The American Booksellers Association collects nominations from bookstores all over the country for favorite forthcoming titles. The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry not only received the most votes for April's Indie Next list, it received the most votes ever in the history of the program. You don't, however, need to work in a bookstore to fall in love with this book. The story is an affirmation of the important role books play in our lives and the ability they have to transform us all.
In a starred review, Library Journal commends The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry: "Funny, tender, and moving, it reminds us all exactly why we read and why we love." Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain, raves, "Gabrielle Zevin has written a wonderful, moving, endearing story of redemption and transformation that will sing in your heart for a very, very long time."
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Shawn Donley: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is a bit of a departure from your previous books. What inspired you to write about a small independent bookstore?
Gabrielle Zevin: You can't avoid it these days. Ten years ago when I published my first book, it was like publishing in a completely different universe. There was no Twitter, no Facebook. In a way, publishing in 2005 was similar to publishing in 1950. Nobody kept blogs; that was still optional. I didn't even have a website then.
This is my eighth book in about a decade. I've published during a time of enormous change in the industry. I wanted to write a book that reflected a bit on issues of why we should shop locally versus online, the rise of ebooks versus print. But even more than that, I think the book is about the pleasures of a reading life.
Shawn: As a longtime bookseller, let me say that you did a wonderful job of capturing all the joys and challenges of working at a bookstore. What type of research did you do while writing this book?
Zevin: I'm like a unicorn; I'm a midlist writer who hasn't done anything else but write. But because I wasn't amazingly famous, I didn't become Stephanie Meyer, or even a huge literary name like a Jonathan Franzen or a Joshua Ferris.
I'm very privy to the way bookstores work, and I think a lot about the ecosystem that my books have been published in. I think it's great to be aware of how publishing works.
I remember when I published my first book, I certainly had many ideas about books, and very few ideas about publishing. I thought, Maybe the book will just show up, and then it'll be an instant New York Times bestseller. I'll be walking down Fifth Avenue, and every single store will have my book in the window. I thought that was how publishing worked.
In fact, the truth of publishing is that it's a very complicated ecosystem that I've been allowed to observe close up. I've done events where lots of people came, and I've done events where two people came, and one of them was the bookseller. When you do those kinds of events, you ask questions.
Shawn: How would you describe A. J. Fickry, the main character in this novel?
Zevin: He is a prickly curmudgeon. It says so on the jacket, and it's true. I really relate to that because I think that people who are book buyers, and people who work in bookstores in general, they are two things. They are not particularly motivated by money, and they are in the business of their own taste. These two factors combine to form people that are very particular about things. People don't understand that. When you go into a town, there aren't that many places that aren't about survival. Bookstores and books themselves are more than just commerce.
Shawn: The novel is set on a Martha's Vineyard–like island off the coast of Massachusetts called Alice Island. Why did you choose this setting?
Zevin: The setting was really important to me. I'd been thinking about it a long time, but I thought of A. J. as somebody who had become isolated because of his intellect. He loved his very specific taste. It cut him off from people. I thought of the island setting as symbolic of where he was in his life.
I've been thinking about it some more because people are asking this question. It takes a lot of effort to get to Alice Island. First of all, it's fictional, but if it were a real place, it would take a lot of effort to get there. You'd have to take a ferry; you'd have to take a plane. Maybe you have to drive, and maybe you have to drive some more.
I was thinking that reading is the same way.People choose to read and it takes effort. It's not one of those hobbies that asks nothing of the person who is doing it. It's more than a hobby. You choose to be a reader and you choose to go to Alice Island.
Shawn: It's a commitment.
Zevin: It's a commitment to being in a reading life because, especially now, we're aware there are so many other ways that you can, let's say it nicely, "spend your time." Not nicely: "waste your life." Those who decide to pursue reading stories, it is a decision you make.
Shawn: Publisher's sales reps are a very likable and eccentric breed. Did you base the character of Amelia on any particular sales rep that you knew?
Zevin: It's a combination of lots of them. Like I said before, I wasn't aware that those people existed. It never came up in, say, John Irving when he'd write books about books. All that he mentioned was the 92nd Street Y.
I love books about books, and I always have, all of them. Maybe you'll see a character of an agent, and you'll definitely see an editor character, but the book sales rep never comes up. Somebody was saying to me recently that probably that's because they're not very romantic. I thought, Au contraire, it's actually quite romantic. They only come out three or four times a year to go meet these people, so you have these slow-motion relationships with people that you see over many years.
The first book sales rep I ever knew really well was a guy who was kind of a legend, as far as a book sales rep can be a legend. That was when I was publishing with Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers. His name was Mark Gates. He was one of those huge personalities. He had a voice like Harvey Fierstein. I was amazed and shocked to watch him go through the catalog of FSG's offerings at that time, because he was brutal. He would sit across the table from a bookseller. He would flip past the pages so quickly. "This is not for you. You didn't do well with his last title, so don't stock this one." Ostensibly his job, of course, was to represent all the books.
I remember feeling very convicted that I didn't want to end up on a "flip past" page in the catalog. I'm not sure I have.
Shawn: But there are a lot of books in the catalog.
Zevin: There are a lot of books in the catalog, and these people, the booksellers themselves, they live and die on their tastes. They cannot lie. Even though their job is to sell everything, they can't sell everything and sell anything very well. This is a fascinating character.
Of course, there's a storied tradition of salespeople in American literature. I've always liked them. The romance of the salesman, the traveling salesman.
