme says this is exactly what happened with them and their group: you come away dizzy with information and perplexed about how to fashion a short story that covers all of these points. That addresses all the groups’ preferences.

It’s easy.

You ignore them.

I didn’t mean to.

I really didn’t mean to. I took that first night very seriously – as daft and funny and full of chocolate fingers as it was, I also took it seriously – and so it was with some guilt that I ignored everything.

Everything except one tiny point. I think literally the tiniest point. It turns out that this gorgeous little village actually has two book groups. And I could not get it out of my head. What if the groups were rivals?

I’ve not had this before: driving home, it was as if the story were pounding at the inside my head, wanting to get out. I refused to listen, I concentrated on the drive and I refused to listen and I will not listen, okay? Enough. The next morning, it was as if I were shaking to get this written. I’ve had that plenty of times on deadline but here it was pushing, shaking, pounding its way out. I can clearly remember the moment when I thought – and maybe even said aloud – okay. Okay. I’ll do it. I’ll write this story about rival book groups, are you happy now?

The plan was that I’d write this tale, get it done and out of my head, then I would go to the notes and start doing the job properly. I’m all for doing jobs properly and as I say, I took this seriously. The Combrook group is so nice there was a moment when I could’ve stopped being a city boy and moved there. They deserved a story that fit all we’d said, that covered the characters and the village, that was a proper job.

And instead they get The Book Groups.

Because once it was written, I just liked it too much. I felt I hadn’t touched the research and yet I’d also spent the research. It was all in this story even as none of it was in this story.

So this is about book groups and I want to tell you that nobody from Combrook is in it. Not from either of their groups. That was one thing I stressed when I went back to read them the tale. The other thing I stressed was that I’d like my seat to be nearest the door in case there was trouble.

I think I can tell you that they loved it. They stood up this week at an event and said so. On Wednesday, there was a presentation to all of the groups of the book we made. Six authors, six groups, six stories and about eighty people gathered in the Library of Birmingham. I know five of the tales were superb. I think mine is too. You don’t often hear me say that, do you?

One more thing? My tale is narrated in the first-person by the leader of a book group. So it’s a short story but it sounds like a script to me. Something I’ve not really understood and yet have been rather proud of is that actors have often told me my scripts are easy to learn because the dialogue is good. How could I not be proud of that? I get it now, though. Because I learnt my story and I learnt it very easily. I didn’t read it at the presentation, I performed it.

Or at least, I preformed the start. We could only read a few minutes of the tale at the event, there wasn’t time for all six stories to be read in full and anyway, we wanted you to grab the limited-edition book.

I long to read the whole story to you. To perform it. Combrook called it “Alan Bennett chic lit”, which made me shatter with pride. My sister said it made her picture Hyacinth Bucket. I admitted I sometimes channeled Les Dawson. If I could come around your house and perform this to you, I would. I can’t even get you a copy of the book now – but I can show you the story. In full.

Sorry: I really intended to write you a single paragraph of explanation and then simply reprint the story. I even thought that would make this week’s Self Distract a quick job. But this story, getting to write this story and then this week to get to act it, it’s been a highlight of my year and I had to tell you.

I could’ve told you faster, mind. Your tea’s gone cold. Go get another mug and a biscuit. Because here’s The Book Groups.



by William Gallagher

Our little Book Group isn’t perfect, I’ve never said it is. Ask my husband. He’ll tell you it takes quite some running. But it is our group.

And we were first.

Susie Farrow can say all she likes, I started ours six months before hers. And she only did it because she couldn’t get into mine. It’s not my fault I’m popular. And we can only have so many chairs, that must be obvious to the meanest intelligence. I understand she’s disappointed, of course I do, but that’s no excuse for running around claiming it was all her idea. I ask you. She even got that in the newspaper. Back in Plant a Tree year. “Susie Farrow runs the village’s first reading group and plants trees”. The Parish Observer.

Not very observant if you ask me.

I’ve been in the Parish Observer now. I’ve been in all the newspapers. And you don’t see me bragging.

It’s about standards.

We have standards here in my group. I insist on it. But that doesn’t mean we are exclusive. We do welcome new people, of course we do. When there’s room. I mean, we let in Henry, how is that being exclusive? He arrived just after Sally Moon passed away so there was a vacancy, but that’s beside the point. He wanted to join and we let him, no questions asked. We don’t vet people. We don’t check their income and everybody has a secret past in banking, I’m hardly impressed by that.

Some of us have commented, just in passing, that Henry is good-looking but I don’t see it myself. I love my husband. It’s so much easier when you’re married and can get back to books. I don’t envy these young ones chasing men all the time, I really don’t.

No, the problem with Henry is that none of us in the Reading Group are quite sure he can read.

