In 'Storied Life,' Characters Come With A Reading List
Thirty-nine year old widower A.J. Fikry is an unlikely romantic hero: He's cranky, he drinks too much, his bookstore is failing and don't get him started on the state of publishing. He's also at the center of Gabrielle Zevin's new novel, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.
Zevin's book is a love letter to the joys of reading. Each chapter begins with the title of a short story or a book and a note from Fikry describing what he likes about it, essentially introducing each character by what they read. Zevin tells NPR's Audie Cornish that it's a book she's been wanting to write for some time.
"I thought as a strategy it would be really interesting to describe people in terms of what they read and how they read," she says. "I think you can do a lot, like describing people with their physical characteristics, things like that, but to me I've always found it to be a much more informative question to ask somebody what they read."
On the character of A.J. Fikry
I feel like he's a person who is at the end of his rope. He's somebody who had entered sort of a reading life with a lot of noble ideas, but then once his wife dies and business is not as easy as he thought it would be and the world doesn't sort of conform to the way he hoped it would be at the age that he is, he's very depressed about things. You know, he's in a business — book selling — which is difficult for anyone, even for somebody who's in a wonderful place.
On choosing the novel's setting, a small Martha's Vinyard-like island
The setting was really important to me because I wanted to have A.J. be geographically isolated. So in the book, much like Martha's Vineyard, it takes, you know, a lot of driving, plane-taking, a ferry, all of that, to get there. ... He's both isolated physically, geographically, but also intellectually. You know, reading has become to him sort of a way to not engage with other people, when the best thing about reading is that it kind of can help us engage with other people.
On writing about non-readers like the island's police chief, Lambiase, who by the end of the book has started his own book club
Sometimes, readers, when they're young, are given, say, a book like Moby Dick to read. And it is an interesting, complicated book, but it's not something that somebody who has never read a book before should be given as an example of why you'll really love to read necessarily. And so I think Lambiase probably had that kind of experience with reading books.
I like to believe, as a writer, that anybody who isn't a reader yet has just not found the right book. So I hoped that's what Lambiase's reading journey would show.
On why she decided to make Fikry Southeast Asian and his adopted daughter biracial
I myself am mixed race — my mother is Korean and my father is an American Jew — so I've always felt other. But I think what's a little bit amazing about books, again, is the way in which they can sort of transcend that to an extent. And I also wanted the world as I see it — and the world as I see it is a world that is increasingly [filled] with people [of] different ethnicities. ... I just wanted to write a book that, again, reflected what I think people are like, and I just wanted to write a book that, again, was not ... about the fact that he is mixed race, but that he existed and had a story that could have been a story that possibly a white person also had. So yeah, that was kind of just a little goal of mine in writing this book.
On the books that define her
That is an impossible question for me to answer. It's so funny, because I love hearing what other people's favorite books [are] ... even when they lie about them, because you're meant to sort of pick books that make you seem a certain way, you know, that make you seem a bit jaunty, but well-read, but not too serious, that kind of thing. So no, I'm terrible at choosing favorites. The irony being I had no problem choosing the favorites for all the people in the book, all the fictional people. If you caught me in the right mood, I might tell you my favorite book was Charlotte's Web because I think that there's no character I relate to more than ... Charlotte the spider. But I don't know that that would be one of the three books I would choose to represent myself for posterity.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
A.J. Fikry is 39. He's a widower. He's a little bit cranky. He drinks too much. His bookstore, located on an isolated island, is failing. And don't get him started on the state of publishing. A.J. is the unlikely romantic hero of Gabrielle Zevin's latest novel, "The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry." At its heart, this book is a love letter to the joys of reading. It's one Zevin says she's been wanting to write for some time.
GABRIELLE ZEVIN: I knew this was going to be a book about reading, and probably since I first published a novel - so my first novel came out close to 10 years ago - I knew I wanted to write such a book. But I thought as a strategy it would be really interesting to describe people in terms of what they read and how they read. I think you can do a lot, like, describing people with their physical characteristics and things like that. But to me, I've always found it to be a much more informative question to ask somebody what they read.
CORNISH: Now, he has something unusual happen to him - a very transformative event, which is that a toddler is abandoned in his store.
CORNISH: And she's abandoned with a note. And I don't know if you could read a little bit of that note to us.
ZEVIN: I absolutely could.
(Reading) To the owner of this bookstore: This is Maya. She is 25 months old. She is very smart, exceptionally verbal for her age and a sweet, good girl. I want her to grow up to be a reader. I want her to grow up in a place with books and among people who care about those kind of things. I love her very much, but I can no longer take care of her. The father cannot be in her life, and I do not have a family that can help. I am desperate. Yours, Maya's mother.
CORNISH: Now, A.J. Fikry, even though he's essentially a curmudgeon, it turns out he is this home, right? This is literally a place for people who love books, and she is about to be raised by readers.
