Bestselling and award-winning author Garth Stein is on tour for his latest novel, A Sudden Light, and that tour brings him to Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books tomorrow, Thursday, November 20th at 7:30 pm. A household name for his best-selling novel The Art of Racing in the Rain, Stein returns with his first adult novel in six years, a true Pacific Northwest ghost story, turning the haunted manor of a timber magnate into a multi-generational playground and storyboard. Told alternately as a coming-of-age ghost story from the point of view of fourteen-year-old Trevor Riddell and through journal excerpts and fragments, it’s a story of familial connection, of debts to the land and to the past. There’s a fantastic website with an interactive map of the grounds, which also links off to a video of Stein describing the book for you, so you don’t have to read it here, though some choice bits include the books’ origins as a play with a house as a character, and the “domino effect” of father-son relationships that we’re dealing with as the book opens. And, in addition to being available in print and ebook formats, the fantastically talented young actor Seth Numrich narrates the audiobook for A Sudden Light.
Here, I talk with Stein about being labeled a magical realist, about developing the multi-generational history of the novel, and a few other things including the absolutely best answer ever given for a question about the Quail Ridge Books bathroom. Stay for the end, it’s worth it.
Q: With A Sudden Light you return both to the Pacific Northwest and the motifs of magical or mystical realism and supernatural fantasy of Raven Stole the Moon. What is it about the timber country that draws out the ghosts?
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, so it makes sense that my books are set there. And it is a place rich with history, and rich with folklore of the Northwest coast natives. I must be especially attuned to the spiritual nature of the forests due to my Tlingit heritage—my mother is from a small fishing village in Southeast Alaska, and we are a family of Tlingit Indian descent. I have always been attracted to stories that look beyond the veil of reality for connections that are not obvious, stories in which we try to see the unseen. So I am proud to call myself a Magical Realist.
Q: This novel is larger in scope than both Raven Stole the Moon — which while it also involved Jenna grappling with her ancestry, it’s primarily her feelings for her son which drive the story — and The Art of Racing in the Rain — which feels like a more personal novel of self-discovery and intimate relationships. A Sudden Light deals with multi-generational issues, with all of these obsessions and concerns of both the young and the old and the middle-aged all interlocking. Did you do a lot of detailed planning for this novel, or did these family histories grow out of the characters or story as you were developing them?
I tried to do it the easy way, which is just to have the histories grow as I wrote, as you say. But that didn’t work. So I went back and wrote the whole story from 1890 to present; I traced the stories of all the Riddell family members: Elijah, Benjamin, Abraham, Samuel, and Jones. I needed to know exactly what I was dealing with. Then I could write my book. Though it took me a couple of years of “pre-writing,” and that writing doesn’t appear in the novel, it was important work for me to do, as it informs the novel and gives A Sudden Light depth and texture.
Q: The use of interstitial “found footage” style elements in fiction and film can be a tricky tool to wield as an author. What made the use of diary excerpts the right way to develop some of the backstory, versus flashbacks or conversations, or other techniques?
Ah, yes, well the story is told in first person, so Trevor wouldn’t have been able to have flashbacks to events at which he wasn’t present. Therefore, I had to find mechanisms for discovering these details. Sometimes Ben gives Trevor dreams. Sometimes Trevor finds a letter or a journal. Sometimes his father or aunt or grandfather tells him an oral history (which itself may be embellished or incorrect). These items fill in the story for him so he understands what he’s dealing with, and yet Trevor can never really understand “the truth,” because the truth is dependent on the perspective of the storyteller. In this case, the storyteller is Adult Trevor telling his children the story of his childhood. So while his story is rich and compelling, we also must assume that he has taken liberties, recreated conversations he didn’t hear, and cast events in a light that would enhance his story.
Q: What do you hope your readers take away after closing the final pages of A Sudden Light?
My goal in writing a book is to tell a good story that makes readers think about things a little differently. Every reader will read a book differently, based on his or her values, ideals, and experiences. This is a good thing because it initiates conversation around the book, but around our own lives as well. So, in addition to having readers consider some of the topics and ideas in A Sudden Light, I also want them to think about how the story was told, and the questions raised by the perspective of the storyteller. Remember: “We do not see things the way they are, we see them as we are.”
Q: You read at Quail Ridge Books back in 2009 for The Art of Racing in the Rain [video] and I think I’ve seen your signed photo in the “wall of honor” in the bathroom, one of their fantastic traditions. Every independent bookstore is unique, do you have any favorite quirks of other bookstores as you continue your tour for you new novel?
Oh, I’ve signed walls and pillars and those things. But nothing beats the bathroom at Quail Ridge. I remember needing to relieve myself before my first reading at the store, and as I prepared for action, I noticed that a photo of Stephanie Kallos, a dear friend of mine, was hanging directly over the toilet, and that she was, in fact, watching me do my business. This made me a bit uncomfortable, until I remembered it was just a photo and Stevie probably wasn’t watching….