For years, I’ve been dreaming of hosting a longform reader event for our community—a gathering where you can get together with your fellow book lovers in person, for longer than an evening’s worth of book talk. This fall we finally made it happen, and I’m so grateful for the women who took a chance on us and came to Louisville—some from thousands of miles away.
Today I’m going to tell you a little about what the experience was like. This isn’t a minute-by-minute account, but I wanted to give you a feel for what the weekend was like—especially because, to both my delight and sorrow, we sold out our retreat in under three minutes, so we know not everyone who wanted to come could attend.
I hope you enjoy this peek into the weekend!
Here at MMD HQ, we considered this first event to be a beta test of sorts— a way for us to work out the kinks should we keep hosting reading getaways for the long haul. We decided a weekend event—from Friday dinner to Sunday brunch—felt about right for our first go.
We wanted to keep our first event small, so we decided to limit it to members of the Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club community, where many of our members have developed relationships with their fellow readers, and told our readers that we were looking for attendees who were prepared to give us honest feedback about the retreat, and lots of it. We would have loved to host everyone who wanted to come, but also wanted an intimate feel for the weekend. In all, we hosted eighteen readers for the weekend, including myself and Ginger, our Book Club community manager extraordinaire, and our guest author.
We hosted the event here in Louisville, where I live, for ease of planning and also because I wanted to take our readers on a little field trip. (More on that in a sec.) To welcome readers, my team and I filled up an entire three-story historic home with good food and drink, bookish decor, and abundant reading material.
The above cart usually lives in my home office, but we moved it to our retreat home for the weekend. I loaded it up with journals, a few of my own books, and advance review copies galore. Because so many readers are leery of writing in their own books or “messing up” their own journals, I wanted to provide practice books and journals for all.
We also stocked bookish tote bags nearby so readers could easily take ARCs or copies of my books to nearby Little Free Libraries.
What we did
We knew we wanted lots of time to talk books, have great conversation, and enjoy bookish camaraderie, so we followed a loose structure that included plenty of bookish sessions as well as time to soak up the bookish community we’d gathered for the weekend.
You can see the loose schedule we followed in the photo above. The wrapped gift is the book we read for the weekend. We mailed these packages to readers several weeks before we gathered in Louisville.
We started the weekend with introductions, where we also shared our “genius moves” for the reading life—those tips and tricks we’ve adopted that make our book life that much better.
After dinner, we gathered for a paperback swap: everyone brought a book to exchange. We got to learn about our fellow readers through the lens of these books. Everyone shared how they chose the book they brought with them, and also explained why they chose the book they took home with them.
(Yes, that is totally a Justin Bieber book at the bottom of the stack.)
The lido deck
We spent a lot of time connecting over dinner and snacks. (We kept hearing jokes about the cruise ship-frequency of the food. So much food.)
We ate tacos and barbecue and salads and cheese boards and fruit croissants and chocolate and licorice pipes (a la Louise Penny) and drank three cases of Spindrift, a bunch of diet Coke, and multiple bottles of wine (and a few craft beers).
The book discussion, part 1
We spent all weekend talking books, and we also spent lots of time discussing one particular book: Ariel Lawhon’s forthcoming release Code Name Hélène, which doesn’t come out until April 7, 2020. I wanted to choose an absorbing, discussable book that nobody had read yet—and this is how we solved that particular “problem.”
One of the things we love doing in the MMD Book Club is hosting author chats: after we’ve read a particular book together, the author joins us to discuss her process and answer our questions. Those discussions change hearts and minds, and we always comes away with a richer reading experience. It’s one of my very favorite things we do in Book Club, and I thought a live author discussion would be an incredible retreat experience.
I was over the moon when Ariel agreed to join us: she’s a lovely human and an incredible writer, and I could listen to her talk books—and talk about her own books—all day. She’s a dear friend, and I’ve been hearing snippets of this story for years now. I knew the book would be perfect.
We didn’t announce the book in advance to our readers (mostly because we were waiting until we had the books in hand before we spilled the beans); instead, we surprised them by mailing everyone their own hot-off-the-press advanced review copy.