Shawn: A. J. and Amelia share a love of books, but they have personalities that are almost polar opposites. Would you say you have more of a personality like A. J. or Amelia?
Zevin: I think people think I'm an Amelia, because I seem nice. But in my dark heart, I'm probably more of an A. J.
It was funny; somebody asked me recently why I chose to write a male main character, and I think that the reason is, number one, I'd never sell the book any other way. But the other reason is, I think in terms of a shield, it's better for me, as a woman, to have A. J. be my character, my mouthpiece. Because then there's less of a chance anybody thinks those opinions, and he has many that are mine. All his opinions are not mine, but I think I felt more freedom when I was able to be A. J.
Honestly, though, in publishing I meet just as many Amelias as A. Js. Often they coexist in the same people, as they do in myself. You have to be eternally optimistic to work in publishing. You have to have this belief that any time you open a book, this could be the one.
Shawn: I love how you started each chapter with a brief synopsis of a short story, written by writers as diverse as Roald Dahl and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Flannery O'Connor. Are these some of your favorite short stories?
Zevin: I've always loved short stories. I've always been able to go to the short story as a thing of comfort for myself. But no, it was a combination of factors that led me to choose those. I wouldn't say they're my favorites, but I've read enough that I was able to pick pretty specifically.
I thought of them more as sort of A. J. writing shelf talkers for his daughter. I've always loved the idea of the "shelf talker," the intimate letter from a bookseller to a reader. I thought he would be concerned with the issue of giving a decent canon to a young writer.
I feel like A. J. would be irritated if he didn't have enough, say, foreign writers on that list. I think his list would be even longer than that. He would like more work in translation.
Something that has always fascinated me is the way, if you read your whole life, you use what you read to mark time. I know I associate certain books with, I read that when I was moving. I read that when I was breaking up with my boyfriend, kind of thing. You're immediately, if you pick up a book, sort of thrown back in time to this other time when you first read it. The books never change, but you do.
I thought of that, too, when I was picking these short stories, why I wanted the references to occur in that way. That they were references to specific times, and that they were going to be the way we moved through time in the book.
Shawn: For this particular book, what came first for you — the story or the characters?
Zevin: Like I said before, when my first book came out, it was kind of a trauma. It was so not what I had been prepared for in terms of what popular culture representations of the novelist look like. I didn't become a drunk; there weren't midnight book release parties. Nobody ever recognized me in the store I went into. I thought pretty much as soon as I had sold my first book, I'd be walking into the store and people would be like, "Oh, Ms. Zevin. Will you sign this?"
I think I do write about things that I find traumatic, but I think it happens for a lot of writers. It's why, to me, young novelists have "bad first-novel experiences." It's not so much that anybody at the publisher did anything but what they normally do, or that the book had a life anything other than what books normally have — which is to say most of them don't work commercially. It's just that the rupture between a novelist in a John Irving book and in real life is very pronounced.
You asked me did the story come first or the characters. The characters probably came first. I'm glad I didn't write this book seven, eight years ago, because I don't think my youth would have allowed me to understand the true character of what a bookseller is.
Shawn: The bookstore in your novel has a great motto, "No man is an island. Every book is a world." Is that a variation on something you've seen somewhere?
Zevin: It's a variation of John Donne, but I've never actually seen this on a sign anywhere. I kind of thought at the time that it was something that A. J.'s wife, who died, would have put on the sign. I don't even think A. J. is down with this motto at all. This is something that his wife put on the sign, and I think it's a reminder to him to be more sociable in the world, to connect more with the world.
I think probably A. J. would find the sign to be slightly... almost maudlin. It's funny that it's taken up a life of its own. People do like it, but I have a feeling A. J. would not love the motto.
Shawn: Maya, the little girl in the book, spends her childhood living in a bookstore. Did you have a favorite store when you were growing up?
Zevin: The first store I can remember is a store called Village Books, which was next to a grocery store in Florida where I moved when I was about five years old. The reason it's my favorite is not because there was anything particularly extraordinary about it, but just because, when my parents would grocery shop, they would give me $5-10 to go into the bookstore and buy whatever I wanted.
I still associate going into a bookstore with this sort of heady feeling of freedom, because it was the first place I was ever allowed to go alone. Nobody ever told me, "You can only stay in that one row." Whatever $5 or $10 would get me, my parents were fine with. It's funny; I was only, like, six or seven years old. I don't know if people let their children go into bookstores by themselves anymore.
However, when I was a little bit older, my favorite store was probably the Grolier Poetry Shop in Cambridge. It's still there, by the way. I love that we still do live in a world where a tiny poetry shop can exist.
Then when I was maybe in my late teens/early 20s, there was this store in New York City that didn't have a name. It was called "A Book Store" or something. They were open 24 hours a day, so you could go at any time and buy books, which I really appreciated. Sometimes you really want Evelyn Waugh at 3:00 a.m. It seems important to me. I wasn't the only person who shopped there in the middle of the night. It was just crazy that it didn't even have a sign.
There also used to be a great bookstore in New York City called Murder Ink and Ivy's, and it was probably about the size of A. J.'s store. I used to be very partial to that store because they had a huge black dog, like a "Hound of the Baskervilles" dog. He used to always greet you, or at least me, by ramming his big old dog head into my rump. "Buy books here!"
You certainly don't get that at Amazon.
Books mentioned in this post