author of Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in Illinois, raised near Detroit, and I went to college at Michigan State, where I studied economics.
Perhaps more tellingly, I also co-founded a literary magazine. We called it Oats to honor our school’s agrarian history.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
Especially early on—around twelve—I wanted to be an inventor. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, practically, but I suspected it involved tinkering with machines and playing with strange materials. I was a kid who loved LEGOs, built robots out of cardboard boxes, and learned to program early; I was always making things. That didn’t ever translate into a desire to, say, become an engineer, but it’s come back around lately, as I’ve found myself making things like apps for tablets and phones. I call myself a “media inventor” and that’s as much aspirational as it is descriptive: a reminder to myself of what I want to be doing.
Growing up near Detroit, surrounded by the ageing titans of the American auto industry, it was impossible to imagine work as anything but a 9-to-5 job. It wasn’t until I came out to San Francisco that I realized work could be… almost anything. Now I work from home, whenever I want, and I’m not sure I could have imagined that at 18.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
One is The Chronicles of Prydain, a series of YA fantasy novels by Lloyd Alexander. It’s mostly because I can so vividly remember finishing the last book, with the pages dwindling beneath my fingers, and feeling a kind of rising dread… Oh no. Soon I’ll have to leave these people behind. I finished it and I felt like I wanted to cry. It was the first time a book had made me feel like that.
Another is Kiki’s Delivery Service, a movie directed by Hayao Miyazaki. I just love its vision of the world—of people’s capabilities—of work. And I want to live in Kiki’s seaside town.
The last is the webcomic Dark Science by Aaron Diaz, still unfolding online right now. Aaron’s work is beautiful, funny, otherworldly, and more than anything, an amazing example of what’s possible in the 21st century, on the internet: an artist has a vision and he just goes for it. He finds an audience who sticks with him. They watch him grow and develop almost in real time. He makes his living that way. Amazing.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
Simple answer: I think novels stick around. The internet is my other great love, but the really troubling thing about the internet is that even if you make something great, there’s really no reason to expect anyone will be able to access it in even 5 or 10 years. Text is simple, and text and paper is simple and durable. If you’re interested in creating something that might stand the test of time, there’s no better format.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
In San Francisco, a young out-of-work designer gets a job working the night shift at a strange 24-hour bookstore in a seedy part of town. Slowly, it becomes clear that—of course—this place is more than it appears. Our hero starts to put the clues together, and they lead him from Google’s gleaming campus to the secret headquarters of a bibliophile cult and beyond—and ultimately, back to the very earliest days of printing, and a secret that’s been locked away from 500 years.
Also, there’s a bit of nerd romance.
(BBGuru: Here’s the publisher’s blurb –
Clay Jannon, twenty-six and unemployed, reads books about vampire policemen and teenage wizards. Familiar, predictable books. Books that fit neatly into a section at the bookstore.
But he is about to encounter a new species of book entirely: secret, strange, and frantically sought-after.
These books will introduce him to the strangest, smartest girl he’s ever met. They will lead him across the country, through the shadowed spaces where old words hide. They will set him on a quest to unlock a secret held tight since the time of Gutenberg – a secret that touches us all.
But before that, these books will get him a job.
Welcome to Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.)
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
The idea that the old and the new aren’t enemies; they’re collaborators. New technology and new media rarely replace the old stuff outright—instead, they all piles up together in a big, chaotic, colorful heap… a glorious jumble where more and more things are possible all the time.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
It’s impossible to pick one person who I admire most, across the board, but I will always hold William Gibson in the highest esteem, because I love books that seem to grasp RIGHT NOW—the world we live in at this moment—and Gibson does the zeitgeist better than just about anybody.
I’d like somebody—not millions or even thousands of people, but just a few—to be reading something I wrote a hundred years from now. Maybe it will be a classroom full of smart 13-year-olds doing a project on Obscure Early 21st Century Writers. Maybe one of them will find my profile on Deadopedia and decide to give Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore a shot. For me, that would be stunning success—blazing white-hot “you did it, Sloan.”
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
I have two friends, both writers, who have, for years, been my first readers and editors. The spirit of our little group is one of total allegiance and honesty. Their tastes are also super-aligned with mine, so their feedback is really meaningful. And so is their continued nagging: “Hey, finish that draft yet?” So I’d tell an aspiring writer to find one or two others and forge that kind of relationship, if they can.
Robin, thank you for playing.
About the Contributor
John Purcell (aka Natasha Walker) is the author of The Secret Lives of Emma trilogy published by Random House Australia. The Secret Lives of Emma: Beginnings reached the top ten on the Australian fiction charts and Natasha/John was the tenth highest selling Australian novelist and third highest selling Australian debut author in 2012. The trilogy has since sold over 50,000 copies in print and ebook and has been translated into French and Polish. John has worked in the book industry for the last twenty years. While still in his twenties he opened John’s Bookshop, a second-hand bookshop in Mosman in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Now he is the Head of Product and Chief Buyer at booktopia.com.au.