ZEVIN: Right. I mean, there's a part later in the book when Maya's learning to read. And she sort of speculates that if she'd been left in a different store - if she'd been left in, say, a bank or in a sandwich shop - would her whole life be different? And I do think that people who are left in bookstores, more metaphorically speaking if not literally so, do have different lives. They become children who are readers, become adults you want to know. I mean, that's a hard thing to say, but I think it's true.
CORNISH: Well, you also do give voice to the kind of person who describes themselves as not being a reader, not being a book person.
For instance, the police chief. He starts out very much uninterested. And by the end of it, he's hosting a book club, right? It's like...
CORNISH: ...the police chief's choice book club.
ZEVIN: And by the very end of it, he's even more in the book world than almost anyone, so.
CORNISH: What were you trying to show through that process, that experience that people who are nervous about approaching books, right? Because you don't want to look foolish.
ZEVIN: I feel many things about this, which is that sometimes readers, when they're young, are given, say, a book like "Moby Dick" to read. And it is, you know, interesting, complicated book, but it's not something that somebody who has never read a book before should be given as an example of, you know, why you will really love to read, necessarily. And so I think Lambiase probably had that kind of experience with reading books. I like to believe, as a writer, that anybody who isn't a reader yet has just not found the right book. So I hoped that that was what Lambiase's reading journey would show.
CORNISH: One thing about A.J. Fikry being on this island is he's more than an outsider to that community. He's also Southeast Asian, and it's mostly white community. The daughter he ends up adopting is biracial. And why did you do that for these particular characters?
ZEVIN: Well, I myself am mixed race - my mother is Korean, and my father is an American Jew - so I've always felt other. But I think what's a little bit amazing about books, again, is the way in which they can sort of transcend that, to an extent. And I also wanted the world as I see it. And the world as I see it is a world that is increasingly with people of different ethnicities, you know, as an author.
CORNISH: And that it wouldn't be remarked upon, right?
ZEVIN: No, that it wasn't the point of the book. No.
CORNISH: The community, it's not like a very special episode of A.J. Fikry.
ZEVIN: No. Right. I live my life not sitting around thinking, boy, I'm mixed race. How am I going to go through my day, you know? I just wanted to write a book that, again, reflected what I think people are like. And I just wanted to write a book that - again, was not like you said, about the fact that he is mixed race, but that he existed and had a story that could have been a story that possibly a white person also had. So that was kind of just a little goal of mine in writing this book.
CORNISH: And each chapter title is from a story, with a little note from Fikry describing what he liked about that book or that author. And it made me wonder if you essentially had a book list for each character. And if so, what came first - the character, or the list?
ZEVIN: Well, every single character I knew, I would introduce them by telling you, again, what they read. So I knew exactly what, you know, A.J. would like and what he wouldn't like. But you know, for A.J., for instance, he was very much Tobias Wolff, you know. He loves that kind of very literary writing, very specific New England, you know, the kind of short stories that appear in The New Yorker.
And something I knew about A.J. was that he was going to love the short story collection above all else. And the reason for that would be because short story collections, while wonderful, are notoriously difficult for booksellers to sell. So I kind of thought that of course, he would love the hardest thing to sell.
CORNISH: Well, we actually - we asked our listeners to respond to us on Twitter with their three books. And we got a - we got hundreds of responses of books that people said: These are the three books that would tell you who my character is. I mean, just to give you one example, someone - Rob Shanks said, "To Kill A Mockingbird," Harper Lee; "Time Enough for Love," Robert Heinlein; and "Desert Solitaire," Edward Abbey.
CORNISH: Ayn Reyes Frazee - "The Handmaid's Tale," Margaret Atwood; "Where The Wild Things Are," Maurice Sendak; and "Franny and Zooey," J.D. Salinger. We had a lot of responses, a lot of "Anne of Green Gables" fans.
CORNISH: A lot of people read "East of Eden," Steinbeck. What are your three books?
ZEVIN: That is an impossible question for me to answer. It's so funny, because I love hearing what other people's favorite books - and I think even when they lie about them - because you're meant to sort of pick books that are - make you seem a certain way...
ZEVIN: ...you know, that make you seem a bit jaunty but well-read but not too serious - that kind of thing, you know? So if you caught me in the right mood, I might tell you my favorite book was "Charlotte's Web" because I think that there's no character I relate to more than any character other than, like, Charlotte the spider. But I don't know that that would be, like, the - one of the three books I would choose to represent myself for posterity. Can you answer the question easily?
CORNISH: No, I couldn't. It feels like a very intimate question, in a way, right?
ZEVIN: It does. I think I've become too self-conscious about it.
CORNISH: Well, I'm sure there are some people who will be adding this book to their list.
ZEVIN: I hope so.
CORNISH: Gabrielle Zevin, she's the author of "The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry." Thanks so much for speaking with us.
ZEVIN: Thank you.
CORNISH: We want to know what books would define your character. Join in the conversation on Twitter or Tumblr using the hashtag #mythreebooks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.