Gabrielle Zevin may be one of the few authors alive who thanks her lucky stars she hasn’t had J.K. Rowling’s level of success. If she had, she never would have written The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, the lovely, irresistible story of a down-on-his-luck bookseller.
“I never would have gotten to know the publishing business the way I did,” Zevin says in an interview with BookPage from her Los Angeles home. “I never would have gotten to drive around the Midwest during a book tour with a sales rep in an old Toyota.”
It was just that kind of experience that shaped Zevin’s latest novel, which dives deep into the relationship between a publishing house and the booksellers who peddle its wares. A.J. Fikry owns Island Books, a withering bookstore in an East Coast vacation town. His wife has died; someone steals his retirement plan (a rare volume of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry); and his store’s sales are plummeting. Amelia is the quirky sales rep for Knightley Press who visits A.J. every season to convince him that her company’s titles are worth stocking on his shelves.
It is not an easy task.
“How about I tell you what I don’t like?” he sneers at Amelia during their first meeting. “I do not like postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn’t be—basically gimmicks of any kind. I find literary fiction about the Holocaust or any other major world tragedy to be distasteful.”
Oh, and he also despises genre mash-ups, children’s books featuring orphans, ghostwritten books about reality stars, chick lit and anything featuring vampires.
Zevin’s novel about a prickly bookstore owner who finds love is a paean to the power of books.
A.J. and Amelia slowly—very slowly—build a relationship that goes beyond books. (“I thought there was something romantic about the idea that she only came to him once a season,” Zevin says.)
In the meantime, a toddler shows up in A.J.’s bookstore with a note from her mother, who cannot take care of her but wants her to grow up a reader. Now A.J. has to decide whether he will turn the young girl over to the authorities or take her in himself.
Needless to say, A.J. has his hands full. After years of treading water in his underperforming store, he has to rise to the occasion. He does so, with plenty of false starts and help from Amelia and his gang of island friends.
Real-life booksellers around the country have been singing the novel’s praises, which is as big a compliment as Zevin could have asked for.
“It was a daunting proposition, writing about booksellers,” Zevin admits. “I hoped in my heart that they would think of A.J. as a colleague, that he could plausibly have a store out there. He’s a prickly guy who could be doing so much more. I thought I knew where he fit in the ecosystem of booksellers.”
“I like to write books about things that happen to me, and probably the most traumatic thing that has happened to me was publishing my first book.”
Daunting or not, Zevin had been toying with the idea of writing a book set in the publishing world for several years—in fact, since publishing her debut novel, Margarettown, in 2006.
“I like to write books about things that happen to me, and probably the most traumatic thing that has happened to me was publishing my first book,” Zevin says cheerfully. “I was 27—sold my manuscript at 26. I had movie-version expectations of cutting to the scene where you’re walking down Madison Avenue and there’s a bookstore and there’s your book, and only your book, in the window.”
Although the reality was somewhat less Carrie Bradshaw, Zevin still got to buy a dress from Filene’s and have a book launch party with wine and cheese. Even that is a somewhat quaint affair in the rapidly evolving publishing world, Zevin says.
“The future of books is in many ways being decided right now,” she says. “Even before this book, I was passionate about the idea that we can’t not think about how books get to readers anymore. When my first book came out, YouTube had just been founded. Forget about Facebook and Twitter—I didn’t even have a blog. None of those things factored in. I was and am publishing in a time of enormous change.”
Margarettown got excellent reviews, but didn’t exactly burn up the charts. That came with her next book, the 2007 young adult novel Elsewhere.
“I’ve had books that have done pretty well, and books that’ve done less well,” Zevin says. “You have to give everything you can to the book and not worry too much about what happens when it’s out in the world.”
Although she has never worked in a bookstore, Zevin has spent her fair share of time in them. She spent 13 years after college living in Manhattan and frequenting her neighborhood bookshop before moving to Los Angeles. (“I’d never been particularly drawn to L.A., but the idea of having a second bedroom and a washer and dryer was really sexy to me,” she says.)
Zevin can still recall the first time she saw her debut book, in the Barnes & Noble at L.A. mega-mall The Grove.
“I was like, oh god, you gotta go three escalators up to get to my book,” she laughs. “The first floor was entirely filled with music CDs. The second floor was children’s books, gifts, maybe a discount section. I can remember with specificity the other titles that came out the same month as mine. I remember thinking, man, that’s a really big stack of Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld and a really little stack of Margarettown.”
No doubt A.J. Fikry would have some strong opinions about such a behemoth store. And that crystal-clear view of the world is what makes him—and this book—so wholly appealing. Zevin starts each chapter with a thought-provoking blurb about a book A.J. is recommending to his young daughter. These blurbs serve as a window into both their evolving relationship and his deep love of books. It was an idea Zevin got from her hours spent in bookstores reading the recommendations that employees post on shelves.
“Anybody who is a lifelong reader forms their own little mini-canon—their own collected works—and I’ve always really liked those shelf-talkers in stores,” she says. “It’s so analog in a digital world. It’s like a greeting card to the customer—this beautiful, personal thing.”
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry has a little bit of mystery and a little bit of romance, but is at its core a love story: love of books, love of family, love of community. It is as enchanting a book as you will read this year.