Author Gabrielle Zevin talks about the power of books
The Collected Works of
A.J. Fikry is a wonderful story about the power of reading set in a charming
and quirky bookshop. Can you tell us
what inspired you to write a novel about books, and where we go to seek them out?
Whenever I visit a town,
the first place people want to tell me about is their bookstore. Maybe it’s
because I’m a novelist, but I think it’s also because, for many people, the
bookstore represents the “good” in a place. It signifies that the people who
live there care about more than just survival: food, clothing, etc. A person
who enters a bookstore does so because she wishes to somehow expand her
intellectual/emotional life or the intellectual/emotional life of someone she
knows. Choosing to walk through the doors of a bookstore says something about a
person. And, in The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry, I think it says something
positive about Maya’s mother that she chooses a bookstore as the place to leave
Beyond that, we are at a
moment in time where we are grappling with issues of print v. digital, shopping
locally v. online, and in the face of this, I wanted to write a—I hope
entertaining—book that talked about why bookstores matter.
Which books made you want
to become a writer?
When I was a child, I
loved orphan stories and especially books where free-spirited young women
became writers or storytellers. I think of L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green
Gables, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows
in Brooklyn, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, or Louis May Alcott’s Little Women.
I still think of a particular moment in A Little Princess: when Sara Crewe has
been stripped of her money and status, she calls upon the power of storytelling
to transform her situation. I believe the stories we tell about ourselves have
the power to shape our lives, and this is definitely a theme in The Collected
Works of A.J. Fikry, too.
When I was a bit older, I
loved reading novels about very capable women who were thwarted in their
personal expression because of the times or society in which they lived. Books
like Revolutionary Road, The House of Mirth, The Portrait of a Lady, or The
Awakening. I loved The House of Mirth, but I was terrified of ending up like
poor Lily Bart, who says, “I am a very useless person.”
If you were to create a
collection like A.J’s what would be in it and why?
Ironically, I am terrible
at choosing favourites! It was so much easier
to choose favourites for someone else! I wish I had a clever answer to
this question, but I don’t. My favourites change from year to year. Something I
find interesting about favourites – when they are other people’s – is how much
they say about them. Even when people lie about favourite books, the lie tells
you something. But I still haven’t answered the question… I’m avoiding it.
Can’t you tell? Okay, my favourite children’s book is From the Mixed Up Files
of Ms. Basil E. Frankweiler because I always wanted to spend the night in the
Metropolitan Museum of Art. Scratch that. I think my favourite children’s book
is Charlotte’s Web because it’s a story about a writer, and sometimes, I think
I relate to Charlotte the spider more than any character in literature. A book
whose last lines I love is You Can’t Go Home Again by Tom Wolfe. I say this,
knowing I will never read this doorstopper again. It’s over 300,000 words, and
I wanted to quit reading it about a million times. I’m glad I didn’t because
its last lines are spectacularly beautiful. I also love the last lines of Ralph
Ellison’s Invisible Man because of the way they magically open up the novel to
include the reader in the experience of the book. Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s
Rainbow, Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon do
that, too. When I’m coming to the end of writing a book, I often think of these
books. To flip in the opposite direction, my favourite first line of a book is
probably The Lover by Marguerite Duras. My favourite book to recommend is Old
School by Tobias Wolfe. It’s about a boys’ school where they enter contests to
win audiences with famous writers, and I think it’s just about perfect. I kind
of have a thing for boarding school novels. I also loved Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never
Let Me Go. For a time, I used to tell people my favorite book was Love in the
Time of Cholera but I suspect it never truly was. Same for The Unbearable
Lightness of Being. My favourite book about writers is either John Irving’s A
Widow for One Year or The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachmann. A book I started
reading again as soon as I finished it is Then We Came to the End by Joshua
Ferris. An out-of-print book that I love without quite knowing why is Spend It
Foolishly by Mary Gallagher. It’s about a girl from Ohio who takes a holiday to
France and decides to never go back home. I lent the book to my grandmother.
She got sick (eventually dying) and never returned it to me. For a long time, I
didn’t have another copy until I chanced upon it at a used bookstore. I was so
happy to see it again.
Can you tell us about a
book (or the books) that evokes particular memories for you?
I remember reading Lolita
for the first time. I was nineteen, and
I had a summer internship at the New York City Department of Transportation,
making videos about subjects like pothole repair. I remember playing hooky from
work so that I could read the rest of Lolita. I remember how hot that apartment
was because it didn’t have air conditioning, and I remember how the bed was a
futon and it was like lying on a bag of flour, and I remember reading the book
and sweating and thinking to myself that maybe I wouldn’t ever go back to that
job. Maybe I’d just stay home for the rest of the summer and finish Lolita and
once that was done, I’d read everything else Nabokov had ever written. And
incidentally, that’s what I did.
Do you have a favourite
book store, and can you tell us what is special about it?
How can I pick just one?
I have a soft spot for the Grollier Poetry Bookshop in Cambridge, MA. I love
poetry and I like living in a world where a poetry bookshop can exist. There
also used to be a tiny used bookstore in NYC that was open all night. The bookstore
didn’t have a name, but I patronized it many times. Sometimes, you need Alice
Munro or Evelyn Waugh at 3 in the morning, you know?