A Conversation with Author Matthew Sullivan

by Marie B.

Whidbey is smack dab in the middle of Whidbey Reads, where the community reads one book and Whidbey community libraries host a wide range of programs related to the book’s themes.  The 2019 selection is Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan.  You’ll have a chance to meet Sullivan at any of three events in April.

In the meantime, I had a chance to chat with Matt about his book and the writing process.  Whidbey readers had questions!  He had answers!

Are the BookFrogs based on real people?
The BookFrogs weren’t based on any specific individuals, but they definitely came from my experiences working in bookstores and community colleges, and being around libraries. There’s often a population of people who make these “public places” part of their daily ritual, sometimes in the name of lifelong learning, but also just to interact with others or because they have nowhere else to go. In the story itself, the BookFrogs were mainly intended to capture Lydia’s character—the endearment or affection she felt for those people who’d been cast off by a lot of society.

Did being married to a librarian help with all the research required for this book?
Being married to a librarian helps with everything! A lot of the values and even the physical environment of the Bright Ideas setting is also present in libraries, so that all helped. Plus we’re surrounded by books in our home. Sometimes they’re everywhere. On the nightstands, on the kitchen table, in our kids’ rooms, in the bathroom. We’ve gotten much better lately about trying not to hoard.

Which comes first, plot or characters?
For me, characters always come first and are always the most important element of writing. But in the creative process, characters emerge right alongside their troubles, just as they are steeping in the thick of a problem. Enter plot…

Have you always wanted to write?  Why a mystery?
I grew up in a really loud household with seven siblings, and we were always telling stories, making things up, so the Blarney was always thick. Also, between raising kids and being a nurse, my mom somehow managed to find time to be a writer, mostly of middle grade fiction. So there were always writing books in the bathroom and she took me to my first writing conference, and encouraged me a lot when I went down the writer path.

I loved Encyclopedia Brown and other grade-school mysteries when I was young, and mystery novels have always been part of the reading pile. But as a writer, I think I was drawn to them mainly because of the way they explore the darker parts of humanity—the tough stuff—while also taking full advantage of plot, suspense, pacing… those things we love as readers.

Midnight has won awards and accolades.  How does that feel?
I wrote this novel over a number of years while I was raising kids and teaching overtime and grading essays, etc…, so it feels really wonderful to have it earn some recognition. Plus the publishing process itself was brutal, with many, many rewrites and a number of times when I was close to burying the book in a fire pit and never looking at it again. I’m insanely grateful for the way readers have responded. It’s a book, in part, about the love of books, so to have my work included in that cycle is as good as it gets.

Is your novel set in a real-life bookstore?  Cathy Langer thinks so.
Cathy Langer is absolutely right! I worked at the Tattered Cover in Denver during the 1990s and the setting of Bright Ideas was directly inspired by the store and another bookstore where I worked in Boston, and just indies in general. The Tattered Cover was a wonderful place to spend 40 hours a week. Great people, great books, great building, and best of all, my wife and I met while we were working a shift together in the Children’s section.

Did you find it challenging writing from the female perspective?
When I began tinkering with this story, Lydia emerged right away and her voice rang true to me, so I never really made any conscious decision about her gender. She just was. I’m of the mind that we need to write the story that arrives, not the one that we map out, so I just went with it. That said, just before I started this book I had been writing fiction about sadsack male characters, sort of like my alter-egos—in the vein of George Saunders or Denis Johnson—and I was really sick of doing that, so I can’t help but wonder if on some subconscious level Lydia emerged as an antidote to them.

What are your own favorite books?  Tell us why they matter to you.
This is the hardest question ever! Lately I’ve really loved Tana French’s The Witch Elm, Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, and I’m just finishing the first volume of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard, which I’m finding (unexpectedly) compelling.

Sometimes a good book arrives at the wrong time, and sometimes a book we love at one point isn’t the right book later on. The writers that probably had the biggest influence on me were Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins. They both arrived at a time in my life when I was pretty lost, 19 years old and going to college in San Francisco, rummaging around for a vocation or a major or something to steer me forward. I ditched Environmental Science and became an English major because I loved reading their books so much.

There are a lot of book references in Midnight. How did you choose them? Have you read all of them? I’m particularly interested in whether you’ve read The Osmonds by Dunn.
The Osmonds by Paul H. DunnAh, The Osmonds! I confess that’s one of the titles I haven’t read, but its cover is stupendous!

Books in the novel act as ways to ward off the Bad, to keep people’s demons away, but they also are the daily artifacts of these characters’ lives, the same way that cutlery and dishes would be in a novel about foodies. So it felt very natural to sprinkle the story with specific books, especially the ones that would directly (or thematically) reflect the characters.

Writing is often difficult, but choosing those titles was pure pleasure. I would ask myself what book Lydia (or Lyle, etc…) might be drawn to. Or I would pick a book that aligned with what was happening in the story. A Universal History of the Destruction of Books is an incredible book, but it ended up in the story because it reflected the shattered way that Joey felt. That said, some of the books did end up in there by chance because they happened to be the titles that were on my bookshelves at home while I was writing, so they were in my field of vision.

Thanks for chatting with us, Matt!  

Discover some of Matthew Sullivan’s favorites with this list, and share your favorite titles with us in the comments below.
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