The February State of the Thing, LibraryThing’s monthly newsletter of features, author interviews and various forms of bookish delight, should have made its way to your inbox by now. You can also read it online. It includes interviews with authors Robin Sloan and Christine Sneed.
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.
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.
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.
Do you recall what first gave you the idea to write a novel about Hollywood fame and its effects on both the famous person and those around him?
I remember wondering one day what it would be like to have a famous film actor as your father, especially if you are a young man—what sort of competition and envy would you feel? This is where the idea for the book began, but I’m not sure what triggered it.
You’ve written that Little Known Facts asks of its characters ‘If you could have anything in the world, what would you choose?’ How would you answer that question yourself?
Well, it will sound a little suspect, but it’s nonetheless true: I would help friends and family pay debts, send their children to college, take fancy vacations in the sun. I’d want to be able to take fancy, sunny vacations too and spend more time in France, the country where I studied in college; it remains very close to my heart. I’d also like to see about four movies a week.
Tell us a bit about your writing process: how and when do you do much of your writing? Any particular hints or tips on writing that you’d like to share?
I usually write in the afternoons when I’m not teaching; I do sometimes write at night, but not as often. The writing advice I often give is that you can get a lot done in the interstices—even if you only have 30-45 minutes on a given day, sit down and at least make some notes. A book is written little by little, not in one marathon session.
What’s your own library like? What sorts of books would we find on your shelves?
Some poetry but mostly fiction and nonfiction by American and British writers, and currently on my desk are Dan Chaon’s Stay Awake, Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, Achy Obejas’s Ruins, along with Brad Watson’s Aliens in Their Prime, also, Outrageously Offensive Jokes III and The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012.
Catch up on previous State of the Thing newsletters.