Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Wednesday, May 14, 2014: Maximum Shelf: A Sudden Light

Simon & Schuster: A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

Simon & Schuster: A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

Simon & Schuster: A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

Simon & Schuster: A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

A Sudden Light

by Garth Stein

In his first novel since the beloved The Art of Racing in the Rain, which spent more than three years on the New York Times bestseller list and has been translated into 35 languages, Garth Stein delivers A Sudden Light, a richly layered, atmospheric epic brimming with ghosts, family secrets, a dark legacy and a tragic love affair that alters the course of several generations of the fictional Riddell family.

The narrator of Stein's tale is the adult Trevor Riddell, who recalls the summer of 1990 when he was a precocious, curious, bookish 14-year-old, first visiting his family's ancestral Pacific Northwest estate. While growing up in Connecticut, Trevor has heard stories of how his patriarchal forebears built and lost their fortune in the Northwest timber industry. He has heard stories about the Riddell family curse.

In that fateful summer, Trevor's father, Jones, is dealing with his failing marriage in the fallout of a forced bankruptcy--he's lost his wooden boat–building business as well as his family's house in the Connecticut countryside. While Trevor's mother is visiting her native England during a trial separation, father and son set out on a momentous journey.

For the first time in more than two decades, Jones returns to Riddell House, an impressive but dilapidated mansion on a bluff overlooking Puget Sound. He's back in the family fold on a mission. He and his younger sister, Serena, plan to place their father, Samuel, who is rapidly declining from dementia, in a nursing home after having him sign over power of attorney. Once in charge of his affairs, they plan to sell Riddell House and the surrounding acreage to a developer and split the profits.

Trevor, too, has an agenda--he wants to keep his parents together. If his father has some cash, Trevor believes, his estranged parents will reunite. "My strategy was to fix my father by helping him to fix his broken life. It was a simple plan, because I thought it was just about money," he confides. He has another reason for accompanying his father to Washington State. He wants to learn about the past in the hopes of forging a closer relationship with his father, who has always been a distant figure in Trevor's life.

Trevor is struck speechless at his first sight of Riddell House, a three-story mansion with a pillared façade constructed of whole trees, "a regiment of silent, glaring giants." He barely crosses the threshold when he senses there is something different about this residence, which is "alive, almost, and breathing." It's not long before he hears his name whispered while he's alone, along with other signs of a supernatural presence. His fear at being sought after by a ghost is trumped by his desire to know who is trying to reach him and why.

A self-described truth seeker, Trevor roams Riddell House, searching for answers about the dead and the living. How did his grandmother die, and why won't anyone talk to him about it? Why did his father leave Riddell House and never return? Has Serena forgiven Brother Jones for not coming back for her as he had promised? Trevor eavesdrops on conversations and decodes spirit-guided missives scribbled on scraps of paper by Grandpa Samuel. He explores secret passageways, stumbling on a hidden study and unearthing long-forgotten diaries.

This is where Stein really adds depth to the novel, weaving the contemporary storyline with an intriguing historical narrative and using Trevor to tie the two threads together. We take a trip into the past with the boy as he reads journals, field notes and letters penned by his great-great grandfather, Elijah Riddell, founder of the family timber empire; Elijah's son, Ben; and Ben's lover, Harry.

In the early 1900s, Ben's passionate environmentalism is at odds with the family livelihood, while his love for another man goes against the mores of Victorian society--both proclivities of which Papa Elijah disapproves. But after Ben dies unexpectedly, Elijah vows to fulfill his son's wishes and preserve the land surrounding Riddell House.

Ben has his own reasons for wanting the land preserved. He blames himself for the accidental death of his lover and fellow conservationist, Harry, and won't pass into the spirit realm until he assuages his guilt. This is why he seeks Trevor's help--as an ally to keep the land pristine and undeveloped. The legal time limit on Elijah's mandate that future generations of Riddells adhere to his wishes has run out. The only thing standing in the way of Serena and Jones's desire to raze the property is their father, Samuel, who refuses to let the house go.

