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What would Alice Munro do? That is the one question I have asked myself repeatedly since I published my first novel, Shirts and Skins.
And over the past two years I have tried my best to adhere to this mantra: I have done library readings, chatted and sipped tea with ladies’ book clubs, exchanged polite correspondence with readers and had the occasional book signing, just as I thought Alice would do or had done during her career.
For the most part I have followed my WWAMD rule. After all, it seemed that following a Canadian literary icon and Nobel laureate was an intelligent and practical way to begin my budding literary career.
But in early October the opportunity arose to be a guest at a naked book club in Toronto that had chosen my novel as its October selection. Stripping down to my birthday suit to discuss my novel? WWAMD?
She most likely would not do this, I thought. Yet I decided to throw caution (and my underpants) to the wind and accept. After all, with such TV shows as Naked and Afraid, Dating Naked and Buying Naked on the air, could it be that naked is the new clothed?
Now, I am not what you would call a walking-around-naked guy. I grab a towel or robe after I shower, and I find flannel boxers and a T-shirt far more comfortable for sleeping than climbing into bed in the raw. Not that I have a hang-up, as they used to say, about being naked. I am not one of those guys who shower in their underwear at the gym, and I have stripped down at nude beaches in Spain and Greece (and even once or twice at Toronto’s own nude beach, Hanlan’s Point).
Still, it seemed that locker rooms and sunny beaches were more what you might call “naked-appropriate” than a book club.
There was also a matter of body issues. As a man approaching (some say “both approached and arrived at”) middle age with the beginnings of some related spread, I did harbour a few reservations about being naked with strangers. And what about smartphone cameras? I didn’t want my butt showing up on some Tumblr site called “Old, Chubby and Naked.”
But if there was ever a novel for a naked book club, Shirts and Skins – just look at the title – was probably a good choice. So, WWAMD notwithstanding, I chose to accept.
Armed with my felt-tipped book-signing pen, a Starbucks coffee and a towel (nudists are sticklers for cleanliness, and a cloth to sit on is a must), I made my way to an attractive apartment building in the downtown core where the TNT!MEN (Totally Naked Toronto Men Enjoying Nudity) book club met once a month.
I was careful to shower just before going, and I threw on (probably too much) talc, deodorant and aftershave. If I was going to do this I was going to be clean as a whistle and smell like a summer glade.
I was buzzed upstairs and greeted by our naked host, a charming guy who immediately put me at ease and showed me where I could undress. I folded my clothes nicely and, using my venti for modesty (though to be honest a grande probably would have sufficed), made my way to a seat in the living room, where a dozen friendly-looking naked guys of all shapes and sizes, aged from their early 30s to their 80s, sat drinking wine.
I was relieved to discover that perhaps the most striking thing about the experience was the complete lack of erotic charge in the room. These guys, all sitting on their towels and holding their copies of Shirts and Skins, were there to discuss my book. It was very much like the many ladies’ book clubs I have
attended (except for the lack of ladies and clothes, that is).
I laid my towel on my chair and struck what one younger attendee would describe while we were chatting later as a “defensive pose”: hands over chest and legs crossed. This, I explained, is my standard author’s pose when about to face the slings and arrows of criticism.
I had wondered beforehand if the questions that naked book clubbers asked would be different than the sort I got in a clothed environment. Would they be more free and open with their questions? And would I, stripped of everything, be more forthcoming with the answers? It turned out that naked questions about my book were pretty much the same ones I always get. However, my naked answers were much less guarded.
One question most writers of literary fiction hear often is “how autobiographical is the story?” I have standard answers for these questions, but that night I found myself being far more candid with my responses. And it was actually quite amusing how, after an hour or so, I became more and more comfortable so that I could almost – but not quite – forget I was naked.
By the end of the night I had relinquished my defensive pose. I even put down my Starbucks cup. It turned out to be a lovely evening with book lovers.
No, Alice Munro probably would not have attended a naked book club. But I could totally see John Irving at one.
Jeffrey Luscombe lives in Toronto.