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Interview: October 3, 2014

Garth Stein is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN. His latest work of fiction, A SUDDEN LIGHT, is about Trevor Riddell, a 14-year-old boy whose willingness to face his family’s thorny history is the key to its future. In this interview with’s Kate Ayers, Stein discusses the evolution of this haunting (and haunted!) tale, including its original incarnation as a play, “Brother Jones,” and the hundred thousand words he wrote that never quite made it into the book. He also talks about why the best protagonists are always focused, his new appreciation for tree climbing (and his climbing guru), and why you don’t have to believe in ghosts to appreciate the magic of A SUDDEN LIGHT. I wasn’t really sure how you would be able to top yourself (or even equal yourself) after THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN, your poignant story featuring Enzo, the dog, as narrator, but you did. A 14-year-old may not seem, at first glance, to be a stunning rival for a dog telling the story of his life on his last day, but Trevor Riddell is no ordinary teenage boy. How did you choose him as your narrator for this tale?

Garth Stein: Just to clarify, the book is narrated by 38-year-old Trevor as he recounts the summer of his 14th year to his family. The story is very big, so Trevor as an adult can distill the important parts to tell us, the important journal entries he remembers. He can put perspective on things that a 14-year-old couldn't have. He may use Trevor's 14-year-old voice when recounting things that 14-year-old Trevor did, but it is always through his memories as an adult and his perspective as an adult that he tells the story. This allows us to experience the immediacy of Trevor's teenage voice with the added perspective of time and reflection.  

BRC: This is a question that always comes up, but that’s because everyone genuinely wants to know. I'm curious about your inspiration for A SUDDEN LIGHT, since it is a ghost story.

GS: In 2004, I was between novels and casting about for a new idea when I had the idea to write a play in which the set --- an old, crumbling house --- was a character in the play. It would moan and groan and creak at particular times, as if it were trying to speak to the inhabitants. That idea turned into a play, “Brother Jones,” that had one --- and only one --- production in Los Angeles in 2005. It was great fun, but I knew the play was flawed. It needed work. After THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN came out, I began thinking about my next novel, and I returned to the idea of Brother Jones. I decided to build the history of the Riddell family and write a novel about them.

BRC: Is there a park or forest area in Seattle, where the story takes place, that has a history anything like The North Estate in this novel? Or people in Seattle’s past who had a formative influence on the city that you used to create the characters who exist here?

GS: I grew up in a neighborhood north of Seattle called Innis Arden. It’s just down the hill from a wealthy Seattle enclave called The Highlands. The Highlands were developed near the turn of the 20th century as a place for the wealthiest citizens of Seattle to build their mansions around an expansive, and somewhat famous, golf course. Since I grew up nearby, always looking up on the big mansions on the bluff, I based The North Estate on that area.

BRC: As for the characters themselves, Jones Riddell, our narrator’s father, comes across as lost, a bit adrift, even angry. For certain, he needs answers. He has almost reversed roles with his son Trevor, who displays much more sense and thinks things through with more adult reasoning. Did you find the dad frustrating at times, even as his creator? Or does working through a character’s problems, such as Jones’s, become somewhat cathartic?

GS: Interestingly, this question points to what I felt was the biggest flaw in the play, “Brother Jones,” in that my protagonist was adrift. A good protagonist cannot be adrift! That’s why Trevor is the protagonist in the novel; he has a pretty clear and consistent goal. I never found Jones frustrating, no. He, like many of the other characters, is deeply damaged and is seeking his redemption. He finds it at the end, I believe, but I won’t say more as I don’t want to spoil the ending.

BRC: Then there’s Serena, Jones’s sister. She has been taking care of their ailing father, living in Riddell House as it is falling down around them, waiting for Jones to return and save her. From the very beginning, right at the time young Trevor meets her and becomes flustered by her, something felt off with Serena. Without giving anything away, is that because the solitude got to her? Was their father so cruel that she snapped? Was she always a little bit crazy? And was dear Brother Jones forever a bit blind to it all?

