"Just a minute," Garth Stein says when he answers the phone at his Seattle home. "The kids are kicking soccer balls at me—I've got to get out of the line of fire."
It’s understandable that his three boys—ages 17, 15 and 7—are craving their dad’s attention. With an international phenomenon already under his belt (2008’s The Art of Racing in the Rain, which has sold 4 million copies) and a new book about to hit shelves, Stein is frequently on the road these days. He has just returned from a trip to West Virginia, where he did a reading at the famously elegant Greenbrier.
“It’s creepy!” he declares of the historic hotel in the Allegheny Mountains. “It’s totally haunted.”
Funny, coming from the author of a stunning new book in which a spooky house figures prominently. A Sudden Light is based on a play Stein wrote, Brother Jones, which was produced in 2005.
When 14-year-old Trevor Riddell travels with his father, Jones, to the family’s legendary home overlooking Puget Sound, he expects a rundown shack based on Jones’ description. Instead, he finds that Riddell House is a hulking mansion made almost entirely of logs. It’s a fitting home for the Riddell family, which made its fortune clear-cutting forests to fuel the nation’s insatiable need for timber at the turn of the century.
But the guilt stemming from their opportunistic way of life flows through generations. Many of Trevor’s ancestors met untimely and tragic ends that some in the family feel are reparation.
Jones left the family home abruptly when he was a teenager, not to return until the summer of 1990, when he and Trevor go back to convince Jones’ father, Samuel, to sell the property. Joining them in this endeavor is Serena, Jones’ beautiful younger sister, who has been caring for Samuel all these years as the house rots around them. Their reasons for wanting to sell are different—Jones needs the cash to get out of debt and save his faltering marriage, Serena needs freedom—but the two siblings set about convincing their aging but stubborn father to sell the land to a developer.
Meanwhile, a bored and lonely Trevor begins wandering through the vast house, uncovering artifacts of another era and meeting some interesting beings along the way. The longer Trevor and Jones stay at Riddell House, the more Trevor learns about the family’s past and yearns to make it right by letting the property return to nature. He and his dad clash, their anger escalating until it culminates in a heartbreaking but inevitable outcome.
“What do you do when you’re 14 years old?” Stein asks, speaking with the wisdom of a father of three boys. “You fight with your father. They challenge you—their little antler buds come out, and everything is a fight. Trevor sees for the first time that his father hasn’t even figured himself out yet.”
It isn’t lost on Stein that the book is likely shaped by his experiences with his own father.
“My father died five years ago,” he says. “I’d been working on the book, was early on in the formative moments of the book, and my father ups and dies. I don’t do psycho-therapy, but I’m sure if I did, my therapist would have something to say about that.”
A Sudden Light is the best of many genres: a ghost story, a love story, historical fiction. What makes it a truly killer read is the way Stein brings the house to life, almost literally: its rickety basement staircases groaning; its patriarch staring down from an eight-foot-tall portrait; “a world that smelled of decay, heavy with moist, thick air, which floated in the rooms like an invisible fog.”
“I wanted the house to be an actual character that interacts with other characters,” Stein says. “That’s really where it all started.”
“I wanted the house to be an actual character that interacts with other characters. That’s really where it all started.”
Stein found inspiration in an old book that depicted a University of Washington forestry building built of some of the finest old-growth trees. He couldn’t shake the notion of someone feeling powerful enough to fell trees that had been alive for centuries
“They went out and found trees that were perfect specimens, and cut them down. It was stunning,” Stein recalls. “I thought, ‘That’s my house.’ ”
After 18 years in New York, Stein moved his young family to his hometown of Seattle several years ago to secure naturopathic care for one of his sons. (“I enjoyed it,” he says of New York. “I just decided, I’m a writer now, and I didn’t need to be there anymore.”)
He has become fully immersed in the rainy city’s literary scene, which he calls “a very fertile place.” He serves on the board of Seattle-7Writers, a group dedicated to promoting local literacy efforts through grants and events. (Its membership reads like a who’s who of Pacific Northwest authors: Tara Conklin, Erik Larson, Jim Lynch and Rebecca Wells, to name a few.)
A Sudden Light is a bold, poignant book about wealth, family ties and the power—and -fallacy—of memory. The story is told by adult Trevor recalling the trip to Riddell House as a 14-year-old. It’s a middle-aged man reflecting on himself as a teen and his tenuous relationship with his father from the distance of many years, and it adds a rich layer of mysteriousness and pathos to the story.
“When we read a book, we all read it differently,” Stein says. “We all view it through our own experiences. I like the unreliability of narrators. I want readers to say occasionally, ‘Did that really happen?’ ”