I suspected it first when we discussed Bleak House and he looked quite blank. Fair enough, I thought, it was a challenging read, perhaps it was too soon. So I went the other way for our next one, I chose an easy book for us. The Da Vinci Code. It’s a terrible book. But sometimes those are best because you can have a really good time discussing how terrible the writing is, how schoolboy the descriptions are.

I was right, too. Henry was much more lively in that session, he got quite animated. Waving his arms about. Touching knees. I don’t like that myself. My husband never gets animated. It’s easy to say what you think without touching, that’s what we say. But it takes all sorts. So long as they’ve read the book.

And I was just sure he hadn’t. I went out of the room to replenish the chocolate fingers and did he say thanks when I came back in? Or was he in mid-sentence talking about Tom Hanks? I pretended I thought it was thanks and the group did give a little laugh. I confess I am quite funny, but I don’t like the group to get boisterous. My husband watches the football upstairs while we’re here and it’s just easier if we keep things a little quiet. “You are a reading group after all,” he says.

When they’d gone and he was off to his bedroom, I rented the film version off Netflix to check it out. It’s a terrible film.

We should’ve had a film group.

Some of the things Henry had said were definitely from the film and not in the book. Well, I say definitely. It was very late when I watched it and we had drunk quite a bit of wine – we are always respectable, I will not tolerate drunken behaviour, someone has to stay sober in our house – so I might be wrong. I’d have to watch the film again and I’m not that concerned.

I think Henry has a little thing for me.

I don’t say anything. Let the girls fuss over him. It’s them I’m thinking of, really. I know they’d be disappointed if I asked him to leave the group. So, never let it be said that I turned anyone away.

Not since 1989 anyway when Amy Rogers said that about Pride and Prejudice and, well, I think we all knew I simply had no choice.

She’s with them now. The other group. I’m sure they get our post.

Still, once you get something in your head, it is hard to stop it festering. And at each meeting, Henry would only ever suggest books that have been made into films. Mind you, what book hasn’t now? But a couple of months ago, before all this unpleasantness, I decided we should pick a John Irving novel. Something meaty for the run up to Christmas, you know? I went through Amazon and I looked up every book on IMDb to see what had been filmed and what hadn’t. I love the internet. You can read how to do anything on there.

Anything. I miss it.

Then at the next meeting, I proposed A Prayer for Owen Meany. I expected to see Henry nipping off to the bathroom again to look it up on his phone but no. He agreed right away. Said he’d never heard of it but if I recommended it, we should definitely read it.

I mustn’t encourage him, I won’t.

Everybody was quite frosty to me that evening, it was most unusual. But I’m not there to be liked. I’m there to get us reading good books and then having a good time talking about them. It’s important. It binds us together, there is nothing like reading. And I really do believe that our little group is a key part of what makes our village special. Makes it a community.

I was walking through our village a few days after the meeting, just past where the post office used to be. It was the last shop in the village and it closed down twenty years ago. Either the Post Office closed it down because of fraud or Environmental Health did for something else. If I ever knew, I forget. But it’s on my way to the brook and everybody knows I take a walk to the brook each morning.

You can’t go anywhere here without bumping into two or three people you simply have to talk to. It’s why we like it here. My husband isn’t much of a talker. It’s easier to get conversation out of a stone! But I do like talking with people, I do like knowing what’s going on. I do like eve-rybody mucking in, everybody cheery together. We’re not some anonymous city, I couldn’t bear that.

So I wasn’t surprised to see Henry walking up to his Jaguar. He was pleased to see me. He can be sweet like that. I look at his excited, out of breath face and I haven’t the heart to tease him about his reading.

But it just shows that you never know what people are really like be-cause he said to me, he said: “I’m so glad you picked that book. Great, isn’t it?”

Then he was gone, I didn’t see where he drove.

Primarily because here comes Susie Farrow, overdressed as usual. She’s out of breath too but I don’t think it’s excitement at seeing me. She’s unfit. Unfit to run a book group, I say. That’s my little joke. Still, it comes to something when a girl her age is red and panting. I ignore that, of course, and just give her a short but polite enough nod.

She sees the book in my hand. “Oh, I heard you were reading that. Sad ending, isn’t it?”

That woman has not spoken a word to me since I turned her away from the group and the first thing she says is to spoil a book. It’s meanness, that’s what it is. And it’s to boast. Of course she’s read it. Of course her book group has read it, hasn’t everyone?

Bad enough that I’m going to see her at the village Christmas party. I walk on and put Susie Farrow out of my head.

I wear a little tinsel hat and I give a little speech about how our lovely reading groups are such good friends. I say something like it every year and it always gets a polite little round of applause. One year even my husband joined in. It was easy to get him to come that Christmas, I’d actually organised sponsorship and he came to support me. To this day, people ask how I got a company to sponsor our little do.

