A Fiendish Conversation with Garth Stein
They say a dog is man's best friend, and in the case of Garth Stein, a dog also became man's best windfall. The Seattle author's 2008 novel The Art of Racing in the Rain became a smash hit New York Times bestseller with its story of a dog named Enzo that aspires to be reincarnated as a human. After the book spawned a young adult version (Racing in the Rain: My Life as a Dog) and a Book-It theatrical adaptation, Stein is finally ready to move past Enzo with his follow-up novel A Sudden Light. The new book focuses on Trevor Riddell, a teenager exploring his family's old Northwest manor and connecting with a spirit who reveals his lineage's dark past. A Sudden Light arrives in bookstores on September 30 and Stein will celebrate its release that evening with a free party Hugo House.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Stein about the creation of A Sudden Light, Seattle's compact history, and the case against writing rituals.
What was led you explore the realm of ghost house stories with A Sudden Light?
Well, it’s my interpretation of a ghost story. I started writing it as a play. I wrote a play—Brother Jones—back in 2004. I had just finished my second novel, How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets, and I had this idea… I wanted to do like a one-set sort of gothic, Northwest haunted house story. I came up with these characters and the play came to me in a very mysterious way. I only wrote at night, and I’m usually a day writer. And it was kind of creepy; sometimes I’d be writing it and it felt like characters were in the room whispering things. So it was always the idea of the house being a character; I wanted the house to be able to actually interact with the actors and so forth. The house makes noises and stuff.
Anyway, it got a production—it won a couple of awards actually—down in Los Angeles, and it was fun. It was flawed. It would’ve needed considerable work and workshopping to go any further with it. And I kind of didn’t pursue it because I had this idea about a dog narrating a book, and the dog wants to be reincarnated as a person, and so I wrote that, and The Art of Racing in the Rain became… it sort of took over my life.
And then it came time to write a new book and I thought, “You know, I’d actually like to work with those characters more.” Because the idea of theater is that theater is about the now. It’s about the immediacy of the drama, and the characters interacting on stage, whereas in a novel you can really delve into the history of these characters and how we got to the now. And so I started to delve, and I just kept digging; it just kept going further and further generations back until I had a considerable amount of material that went back into five generations of this timber family, the Riddell family. It took me a while to sort out exactly the voice and exactly, you know, what perspective it would have, and what part of the story I was going to focus on. But that’s really where it came from; a ghostly place.
So between A Sudden Light and The Art of Racing in the Rain it seems like the afterlife is an area that really interests you. Is that just an area of thought where you mind naturally wanders?
Umm… yes. My first book—Raven Stole the Moon—was a spiritual thriller that takes place in Alaska and deals with Tlingit Indian mythology. My mother’s family is Tlingit Indian from a small town in Wrangell. And so I guess I’ve always been attracted to magical realism in fiction. I like to go that direction, to say, “What’s beyond what we think we see?” I definitely like that and plan to continue; that’s sort of my American-style magical realism, I guess.
How do you feel like your writing has evolved since The Art of Racing in the Rain?
It’s funny because if you asked me this question with Art of Racing in the Rain, I would have said, “Well, I write with much more economy now. I have more confidence that I’m getting it done.” So it’s hard for me to say that now because A Sudden Light is a long book. But it’s a long book in the sense that also it’s covering this huge history of this family.
When I was writing my second book, Evan, I gave it to a writer friend of mine to read for comments. And we were chatting about it and so forth, and then finally he said to me, “You know, I just have one kind of crazy suggestion. You should go through the book and cut the last sentence of every paragraph.” And I said, “What?” And I went and looked at it, and it was true. Maybe not every paragraph, but I didn’t trust that I was getting it done. So I would write a paragraph and then—just to make sure the reader got it—I’d say it again. And I realized that you have to, as a writer, learn to trust yourself that it’s working, and that the reader is going to get it. You have to trust the reader. And in so doing, one can write much more economically and really pick up the pace of the story. So I think I’ve done that.
Do you have a specific writing routine? Are there any habits you need to do in order to get into the right headspace?
You know, I eschew that. Because I feel that that’s just… if you have, like, little rituals, you just are creating built-in excuses to not write. And the easiest thing to do in the world is not write. I mean, I’m not writing right now. (Laughs) It’s so easy to do that you create little excuses, it’s just going to be easier.
So I have an office loft down in Georgetown. I love going there. I go there and I get my work done. No one bothers me; I’m isolated and alone. I listen to a lot of trains and airplanes. And so if I go there and write for four hours or five hours, then my day is done, so I can go do some other fun Seattle activity.
How do you feel Seattle has impacted your writing?
The influence of Seattle is tremendous. I mean, I grew up here. I grew up in Shoreline. In fact, I grew up just down the hill from the Highlands, which now I’ve fictionalized and put in A Sudden Light. I call it the "North Estate," but it’s a fictionalized version of the Highlands.
All of my books take place in Seattle. My first one started in Seattle and then goes up to Alaska, but there’s still Seattle in there. So everything is informed: the people, the proximity to nature, the lifestyle, the history. I love the history of the Northwest in its compact nature. You know, it’s really 1852 we start the clock; that’s not a whole lot of time. I was with my son, he was playing in a soccer tournament in Spain, and you walk around Barcelona, and you’re like “Oh wow, this place has been here for a while.” We don’t have that, but we have sort of the intimacy with nature that you don’t find other places. So I really love that interaction. You cannot find me a more beautiful place than Seattle today. Look outside the window.
Is there anything you're specifically looking forward to in regards to the A Sudden Light book launch party at Hugo House and other upcoming readings?
Well I’m looking forward to getting in front of people and talking about a book that’s isn’t narrated by a dog. (Laughs)
Garth Stein: A Sudden Light
Sept 30 at 7, Richard Hugo House, Free
Oct 7 at 7, Third Place Books, Free