Reading Group Center

Author Elizabeth Black Makes House Calls for Her Book Club Fans

Is there anything better than having a great face-to-face book discussion with the author? Elizabeth Black and her fans definitely love the idea. She’s had such a great experience talking with book clubs about her novel The Drowning House that we wanted to share some of the interaction with Reading Group Center fans. After contacting one of the clubs she visited, we found they were just as excited to share their comments as Elizabeth had been. Read their note and then find the author’s response below!

And don’t miss the chance for your own Author Chat with Elizabeth Black. Submit your request here.

A Note from Nancy Geyer, Book Club Facilitator:
It is always a thrill when an author comes to our Book Club to discuss his or her book. Elizabeth Black’s visit was no exception. Far from it! The author of The Drowning House was not only charming and gracious but also an intelligent speaker who generously shared information about the novel, how it came to be, and her writing techniques. The group especially enjoyed her talking in depth about the novel’s setting. Indeed, Galveston Island seemed to become a character itself so beautifully and atmospherically did she bring this setting to life in her novel.

She freely answered questions and intensified the members’ interest in her next book. Would we hesitate to invite her back when that book appears? Certainly not. Elizabeth Black is always welcome.

Elizabeth Black’s response to reading groups:
In this essay, the author addresses the book club’s favorite aspect of the novel—it’s richly depicted setting—and shares two short excerpts of her own choosing.

I’m often asked if I grew up in Galveston, or if I’ve lived there. In fact, I was born and raised in New England. I came to Texas later and began visiting Galveston Island when my children were small.

As a single parent with two daughters, I welcomed the chance to escape Houston’s summer heat for a vacation spot that was only forty minutes away by car. It was so easy—we packed our bathing suits and flip-flops, bought a couple of bags of groceries, and drove down to our rented condo. Together we floated in the warm surf, hunted for sand dollars, and built elaborate castles in the soft brown sand. We didn’t think of ourselves as tourists. Although we weren’t BOI—born on the Island—or even IBC—Islander by choice—over the years, we came to feel we belonged there, too.

As the girls grew, they asked about the crowds waiting to visit the enormous old houses along Broadway—my daughters were as curious as I was—and we took our place in line. I remember trying to explain to my six-year-old what a spittoon was for. It never occurred to me that I was laying the groundwork for a novel. But I began to read about the Island and its past. I learned that it was settled by pirates and had a long and colorful history of lawlessness.

In Galveston, from the days of Jean Lafitte and his crew, bad behavior of all kinds was officially deplored but privately tolerated. During prohibition, Islanders supplied half the mainland with bootleg liquor. Gambling and prostitution flourished until the 1950s. The locals called their home “the Free State of Galveston.” The more I learned about Galveston, the more I wondered what it would be like to grow up in a place like that, in an environment so enclosed and so interconnected, where the past persists in the hundreds of Victorian houses that survived the Great Hurricane in 1900, and the usual rules don’t apply. On my visits to the Island, I began to carry a notebook. I filled two shoeboxes with snapshots. Over time, I felt increasingly compelled to let the old houses and the people who lived in them speak.

I wanted to write a story that could only take place on the Island. So I used Galveston’s unique history to shape events, to bring together my characters, Clare Porterfield and Patrick Carraday, who grew up under very different circumstances.

Excerpt 1:
Before the days of air-conditioning, Galveston’s grandest houses were built along Broadway, on the north side of the street. In winter, the sun fell through their front windows and stretched into golden lozenges on the burnished parlor floors. In summer the prevailing southeast breeze cooled the interiors when the temperature rose into the nineties and even the flies sat motionless on the windowsills.

Across the back alley, facing in another direction, was a series of more modest residences that didn’t benefit from the sun or the breeze. Because of the climate, this arrangement played out across the East End. Which explains why my father, the small-town doctor, and his family came to live directly in back of Will Carraday, whose grandfather had made and kept a fortune.

I also wanted to show how different Galveston is from the rest of Texas, and how a sense of isolation could feed the wealthy Islanders’ sense of entitlement.

Excerpt 2:
Everything on a barrier island is dug-in or braced—the plants, the egrets in the marsh grass, even the fishermen in caps and T-shirts, squinting, waist-deep, leaning into the wind, searching for shifts and currents.

There is so little to rest the eye on. Is the emptiness too much to bear? So that without understanding why, Islanders will do anything to fill it? I don’t know how it happens. But islands have a way of taking over, of seizing the imagination. So that the people who live on them become different too, become wishful thinkers, fabulists, rearrangers of facts. What those on the mainland would probably call liars.