Most folks celebrate the holidays with their own quaint traditions, and I’m surely no exception. Every year around Martin Luther King Day, a couple of hundred friends and I converge upon the deep woods of East Texas, dressed in hot pink satin, leopard-print capes and enough rhinestone tiaras to choke the entire Royal Court of the Cotton Bowl parade. Then we rat each other’s wigs, throw a couple of high-steppin’ theme parties, and award much-coveted statuettes to the person, for instance, who wore the best Barbie costume. Also to the person who wrote the year’s best American novel.
This phenomenon is known as the Pulpwood Queen Book Club’s Annual Girlfriend Weekend. And though it may sound like a gay adventure camp, it’s fast becoming one of the most important literary events in America.
The Pulpwood Queens, for those of you who don’t know, is now reckoned to be the biggest book club in the world, with more than 260 chapters. (At least, it’s the biggest club made up of real people sitting around and talking about books in each other’s living rooms, as opposed to those consisting of TV audience members.)
And it’s all the creation of a big-haired marvel of a woman in little Jefferson (pop: 2,024) named Kathy L. Patrick.
Kathy is one of those “only in Texas” success stories, like Mary Kay Cosmetics and Spindletop. A little over 10 years ago, she got canned as a book rep working the Southeast circuit. So with a flash of inspiration and a background in cosmetology, she founded “Beauty and the Book,” the world’s only beauty parlor-slash-independent bookstore, in her adopted hometown of Jefferson. And like the mighty oak from the acorn, out of this tiny establishment grew the Pulpwood Queens.
At first, it was a mere handful of Jefferson locals, but in short order (with the help of TV spots on Oprah and Good Morning, America, and write-ups in Newsweek and Time), it soon included legions of ladies around the globe. Today, New York publishers— hungry for the book sales her endorsement can guarantee—dance to Kathy’s tune. They rearrange publishing dates to fit her schedule, donate numberless boxes of books to her events and mail crates of manuscripts for her consideration.
What, you may ask, is the secret of the Pulpwood Queens’ remarkable rise to prominence? Well, part of it, undoubtedly, is Kathy’s passion for books and writers, and her exhaustive organizing. (She’s a sort of Cesar Chavez in a feather boa.) But mostly, it’s because being a Pulpwood Queen is a ring-tailed hoot—the club’s motto is “where tiaras are mandatory and reading good books is the rule.”
Here’s how it works: Each month, individual chapters— who’ve named themselves things like “The Sirens” and “Queens in the Hood” and “Queens on the Rocks”—gather to discuss Kathy’s selected titles, wear outré get-ups, and eat pot-luck suppers. Then they blog about their talks with their fellow queens worldwide. At the end of the year, they vote for their favorite novels and children’s books. (This year’s winners were Pat Conroy’s South of Broad, Jamie Ford’s p, and Melissa Conroy’s delightful picture book Poppy’s Pants.) And finally, at their Girlfriend Weekend convention, held annually at Jefferson’s Convention and Tourism Building, the Queens dub their chosen writers (in a ceremony similar to a knighthood) “Jewels of the Pulpwood Crown,” in addition to attending readings and discussions led by prominent authors. This year’s bill of fare included (in the interest of full disclosure) moi, but much more significantly, Pat Conroy, Elizabeth Berg (author of, notably, Open House) and Ron Hall (coauthor of Same Kind of Different as Me).
As the assembled authors read, club members can get their hair and nails done, eat barbecue and shop for jewelry. Each evening culminates in a costume “Hair Ball,” with live music and dancing. This year’s party themes were Barbie, in honor of the doll’s 50th birthday, and The Wizard of Oz, in honor of the film’s 70th anniversary. Rush week at Kappa Kappa Gamma is as nothing compared to the competition at these Hair Balls. Prizes are awarded to those who don the finest costumes and decorate the most elaborate dinner tables. This year, not one, but two, of these extravagantly decorated dinner tables actually featured electrical wiring—one with flashing pink police lights, and the other with a multi-tiered Mojito fountain.
Outside of Radio City Music Hall, I’ve never seen costumes like those worn by the Pulpwood Queens. My particular favorite this year was worn by Kathy Patrick on Barbie night. Kathy came as the little-known, but authentic, Tippi Hedren Barbie from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, wearing an exquisitely tailored, Edith Head-y suit, with stuffed black crows super-glued all over it and pinned into her hair, and fake blood smeared all over her cheeks and forehead. Seeing her standing up on that leopard-print podium, wearing her tiara, and judging the Barbie fashion show, was one of those rare, precious, catnip moments life sometimes hands you, when you really couldn’t ask for more.
But what all this fake fur and hairspray really amounts to is having fun with serious literature, in the midst of a drab cultural landscape in which fun isn’t a word often associated with la vie littéraire. I mean, has anybody tried to watch Book TV lately? It’s like visually ingesting a lithium capsule. Why is that? There used to be an air of public revelry surrounding books. The bitchy remarks of Mary McCarthy or Gore Vidal on The Dick Cavett Show were actually the stuff of water-cooler chit-chat, even scandal. But today, public revelry is too often killed off by the very people attempting to “promote literature”—wellmeaning sorts like Laura Bush, who talk about “the importance of reading” in the same Somber Sally tones one might use to encourage flu vaccination.
Yet revelry is precisely the atmosphere Kathy Patrick has managed to generate among the Pulpwood Queens. Which ironically, brings us to the club’s more serious side. As Patrick lays out in her 2008 book, The Pulpwood Queen’s Tiara-Wearing, Book-Sharing Guide to Life, the larger point of the club, beyond Hair Balls and fancy dress, is community service. From the broadest perspective, the club is a unique catalyst for literature. But on a more practical level, the Pulpwood Queens do an awful lot of actual, quantifiable good. This year alone, a group of Alaskan Queens founded a new chapter in a women’s prison, and the Queens of Southwest Louisiana stocked an entire library in Nicaragua.
Back in Jefferson, the impact is most pronounced. Times are tough in East Texas, a place that can feel far, far away from the state’s urban centers. (“Where are you from?” one lovely, Munchkin-clad Queen from tiny Palestine, Texas, asked me at the Hair Ball.
“Houston,” I answered. “Well,” she said consolingly, “that’s almost Texas.”)
Jefferson is located in Marion County, where the adult illiteracy rate is a tragic 39 percent. The 2000 census found that more than 22 percent of the county lived below the poverty line; per-capita income was $14,535. And while Jefferson’s library sponsors many inventive reading programs, some of the county’s rural residents only rarely get to take advantage of them.
Enter the Pulpwood Queens. This year, with one luncheon alone, they built a brand-new day care center for Jefferson’s Methodist Church. Through their patronage of a single concession stand, they sent a youth group on a mission trip. And most smashingly, on the strength of one silent auction, they funded an entire year of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library for all of Marion County—a marvelous literacy initiative that mails every child in the county one free book per month until they enter kindergarten.
The pairing of Dolly Parton with the Pulpwood Queens seems particularly apropos—they’re intelligent, fun, vibrant women, completely free of the New York Smarty-Pants Syndrome endemic to the publishing industry. It’s a syndrome that, in addition to being unattractive, has also proven spectacularly unproductive as of late. Last year was the least commercially successful in the industry’s history, a year in which people began referring to the printed book (not to mention magazines and newspapers) as an endangered species.
But it was also, perhaps not coincidentally, the most successful year in the Pulpwood Queens’ history.
Well, they keep on telling us that 2009 was a year of populist revolt. Who know, folks? Maybe all that those fancy-pants in New York publishing really need is bigger hair. Also, a Barbie party.