Swayed by Ben and Harry's personal story, and by their vivid descriptions of the lush Pacific Northwest woods where they find joy and adventure communing with nature and scaling sky-high trees, Trevor is determined to help his "uncle of some level of greatness" fulfill his heart's desire. But to do so means going against his father's needs and wishes, and possibly destroying the only chance his parents will reunite.

While Trevor is wrestling with his conflict, disturbing facts come to light about his mysterious Aunt Serena, who has her own plans for the family's future. Realizing it's not ghosts he has to fear but the living, Trevor sets in motion a plan that is both brave and foolhardy. The tension level rises dramatically as the novel spirals toward a powerful, poignant conclusion. When all is said and done, the Riddell curse might finally be broken and the debt settled. But at what cost?

Part epic family saga, part ghost story and part mystery, A Sudden Light explores the fragile yet complex ties that connect people to one another, the weight of generations past on generations present, and the idea that what makes us human doesn't end with death. Like The Art of Racing in the Rain, it's heartrending and uplifting, entertaining and thought-provoking--a beguiling novel about love, tragedy, hope and redemption.

Simon & Schuster, $26.95, hardcover, 9781439187036, September 30, 2014

Simon & Schuster: A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

Garth Stein: Soul-Stirring Fiction

photo: Susan Doupe Photography

Garth Stein is the author of the novels Raven Stole the Moon, How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets and the New York Times and international bestseller The Art of Racing in the Rain. Before turning to writing full-time, he was a documentary filmmaker, directing, editing and/or producing several award-winning films, including The Lunch Date, winner of an Academy Award for live-action short in 1990, and The Last Party, starring Robert Downey, Jr.

Stein is a co-founder of Seattle7Writers, a nonprofit organization dedicated to energizing readers and writers and their communities by providing funding, programming and donations of books to shelters, halfway houses and correctional facilities, and generally inspiring enthusiasm for reading books. Stein lives in Seattle with his family.

It has been six years since your last novel for adults, The Art of Racing in the Rain, was published and went on to become an international sensation. What is it like to have a new publication on the horizon? What would you like readers to know about A Sudden Light?

It certainly has been a fun ride with The Art of Racing in the Rain, and I won't forget a bit of it. I've connected with so many readers and booksellers and librarians, it's been a true pleasure, and I am grateful for it.

Still, new books must be written, and I've written one.

It has no dogs and no race cars. It does have four generations of a once terribly wealthy and influential timber family, since fallen from grace; a mysterious, majestic, yet crumbling mansion on a bluff overlooking Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains; a love affair so powerful, it reaches across planes of existence; the free-climbing of some of the tallest trees in the world; a present-day family so mired in their conflicting and confusing emotions that they can't function; and a young man who simply wants his parents to once again experience the moment they first fell in love, hoping that if they feel that moment again, maybe they won't get divorced after all. 

Jones Riddell previously featured in a play you wrote, Brother Jones. Why did you decide to bring back the character, and his family, in a novel?

The experience of putting up the play at a small theater in Los Angeles was fantastic. I loved working with the actors and the director, and the performances were outstanding. And yet, the play wasn't perfect. I knew it needed work.

The theater is about the "now." It's about the drama that unfolds in real time, in front of you on the stage. Novels are about how we got to the "now." So I wanted to dig deeper into these characters, and I wanted to go back generations and learn the entire history of the Riddell family. It was a long journey to discover all the tentacles of my family, but I'm glad I took it.

Some of the most compelling characters in A Sudden Light aren't human but rather supernatural. What appealed to you about writing a novel that is part ghost story? Do you believe in ghosts?

When I was sorting out the title for A Sudden Light, I had a striking dream. I remember it very clearly even now. A dark-haired man came to see me--I believe he was Ben, but his image was vague and difficult to see; he was blurry. He whispered something into my ear. He said: "How the mighty have fallen."

I woke up the following morning with that phrase imprinted on my mind. Could Ben be giving me the title of my book, I wondered. I did some research into the origin of the phrase. It's from the Bible: the story of Saul and Jonathan and David (of Goliath fame). It's a story of fathers and sons and a love stronger than anything on earth.

