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Robin Sloan: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Robin Sloan is an author and media inventor who has worked at Poynter, Current TV, and Twitter. His first novel, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in October 2012. Follow Robin on Twitter at @robinsloan.

The title of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore came from a tweet, right? Tell us where you got the idea, and how the book developed from the original short story into a full-length novel.

That's right: the germ of the idea was a tweet from my friend Rachel, way back in 2008, which read, "just misread '24hr bookdrop' as '24hr bookshop'. the disappointment is beyond words." I read it walking down the street in San Francisco, and it made me smile and wonder: what would a 24-hour bookstore be like, anyway? A few months later, when I sat down to start a new story, the question was still there, so I started to sketch it out. When it was finished, I published that story online, both in Amazon's Kindle Store and on my website, and it just took off like a rocket—somehow finding an audience much bigger and more vocal than any of my other stories before or since. So, that was a sign that maybe there was something there: some deeper potential, some larger story.

You describe yourself as a media inventor: what do you mean by the term, and if you could invent any media type at all (cost and other logistics being no object), what would it look/feel like?

It's pretty simple: a media inventor is somebody who's interested in both the content—the words, the pictures, the ideas—and the container. A good example is my essay Fish, which began as a blog post but quickly grew into something else: a sort of simple tap-by-tap presentation that plays out on an iPhone screen. The format is a crucial part of the experience; the same words, laid out flat as a blog post, wouldn't have the same impact. It's a small thing, but indicative of what I'm talking about. These days, with all these amazing screens at our disposal, there's an opportunity to be creative about not only the words themselves but also the way they're presented.

What was your research process like as you wrote this book? Were there sources on the early years of printing that you found particularly useful?

I love Andrew Pettegree's The Book in the Renaissance, a historian's look at the publishing business circa 1400-1600. Basically the takeaway is this: it was just as competitive and chaotic as the internet industry is today. Probably more so.

I enjoyed the New York Times story about your recent visit to the Grolier Club in New York. What was the most interesting (or surprising) thing you saw there?

I got a chance to see some books printed by Aldus Manutius up close. He was basically the first great printer; his company produced the first printed editions of the classics—Aristotle, Homer, Ovid, all those guys. I'd read a lot about Manutius (he plays a role in Penumbra) but had never seen any of his books in the flesh. They were amazing to behold: these 500-year-old objects, still perfectly legible, still quite beautiful.

That article also notes that you originally wanted to have the book printed in a custom typeface. Had this been possible, what would the typeface have looked like?

Well, I don't want to give too much away, but there's a fictional typeface that plays a role in Penumbra's plot, and it would have been fun—and sort of recursive, I suppose—to print the book in some simulation of that very typeface. As it happens, the real typeface we used has similar roots. It all goes back to Manutius!

While we're on the subject of book as object, tell us about the dust jacket, which is quite unusual in its own right.

I almost don't want to say it, because people have had such fun buying the book and discovering it as a surprise. But, since you asked: the book glows in the dark. Like: really glows. If you put this thing down on your bedside table and turn out the light, you'll see it there, quietly beaming at you.

What are some of your favorite libraries and/or bookstores, and why?

I have way too many favorites to list, but I'll give a shout out to Green Apple Books in San Francisco, which was my neighborhood bookstore when I was first starting Penumbra. And actually, there's a branch of the San Francisco Public Library around the corner that's quite lovely, too; it has just as many books in Chinese and Russian as in English. You could do a lot worse than to have these two places as your neighborhood book-acquisition options.

What's your home library like? What sorts of books would we find there? How do you do most of your reading today?

My reading is split pretty evenly between print books and e-books, and I try to keep my print book collection pretty small. With the exception of a few childhood favorites, I don't have any "precious" books, so I love pressing them into other people's hands, sort of flinging them out into the world. "Never lend a book," they say, and they're right.

What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

I think M. John Harrison's latest three books—Light, Nova Swing, and most recently, Empty Space—are just awesome. They are dark, weird, deeply imaginative, and just incredibly well-written.

Are you at work on another book? Any hints as to what it'll be about?

I am indeed, and all I'll say is this: if Penumbra is anchored in 2012 but stretches back in time, to Manutius and his printing house, then this new one is probably going to stretch forward.

—interview by Jeremy Dibbell

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About author interviews

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