The Northwest native and best-selling author of The Art of Racing in the Rain recently released a new novel, which is steeped in local lore, adventure and supernatural activity. He sat down with Reflections to talk about the themes of the novel and why Seattle remains a constant source of inspiration.
Reflections magazine: Your latest novel, A Sudden Light, came out in September. How has it been received so far?
Garth Stein: Very well. I did a big tour last fall, and then I had a little break. In mid-February I started up again. Overall, it’s been fun getting feedback for the book. It’s a little difficult to follow a book about racing that is narrated by a dog. There are certain expectations that some readers have, and if I don’t write another book narrated by a dog, apparently I’m a bad person [laughs]. But that’s just a workplace hazard.
RM: He may not be a dog, but you still chose an interesting narrator, a middle-aged man telling the story of his childhood in the Northwest. Can you explain a little about this approach?
GS: The narrator is Trevor Riddell, who is 38 years old at the time, and he’s telling the story to his children. I wanted to work with that lens because it gave me the ability to set the story in 1990 in Seattle, which was a more innocent time, a time before the Internet. Plus, when the young Trevor comes to the Northwest for the first time, he knows nothing about his family history, so he sees it all for the first time. He really is completely innocent to all that has happened in the past.
RM: The story also takes place in a very interesting location.
GS: I wanted him to feel as isolated as possible. His mother is off in England, his father barely talks to him, his grandfather may or may not have dementia, and his aunt is always playing games with him, so he’s kind of left to his own devices in this gigantic mansion on the bluff overlooking the Puget Sound that was built by his family’s timber fortune. Because of that he goes further and further into the story of the house and discovers that there is someone else in the house.
RM: That someone else is another fascinating character, a ghost named Ben. Do you believe in ghosts?
GS: When I first started working on the book in 2009, my father got very sick and then he died. Everyone deals with these things differently, and I got caught up busying myself in the business side of it. It was a few months later that I had a series of dreams, maybe four dreams in row. Each dream was pretty brief, but my father came to me and we talked about stuff—family, life, dogs—little banal things but also larger things. After the fourth night, he went away and I haven’t heard from him since.
RM: And you think it was his spirit?
GS: I think in our society we’re very fond of explaining these things away with science. You had pepperoni pizza, and it didn’t sit with you right. Or you were traumatized and weren’t dealing with it properly and synapses randomly fired. Easy, right? Or we can believe in looking beyond, peeling back the facade, seeing the unseen, trying to understand that luck and coincidence are just words we give to things that we don’t understand because they are beyond our comprehension. I prefer to think that my father’s spirit came to me. He died suddenly at 75 years old. He wasn’t in ill health, so maybe there was something unresolved. Maybe he did want to complete something. So he came to me, and then he went about his journey. That’s why I put in that whole thing about Ben visiting Trevor in dreams.
RM: And you’ve had many readers identify with this experience?
GS: It’s interesting, when I relate this anecdote in readings, invariably I get at least one person at the signing who leans in and says, “But it doesn’t feel like a dream, right? It feels real, and you can remember it really clearly, right? I had that with my mother, father, sister, daughter (whoever died recently).” So I think I tapped into something. There are cynics out there, but they can read nonfiction [laughs]. We try and shut that stuff down with “science,” but if you read some of the top guys in quantum physics, you understand that if you really want to make sense of the universe, you have to go way out there.
RM: In addition to the spiritual aspect of the ghost, the book is steeped in Pacific Northwest history, primarily the timber industry. Was it hard to balance accurate history with magical realism?
GS: I don’t think so. I needed to have the idea of Ben, the ghost, because Trevor had to learn about his family history, and how do you do that? In a sense, it became Dante and Virgil going down through the Inferno scenario: you need to have someone showing you the way. That was the best way to do it. And I always like to bring in an element of magical realism.
RM: As for the historical angle, you did a tremendous amount of research for this novel. Why was this important to the story?
GS: I was really trying to capture the history of the Northwest. It’s an interesting history in that it’s really long in terms of some things—glaciers, mountains, volcanoes, trees and even Native life—Natives have been in the Northwest 12,000 years. But in terms of white people, you can go back to 1851 and that’s it; it’s a very compact history. Seattle was a cowboy town in the early beginnings, and then in the late 19th century money came in from the east, largely from the timber and railroad industries. That’s when things started to pick up and Seattle became a city versus a town. I wanted to tell a story that dealt with that history. And the best way to do that was to talk about the trees. You then get into timber exploitation and how that affects ensuing generations and the legacy that continues. Themes come up about what the burdens are going to be and the idea of transcendentalism; there are ramifications, consequences and someone is going to have to pay. That’s why the story examines five generations of this family.
RM: You also did some tree climbing in preparation for writing this book, correct?
GS: I love doing field study. I raced cars for a number of years before The Art of Racing in the Rain, although not knowing I was going to write a book about it. So for this book, I did some tree climbing in Portland. It’s a little frightening, but I wanted to see what it was like to be at the top, and it’s pretty amazing. You know, it’s fascinating to note that now we look at redwood trees and say they’re the tallest trees in the world, about 370 feet in recent history. But when they first started cutting down Douglas fir trees, they were well over 400 feet. It’s on record that they cut down a tree in Ravenna that was 411 feet. They’re all gone now; they were literally cut down for lumber, so again we’re caught in this dichotomy. We want to have our Manifest Destiny; we want to move ahead, develop things, exploit things—that’s what our country is based on—and yet at what point do we have to worry about what’s going to be left for future generations?
RM: Although you lived in New York for almost two decades, you write almost exclusively about the Pacific Northwest. It means that much to you?
GS: It does. What I love about the Northwest is obviously the connection to nature. But I’ve been to a lot of cities recently, and Seattle is by far more beautiful than any other. It’s stunning. I also really enjoy the community. I got to know the booksellers here and was lucky to be called a local writer. In New York there are no local writers in the same way. The booksellers here have all been really great about embracing my work, and I know them all very well. It’s a fun industry.
RM: Is that why you chose to help form the nonprofit group Seattle7Writers?
GS: Yeah, just the idea of taking charge of the future of books. It’s a very delicate ecosystem; there are readers, writers, booksellers and librarians, and we all have to take care of each other. Sometimes writers get a little isolated and we figure it’s all going to be fine, but we have to make sure it’s all going to be fine. We have to go out and do events that support sellers and energize readers—that’s our job. So that’s what we do; we support each other in social networking. We’ve done a lot of really fun stuff, and everyone’s really happy to go forward.
RM: So what are you working on now? A new novel?
GS: I can’t tell you [laughs]. Yes, I’m working on a new novel now, and there will be a dog. Or at least animals. There are goats. There will definitely be goats, and that’s all I can tell you.