The more I read of Jonathan and David's story, the more I was struck by the parallels with my own story, and how, without my conscious intention I had written a story that resonated with books I and II Samuel of the Bible. Ben hadn't given me the title, but he had come to teach me something about my book that I hadn't known--that I couldn't possibly have known, having been raised in a mixed-religion secular family, and having read only specific parts of the Old Testament for a humanities class in college.

The process of writing a novel can be a strange and mystical thing. If a writer is of a mind to embrace this mystical paradigm, he will reach a point where the balance tips; he will no longer be writing the book, but the book will be writing itself through him. When he feels that shift, the writer must embrace it. For it means that souls have taken root in his characters--real souls have stepped into his characters and are breathing them full of life. And then it is the writer's obligation to be true to those characters and to their stories so that others may hear what they have come to say.

So in answer to your question about ghosts: yes. I've experienced beings from non-physical dimensions, both the spirits who embody the characters in my books, and ghosts, who are stuck and need help moving fully to another realm.

The setting of Riddell House is pivotal to the plot and is described in such wonderfully atmospheric detail, from hidden staircases and a secret study to a sprawling ballroom and a dramatic location on a cliff overlooking Puget Sound. Did you base Riddell House on one that actually exists?

There are two houses in A Sudden Light. There's Riddell House, the mansion on the North Estate, and there's Elijah's city house on Minor Avenue. The Minor Avenue residence was based on the Stimson-Green Mansion in Seattle, designed by Kirtland Cutter. Also, many features of Riddell House were taken from the Stimson-Green Mansion--servants' stairs, pantries, a smoking room, a ballroom, false walls for hiding things.

I got the idea of Riddell House from a photograph I had seen of the Forestry Building, which was built for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909. The building used entire tree trunks for pillars. They called it "a temple to timber," and when I saw it, I thought: "Ah, yes, this is where my family lives. This is where my ghost dances."

Something important is hidden on a bookshelf behind three volumes of Eugene O'Neill's collected works. Of all the books you could have chosen for this scene, why these particular ones?

There are no accidents in fiction; everything is there because the writer had a reason to put it there. So I do have a reason for choosing Eugene O'Neill. However, I firmly believe a writer does not get to dictate meaning or interpretation to his reader; each reader will read a book differently, based on his or her experiences, values and beliefs. Therefore, my reason for using O'Neill is less important than your thoughts on why I might have done it.

Ben Riddell vividly describes what it's like to scale trees that are several hundred feet tall: the adrenaline rush, the exhilaration of being so close to nature and so far removed from humanity. How far did you go for your research or, more accurately, how high? Did you climb the trees like Ben, Harry and Trevor do in the novel?

I did climb trees as research. I worked with tree climbing guru Tim Kovar, and I went down to Oregon to learn both single-rope and double-rope climbing techniques. I think about 150 feet was as high as we got. And that's plenty high for me. Still, I really did experience the effect of being held by the tree. When you're in the middle of a climb, the limbs and greenery are so dense it almost feels like you're in a room, even though you're a hundred feet in the air, dangling by a thin length of rope.

Ben and Harry didn't have access to the technology used in recreational tree climbing today: synthetic ropes and ascenders and saddles. They had to climb the old-fashioned way--spikes and a flip line. While that would damage a younger tree, they were climbing trees hundreds of years old, and the bark would have been so thick their spikes wouldn't have done harm to the tree.

 A Sudden Light lovingly depicts the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest and touches on the conflict between development and preservation. Would you like readers to consider the issue of conservation even after they finish reading the novel? Was that something you had in mind while you were writing the book?

It was not my goal to write an "issue" book, and yet my book raises several issues that we grapple with as a society and a culture. Conservation is certainly one of them. I have my feelings, but, again, I don't think it's my place to tell the reader what to think. Rather, my job is to reveal the complexity of these issues through the thoughts and actions of my characters so that the reader can form a thoughtful understanding of his or her own positions on the subjects. So, yes, I would like the reader to consider the many issues in my book--conservation being an important one. I think we all need to lead thoughtful and deliberate lives. And if I can provide a catalyst for that thoughtfulness in the form of an engaging and entertaining read... well, then I've done something to help make things better. And isn't that something we should all strive to achieve?  --Shannon McKenna Schmidt

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