On Saturday morning, we discussed the book without Ariel—and then the author herself joined us for the rest of our Saturday together.
This book was absolutely perfect for in-depth discussion: there was just so much to talk about! It’s set during WWII, but it’s all about the characters and relationships. We discussed love and lipstick, friendship and courage, extraordinary women, intimidation and deceit, and what’s different on the page when women write historical fiction.
Our bookish field trip
After lunch we hit the road, and the first stop was my house. It was a joy and a privilege to host readers for tea and book talk in my own home, a key reason we wanted to host this first retreat in Louisville.
I switched up the letterboard to hold our weekend mantra, courtesy of Anne of Green Gables: “Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”
Readers met Daisy (who almost/mostly behaved herself) …
took tons of photos and selfies in the library …
and I gave everyone a preview of my next book Don’t Overthink It in my living room.
I also gave everyone a look at my home office, but that situation is not photo ready! At least not for the blog. But our retreaters got the full, messy experience.
Before we left we captured a photo of the whole crew. What a group of readers!
Next we visited Carmichael’s Bookstore, my local indie. I’ll tell you what: if you ever want to get a bunch of readers talking, pop them into a room full of books. Those walls of shelves also serve as glorious photo backdrops for documenting your weekend with new friends.
I love this photo of Ginger and I together. We make twinning a regular habit—we often accidentally show up to our Book Club events wearing the same shirt—and wouldn’t you know, we did it this weekend, too?
We perused the new releases, shared opinions of the titles on the shelves, and helped each other pick out bookish souvenirs to take home with us. I think half of us left Carmichael’s with new Wendell Berry titles in hand. He’s a Kentucky author, so the Berry section is huge!
The book discussion, part 2
After dinner back at the house, we settled in to discuss Code Name Hélène—this time with author Ariel Lawhon!
This historical novel is about an amazing New-Zealand born French spy named Nancy Wake, a larger-than-life character straight from the history books with an affinity for the French 75 cocktail. I found out a few days before our retreat that Ariel had never had one. Readers, you know what we had to do.
The above photo shows Ariel’s advance review copy and a whole bunch of cocktails (plus a few virgin ones for good measure).
We had to take Ariel’s picture in front of the book page wreath, and then we settled in to talk books.
Readers, we had an amazing conversation. If you’ve never heard an author unpack the whys and hows of their work—what compelled them to write a particular story, how they chose to tell it the way they did, what were the tricky bits, and what do they hope readers will take from the experience—well, if ever the opportunity presents itself, I recommend you snatch it.
When we asked our readers later what made the weekend for them, this conversation with Ariel was a highlight. And they said over and over how we couldn’t have found anyone better suited to join us for our weekend. Of course I agree.
By Sunday morning, everyone knew each other and had plenty to talk about, so we spent the last hours enjoying each other’s company, reflecting on our experience, and exchanging addresses, emails, and handles to keep in touch.
There were reflections on why book people really are the best people: most of our readers had never met in person before, and we came from all over the country, from all kinds of backgrounds and experiences, and we ranged in age from our 30s to our 60s. We experienced how books bring people together: when you’re able to connect over books, you’re able to get straight to the heart of what matters in life. That’s a recipe for good times and good conversation.
There were talks of a reunion, and there were hugs and tears (the good kind!). And then we cleared out of our weekend home, and those of us who didn’t have early flights headed to a local restaurant for a farewell brunch.
Readers, this was an incredible weekend and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I am so thankful for the readers who came. (You know who you are, and you surely know how gushy I feel about you all! Are you free next weekend?) It was so good to be among people who are reading, and to spend this focused time with readers who almost instantly felt like kindred spirits and friends.
Now that we’ve all gone back home (sniff), my team and I are dreaming about what comes next. We’ll keep you posted, I promise.
Readers, have you ever participated in a readerly retreat like this one? If you’ve dreamed of attending one, what do you most hope to experience there? We’d love to hear all about it in comments.