Mystery author reveals novel’s secrets in Whidbey Reads finale

Author Matthew Sullivan read from his award-winning debut novel “Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore” to wrap up Whidbey Reads 2019.

Author Matthew Sullivan signs a copy of his novel, “Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore,” after reading to Whidbey Reads audience at the Oak Harbor Library on April 18. (Photo gallery)

Now in its 17th year, Whidbey Reads is an annual program that brings Whidbey Island residents together to read and talk about a book selected by Sno-Isle Libraries staff members. Meeting the author is the Whidbey Reads capstone event.

About 30 people came to the Oak Harbor Library April 18 to hear Sullivan explain how he wrote his novel.

Turns out it wasn’t so easy.

Sullivan set the opening scene of his crime thriller inside a thinly disguised version Denver’s famous independent bookstore, the Tattered Cover. He worked there for several years after his early career as a copywriter and editor drained his writing joy. Exposure to the world books and publishers reignited his creativity.

“It was great to be around so many creative, artistic people,” Sullivan said.

He joined the staff Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake in 2003. He started writing his novel in 2007 using whatever spare time he had between teaching, parenting and family travels.

Sullivan said it took “three or four years” to finish his first draft. He found an agent to pitch the 600-page manuscript to publishers, but the agent suggested structural changes that Sullivan resisted.

“And then he dumped me,” Sullivan said with a laugh.

He put the manuscript in a drawer for a few more years before he sent it to publishers in the blind hope that someone would pick it up.

Sullivan said his new agent discovered the manuscript “in a pile,” then found a willing editor at Scribner.

Even that process took a long time.

Sullivan admitted that his original ending was too long and complicated. The editor wanted to cut 200 pages featuring a secondary character that Sullivan said he “clung tightly to.” He finally agreed and hit the “delete” key. He was surprised to find that it streamlined the story and shortened the ending.

And then there was the title.

Sullivan said his agent and Scribner’s editors didn’t like the manuscript’s working title. Through several editing rounds, they pressed to add “bookstore” so that prospective readers would know they were getting a mystery and its setting.

“Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore” finally rolled off the press in 2017.

One reader asked Sullivan if he planned to do anything with the 200 pages he cut from the manuscript.

He said those aren’t likely to form another novel because that character and story arc would probably require a “Midnight” sequel.

Another reader asked Sullivan, “Can you see this as a movie?”

He said an independent film company expressed some interest, but nothing is in the works now.

Whidbey Reads 2019 is a collaborative effort between Sno-Isle Libraries, friends of the library groups on Whidbey Island and volunteers from communities on Whidbey Island. Other partners include The Book Rack and Moonraker Books.

Whidbey Reads also is supported by the Sno-Isle Libraries Foundation.