GS: When Trevor arrives at Riddell House, his aunt, Serena, holds all the keys. His father is reticent at best. His grandfather may or may not be suffering from dementia. His mother is thousands of miles away in England. And Serena, the one with the answers, turns every encounter into a game. I had a lot of fun writing their scenes together, because I felt they were dueling and boxing each other, throwing little jabs and looking for an opening. I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss Serena as crazy; she’s much more nuanced than that. As a child something quite tragic happened in her family, and she’s spent the bulk of her life internalizing that event without much guidance from a sympathetic source, so, yes, she is flawed. She’s a very tragic character.

BRC: I know you had experience with racing cars, so those parts of THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN were written from first-hand knowledge. In A SUDDEN LIGHT, there is quite a lot about tree climbing. Were you a tree climber before writing this novel, or did you need to do research on how it is done specifically for the story?

GS: I was not a tree climber before I began this book, but I am now. I have a climbing guru, Tim Kovar, who travels around the world teaching people how to climb the tallest trees. He takes me up into the trees when I feel the compulsion. A couple of months ago, he and I climbed an 800-year-old redwood in California, for instance. It’s really a magical experience!

BRC: Your novels display such intense emotion and vivid spirituality. You seem to have a deep well within you. Where does all of the emotion come from? And can you show us, your readers, how we might tap into our own somehow?

GS: Look, I can’t shoot a basketball worth a nickel. I’m too stiff to be a good dancer. I couldn’t sing to save my life. I see colors, but I have no idea why one color goes with another color but not with a third, so I could never be an interior designer. What I do have is an ability to tap into emotional moments and use words to convey those moments to readers. And if you think I’m telling you the secret, you’ve got another thing coming!

BRC: Speaking of spirituality, A SUDDEN LIGHT is a ghost story of the most wondrous kind. Do you believe in ghosts, or shall we call them spirits instead? Your characters would lead readers to think that one has to believe in order to see clearly.

GS: In the world of A SUDDEN LIGHT, ghosts and spirits are not the same. Spirits are souls at peace, whereas ghosts are souls burdened by the past and “stuck.” As Trevor’s grandmother has explained it: “A spirit can come and go as he wishes, but a ghost is trapped, because a ghost cannot see the door.”

But to enjoy my book, one doesn’t necessarily have to believe this idea. One simply has to be open to believing this idea is possible.  

I like to look beyond the facade of reality. I like to peek behind and peel back the layers and see the connections that aren’t always visible. So my fiction will always include a certain amount of magical realism, I think.

BRC: Some authors are prolific, with an emphasis on quantity. Your focus appears to be on quality. After all, it has been six years since the last novel, and it was a bestseller, as this is bound to be. How do you come up with a story? Does it just hit you one day, or does an idea slowly form?

GS: I think a good writer has “scan” on his creative radio and is always listening for those distant stations playing something unusual or interesting or provocative.  Keep turning the dial (I know, radios don’t have dials anymore --- so keep pushing “scan”), and you’ll tune to something inspiring.

BRC: For A SUDDEN LIGHT, you have told a story about scrapping an entire manuscript before re-starting the writing of this book. Since readers often think writers never hit a roadblock, can you tell us about this experience and how it influenced A SUDDEN LIGHT? Was anything from the original manuscript preserved?

GS: Pretty early on, I realized I needed to write the history of the Riddell clan from the beginning: 1890 Portland, Oregon. I didn’t know enough about the motivations of my characters who were in the past to write effectively about the current generation. So I did that. I spent over two years doing that, all the time thinking this history was my novel. I had finished about a hundred thousand words, and was ready to begin the current-day part of the story, when I realized the novel really was the second part, which I hadn’t written yet, informed by the history, which I had written. So I set those hundred thousand words aside and began working on the actual story I wanted to tell. I used maybe 10% of that original material in flashbacks or diary entries, but I used 100% of it to infuse the present-day story with the texture of the past of the family. So, honestly, I didn’t waste a minute working for those two years; though the exact words aren’t reflected in the final version, the spirit of those words is reflected there.