I’ll tell you, though, because it’s about quality. It’s because our group is best. I know it and so does everyone else, including the brewery. So it’s no harm being gracious at the party. I am gracious. I’m not “up myself”. Whatever that’s supposed to mean.

Still, it is about standards and I do think that we should all play our part. Especially in our village. And this year it was so obvious that Susie Farrow thinks she’s superior. She was right there in front of the stage before I was called up to make my speech but then I couldn’t see her when I went to start. I always like to catch her eye during my speech and let her know I know that our group was first. But this time she had walked out. She had actually walked out. Fresh air, said one of the girls. Can’t take the heat, I said. I was pleased with that.

My gaze went to Henry. He’s dependable. Even if he can’t read. I hardly had to look at him before he understood me and was heading out after Susie Farrow. He didn’t get her back in time for the end of my speech but as I say he’s dependable, it doesn’t make him a miracle worker. And they had clearly had words outside. They came back in looking so angry and it was obvious how they avoided each other for the rest of the night.

I’m proud of Henry. Standing up for me like that.

I’m sure he has a little thing for me.

I mustn’t encourage him. I won’t encourage him. But there is something there. I can’t deny it.

My husband came to pick me up. It was easy to get him to do that, it was on his way back from the club. When I came out, Henry was talking to him. He saw me and slapped my husband on the back. “Here she is, you lucky fella.” I’m just saying what he said.

My husband never says anything like that.

Maybe that was why it was so easy.

I was surprised how many people came to his funeral. But then I am a figure here, it’s silly to be modest about it. They all turned out to support me. They’ve not been quite so good since. I really thought Henry would be here every day but I haven’t seen him once. But I expect he’ll make up for it when I’m out.

I tell you, though, it’s really the girls I’m disappointed in. I haven’t seen any of them, either.

I have seen Susie Farrow.

Of course Susie Farrow came to visit me.

She said she was here to build fences, she said she was here because she didn’t know I’d got it in me. She said we could be friends when I get out. Got to stick together. Us girls. “Very well,” I said. “Let’s talk like friends. Who’s given you that ring?”
She wouldn’t tell me.

All front, all talk, that Susie Farrow.

But I’ll give her this, she did bring me a book. She says that she and Henry had a meeting, representing the two book groups, to discuss what to bring me. That will be Henry’s doing, I’m certain. The book is The Wimbledon Poisoner and Susie Farrow says it’s a joke. I’ve never been one for comedy but I thank her for the thought. And I’ll check it out later, I’m sure there’ll be a message in it for me.

Do you know, there are quite few ladies here who I’ve seen reading at recreation. I should start a group. I’m going to start a book group, just for us.

We won’t be the first group, obviously. But you’ll see. We’ll be the best.

Writing prompts vs writing promptly

It’s probably a vestige of starting in journalism where you knew what you had to write and you knew you had to get on with it. But it has taken me so long to warm to the idea of a writing prompt that actually, I still haven’t. Not quite. I see the appeal a bit more than I did yet the notion someone can say “Write about… happy daisies” still feels a bit wet.

I can’t shake the feeling that a prompt is necessarily random and trivial. That if I were ever to write about happy daisies it should be because something in them makes me shake and I must get it out, not because a stranger glanced at a Van Gogh painting.

What’s slightly embarrassing is that I’ve used prompts, I’ve set them for people.

What’s mortifying is that people have set them for me and I’ve written some of my best material because of them.

Maeve Clarke, an author I worked for and then with at Writing West Midlands’ Young Writers scheme, once set her group of 8 to 12-year-olds this prompt: write a fairytale. I was helping out at that session and I joined in. I wrote a fairy tale. In about a quarter of an hour, having never typed a single word that could ever be construed as fairytale-like, I’d written 900 words of The Prince and the Spinning Wheel’s Angular Momentum. And you see that’s a link? I was so pleased with that wildly out-of-my-wheelhouse story that I posted it here on Self Distract.

The disadvantage of posting it, though, is that I can now see the date: November 2012. It’s two years since I had proof both that a writing prompt could spin me off into new and satisfyingly unsafe areas – and that when prompted, I can’t half write promptly. Nine hundred words in a quarter of an hour. That tale fell out of me, didn’t it?

Maybe I can’t really account for why it’s taken me two years to properly accept that writing prompts can work, but there is a reason I’m telling you all this today. Last night, I invited my family to an event in which I will be reading a story. I’ve been a writer for my entire adult life and I’ve never invited them anywhere before. To be fair, I can’t bring guests to a Doctor Who recording. And even in the past year when I’ve been doing a huge number of talks, every one of them has been either closed or far away. But now my own family is spending money to come see me. I’m not scared.

