The Rambling Writer Joins the Pulpwood Queen Book Club

Since retiring from teaching creative writing, I have not missed the teetering piles of stories and revisions of stories and revisions of revisions of stories to critique, but I find that I do miss leading workshops and mostly Talking About Stories. So I was looking for a book club to join. Then I found out that Kathy L. Murphy, the flamboyant founder of Beauty and the Book and 727 chapters of her Pulpwood Queens Book Club, was going to be returning to Bellingham, WA, to jump start a chapter here. The catch? I would have to wear a tiara….

This was my initial reaction, given my usual active-outdoor attire:

But I went to the meeting to learn more, and was reminded not to judge a book by its cover (even though Kathy acknowledged that book sales are driven by covers). She grew up as a tomboy in small-town Kansas, with a “running wild” outdoors upbringing somewhat like my own: we both had ex-military fathers with four daughters, and all of us daughters were put through physical drills to be tough. But Kathy’s mother, unlike my own, had beauty queen ambitions. She forced Kathy to compete in a humiliating beauty pageant, complete with tiara, when she was in high school.

Kathy reports that she escaped family difficulties through beloved books. Continuing her lifelong love of reading, as an adult she moved to Texas and worked in a bookstore, then landed her dream job as a publisher’s rep. When industry upheavals forced layoffs, she was unemployed and looking for direction. Her sister reminded her that she’d financed her college education by learning hairdressing, so she opened the first combo hair salon and bookstore, Beauty and the Book. The first Pulpwood Queens Book Club chapter followed, an opportunity to support authors and communities of women. Kathy humorously “made lemons into lemonade” by turning her early beauty-queen pageant embarrassment into campy fun. Book club members enjoy dressing in outrageous fashions and wearing their tiaras, because “every woman has a right to show her inner and outer beauty and say what she thinks.”

As word got out about the club’s sponsorship of deserving but not-always-recognized authors, more and more chapters opened around the U.S. and internationally. Kathy became known as a “taste-maker” as she choose the year’s reading lists for all the clubs, and many of the obscure titles she chose went on to large reprint sales and film deals.

She was approached by a division of Hachette Book Group to write a memoir, The Pulpwood Queens’ Tiara-Wearing, Book-Sharing Guide to Life. From the book:

In January 2000, Beauty and the Book, the only combination beauty salon and bookstore in the country and maybe even in the world, opened its doors…. My crazy little venture succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. If someone had said to me back then that in five years I would move Beauty and the Book from my rural home to a historic house in downtown Jefferson, Texas, I would have said, “No way.” If someone had told me that my book club, the Pulpwood Queens of East Texas, which started with six brave women, would grow to chapters running all across the United States and many foreign countries, I would have told him, “You are flat crazy.” If someone had told me that I would work with companies like Redken and International Paper to promote literacy in communities throughout East Texas, that I would get to hang out with the writers [like Pat Conroy] who have for so long been my idols, and—the icing on my cake—that I would make an appearance on ‘Good Morning America’ with Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson or see myself flashed on the screen during ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show,’ I would have looked him straight in the eye and told him he was plum dee crazy. And yet, these and so many other wonderful things have happened since we opened Beauty and the Book.

I first met Kathy Murphy when she was a speaker at the Chanticleer Authors Conference  a couple years ago. https://www.chantireviews.com/chanticleer-conference/  In addition to her presentations, she held a benefit hairstyling event to give a few attendees “big hair.” Here Kiffer Brown, founder of Chanticleer, gets the treatment:

I’m allergic to hair spray, so since the conference was held on May Day that year, I came as the May Queen with a flower crown instead of a tiara.

Chanticleer sponsored Kathy Murphy’s recent return to Bellingham to open our new book club chapter, present a workshop, and speak at our famous local indie bookstore, Village Books. We learned that two of her recent club picks, books she had sponsored and promoted—Same Kind of Different as Me and The Mountain Between Us—will soon be out in feature film versions. The book clubs also undertake service projects such as providing books for underserved schoolchildren, and helping to fund literary centers.

Authors who are fortunate to have their books chosen for the club find hundreds of new readers, and the buzz spreads. My friend J. L. Oakley, whose historical novel of early women in the Pacific Northwest, Timber Rose, was a club pick, reports a strong surge in book orders.

Kathy has a gift of picking stories with heart that resonate with readers across the spectrum. And she has an equal gift for irreverent fun. Her annual “Girlfriends Weekend” in Nacogdoches, Texas, now welcoming male members of the offshoot Timber Guys clubs, mixes silly costume  parties and skits with presentations by prominent authors such as Pat Conroy and Alice Hoffman. Friends who have attended report that the community spirit generated, and the forging of friendships around books, are the biggest rewards of joining the groups.

Anyone can start a chapter in his or her own location by registering at www.beautyandthebook.com   I’m polishing my new tiara and turning pages before our first club meeting in Bellingham!

photo credits: Kathy L. Murphy, Kiffer Brown, and J.L. Oakley

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You will find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here on alternate Saturdays. Sara’s newest novel from Book View Cafe was recently released in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection.  It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?”  The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara is counting down the weeks before she returns to Greece this fall for more research on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect.

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The Rambling Writer Joins the Pulpwood Queen Book Club — 10 Comments

  1. Thank you Sara for sharing our story and mission to get good books in the hands of good readers. Oh, wait and you must wear a tiara, they are mandatory as don’t we all deserve to wear the crown being readers. Beauty within kings and queens is what we are and yes, we are also out to change mores and stereotypes on what we may just take for granted. I like to break the rules, not laws, but rules that stifle creativity, enlightenment, and learning. So yes, thank you for the big share, hopefully as I work on my next book, “The Pulpwood Queen Goes Back to School” others will follow your lead and join our book club. We make reading fun as I have enough homework in college, hahahaha!
    Last, reading can change your life. It changed mine and for the better. I would not have met Sara or even gone to Bellingham, Washington if I had not been a big reader so won’t you all join us. We may be all different on the outside but on the inside reading is the great connector. I have made friends for life in Bellingham, and elsewhere around the world, like Sara Stamey and I am rich, rich, rich with all the marvelous friends made where books have taken me! Sharing this big time my Timber Rose and bowing to the feet of one of our newest Queens, Sara Stamey!

  2. Wish I lived closer to a city, and a bookstore, I’d join in a minute and proudly wear a tiara. Any chance of starting an online chapter for those of us stuck in the rural wilds? I’m so far from civilization I have Sasquatch for neighbors.

    • Hi, Phyl. Yes, you can start your own book club chapter anywhere, if you can find a few friends to join you. You don’t need to be near a bookstore. It might be possible to start an online club — apparently many of the clubs do interact via the website, sharing reactions to books and other topics. You can find out more and register to join at http://www.beautyandthebook.com

  3. I just found this! I adore Kathy, and drove to East Texas for her to do my hair once. FABULOUS color and haircut. I wish I lived closer.

    And I attended the Pulpwood Queens Weekend when Pat Conroy brought his book, My Life in Books, which was inspired the year before when he was Guest of Honor. I adored that man and his work, and oh could he tell stories!

    If Kathy if still following this thread, miss ya girlfriend. But still see you on FB.

    Pooks