Just over a year ago, the children’s librarian at the library where I work pressed a book called Elsewhere into my hands and convinced me to read it simply because she had loved it so much herself; even though she’d read it for the first time years ago, she said she still thought about it regularly. (This is usually a good sign.)
I think I read the book in a day, or maybe a weekend. I found it just as sweet, thoughtful, and unique as promised. However, I neglected to hunt down the author’s other books, and when I began hearing about The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry a few months ago, I did not make the connection. I put two and two together just in time to see Gabrielle Zevin speak at Porter Square Books this past Monday.
A bookstore employee introduced Zevin as a graduate of “our local university down the street” (i.e., Harvard). Zevin started her talk by telling the audience how she got into publishing. She sold her first two novels, Elsewhere and Margarettown, in the same year; Elsewhere was an ALA Notable Children’s Book and won a few other awards as well, while Margarettown, despite several good reviews, “was a flop.”
“A flop” can mean two things in publishing: it can mean that the book was terrible and/or got bad reviews, but it can also mean that the book was decent, even good, but didn’t merit significant attention, and was buried beneath the next season’s books. Margarettown is still on the shelves of fourteen of the libraries in the Minuteman Library Network, so while it may be out of print, it’s still available; it may find fans yet.
Zevin spoke about her relationship with books going back to childhood. Ever since her parents used to drop her off at a bookstore while they went grocery shopping, she said, entering a bookstore fills her with “a heady sense of freedom and possibility.” In bookstores, she said, she always felt safe, like nothing bad could ever happen in a bookstore – “and nothing bad ever has happened to me in a bookstore.”
On to the matter of inspiration: where do her ideas for books come from? “Most of my books have started with a question.” For A.J. Fikry, there were two questions: What is the importance of bookstores to the world? And what effect do the stories we read have on our lives?
Zevin is obviously a believer in books and stories. She stated, “Children who read grow into adults you want to know.” People who read develop empathy. (I’ve written about the link between fiction and empathy here before, especially in this post inspired by an interview with Lauren Groff.) Bookstores, Zevin believes, are special places; they “represent the good in a community. They are about more than just commerce; they are about the exchange of ideas.” (The same can be said of libraries, which are entirely about ideas and community and not about commerce at all.) Reading and writing may be solitary activities, but they connect us as a community. Though those in the self-publishing business (more about that later) may disdain gatekeepers, Zevin said, “We need people [editors, booksellers, librarians] to tell us what is good and what is bad. The future of literary culture depends on these people. Booksellers are curators.”
The book world is changing. From 2005, when Elsewhere was published, to 2014, there have been huge changes: the ubiquity of the Internet, the expectation that authors will have a social media presence, the rise of e-books. “I think it’s worth being mindful of what we lose as these changes occur,” said Zevin. She doesn’t worry about futures in which children fight to the death or Chicago is divided into factions by personality type (clear allusions to The Hunger Games and Divergent); “I do, however, worry very much about the world without books.”
An Indie Next Pick for April 2014, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry was published as The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry in the U.K. The idea behind this title is that “collected works” can refer to everything a person has read in his or her life, rather than everything s/he has written. This idea instantly reminded me of Audrey Niffenegger’s graphic novel The Night Bookmobile, in which Alexandra discovers a bookmobile filled with every book she’s ever read. (The Night Bookmobile was first serialized in The Guardian, then published in hardcover by Jonathan Cape.) Such a bookmobile would be fascinating; as Zevin said, “Anybody’s reading life is so gloriously random.”
“We read to know we’re not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone. We are not alone.” –The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin
During the Q&A, Zevin spoke again about debuts. Her first two books were published quite close together, and while Elsewhere was successful, Margarettown was less so; its publisher actually folded, and the book is now out of print. Zevin said, “Everybody has a sad story about a first novel…Most of the time everyone fails. Most of the time everyone gets it wrong. How do you get over failure? You keep working…A lot of debuts are not a writer’s best work.” She added, “The work is separate from people’s response to it,” which struck me as a sensible and wise perspective to maintain.
Because Zevin writes for both YA and adult audiences, someone asked her how she shifted between them, and how she decided which audience to write for. Zevin said that the main character’s age and situation determine the audience; she has the idea first, then decides on the audience accordingly. She shared an anecdote from another author’s response to this question; that author said that the difference is hope – YA books must be hopeful – but Zevin thinks “adults like hope too.”
I haven’t yet read The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (though it’s next on my to-read list), but I know the eponymous main character is a bookseller. (Zevin read a funny passage wherein Fikry elucidates to the sales rep, Amelia, all the kinds of books he isn’t interested in.) However, Zevin said, “A.J.’s [literary] tastes aren’t mine.” She’s a keen observer of other people’s reading habits, and noted that spying on people’s reading on the subway is much harder now because of e-readers.
Another audience question concerned research. Zevin said that while she doesn’t write two books at one time, she can research one while writing another, and she did quite a lot of research for her novel The Hole We’re In, about “female soldiers in Iraq.” (She also mentioned, offhandedly, that she dislikes National Novel Writing Month - or at least thinks it “needs to be preceded by National Thinking About Your Novel Month.”)
After about ten years of working with traditional publishers, Zevin has learned a lot about how they work, and she has “respect and appreciation” for all jobs in publishing. Although “the books are still more important than how they get sold,” a tremendous amount of work goes into all aspects of a book: not just the writing of it, but the editing, the design, the jacket copy and cover art, the distribution and marketing and sales. She started off knowing very little of this – she admitted she didn’t even know that sales reps, who bring publishers’ books and catalogs to bookstores, existed – but concluded, “I do think it’s always better to be armed with information.” Many articles about self-publishing (she mentioned the Wall Street Journal particularly) display a “deep misunderstanding about the publishing process.” There is more to making a book that writing it and clicking a button. (See also: “In defense of editors,” “We built this together.”)
I’m really excited to start reading The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, and maybe some of Zevin’s other books too. You can see all of her books on her website, and if you live in the Cambridge area, check out the upcoming events at Porter Square Books.