I am, but I have help. The event is Seven Minute Tales and it features six authors reading extracts from stories we’ve written to order. I’ve seen two of my fellow authors’ tales so I know my family will have a good night. Plus I burn to read mine and the fact that we have to stand there in front of a room of people and read is dwarfed by the fact that we only get to read extracts to them where I burn to read the whole thing. I know, as all of us in the event know, that seven minutes works out to about half the story if we’re lucky.

You’ll get six half-stories, six tales where you will end up wanting more. Fortunately, if you buy a ticket for the event, you also get a copy of the book collecting them all. So I suppose you don’t have to wait long to find out what happens next. But I want to tell you.

I want to read it to you. I am that pleased with my tale and it is something I would never and I think could never have written without one hell of a prompt. And without having to write it quite promptly.

This is what I call a real prompt. I was commissioned by Roz Goddard of the West Midlands Readers’ Network to create a story for a particular group. Six authors were assigned to six reading groups: the groups had to apply to the scheme and the authors were asked to pair up with them. I don’t know yet where everybody went but the authors are Yasmin Ali, Liam Brown, Charlie Hill, Catherine O’Flynn, Kate Long and I. It’s pretty good company to be in.

I got a reading group in the village of Combrook, which to my navigationally-challenged mind is near Stratford. I bet the group would say Stratford’s miles away, what am I talking about, but that’s the rough direction I pointed the car at.

The job was to meet with this reading group and have a natter about fiction. Talk about what they like in reading, talk about them and talk about their village. Then I was supposed to go away and write about 2,200 words of a new short story for them.

I tell you now, you would want to live in Combrook. And you would want to join this book group. And if you did, you would be agog and delighted at the torrent of tales they could give you about the village. There is too much to ever get into a story but then that wasn’t the brief, I wasn’t meant to document the village or recount a real tale, I was really to create fiction that this group would like.

Talking with some of my colleagues, I know we all came away with huge long lists of points and elements and facts and preferences. One author, I think, managed to get the entire list into the tale and that’s rather amazing. Another cherry-picked two or three elements and crafted a story I think is the best of the ones I’ve read.

And then there was me.

I recorded the session plus I made several thousand words of notes and I didn’t use any of them.

All this glorious material, all these delightful people, and I ignored everything.


During the email exchanges before the meeting, just sorting out when I’d go and how near Stratford they are, the group mentioned the very smallest of facts. This village of Combrook, as small as it is, actually has two reading groups.

I drove away late that night with masses, simply masses of detail and information and history and yet all the way home that one fact of the two groups kept banging at my head. You’re not supposed to actually write about your group. This project has been running for years and every author, every year, has conjured up the most astonishing range of stories and settings and tones. None of them has ever written a syllable about the group they visited.

But bang, bang, shove, the village has two groups.

It go so I decided fine, write this story about two rival reading groups and get it done, get it out of my head, then throw it away and do my job properly. Write it, forget it, and start thinking what my real story should be.

I never did. All those notes, forgotten. That audio recording of the session, never listened to. Because I have never before had a story that was more in charge of me than I was of it. I get really passionate about my Doctor Who scripts and if I can’t do one because my idea is too close to something else, it physically hurts me. (Writers will tell you that nothing is wasted, that you will always find a home for an idea if it’s good enough. But this is Doctor Who. It’s not like you can take a rejected idea and pitch it to Hollyoaks.)

But this was more than that. The banging in my head, I feel ridiculous telling you that so I’m not going to admit that my hands shook at the keyboard. You didn’t hear that, I didn’t say it.

The story came out of me very quickly, though it then took a long time to get right. Fortunately, my sense of time is as bad as my sense of navigation: I misunderstood the deadline and I think part of the shaking was to do with how I thought I had much less time to write than I had. I did have this writing prompt about the two groups and I thought I had to write it promptly.

Whereas right now I know I have to write a disclaimer. This is an easy disclaimer because it’s entirely true but it’s also an important one because I liked the Combrook group a lot. Nothing in my story really happened and, most importantly of all, there is not one single character or even facet of a character that I based on anyone in the group.

But a few days ago, I went back to Combrook and I read them the story: “The Book Groups”.

If it hadn’t gone down so well with them, I might not be telling you this so happily and I definitely wouldn’t have told my family at all. But it did and right now I am very proud of it. I’m a writer, the pride will alternate with doubt, but today I’m seizing the pride and I’m being a bit brave about it.

Because I want to invite you to the event.

You’d have to pay, I’m not that generous, and you’d have to get to Birmingham, I’m not on tour. But if you can get to the Library of Birmingham for 6pm on Wednesday 26 November this year, you will hear six stories read promptly.

Details and online booking here or on 0121-245 4455. Tickets are a fiver and are genuinely selling out fast. I half hoped I could boast to my family about it but it’d be full before they booked. No such luck.

And when it’s done, when the book is out, I’ll post The Book Groups here. That’s not scary either.