Happy Spring, Beach Readers! This month, we’re excited to be reading a novel that appeals to literature junkies and island lovers alike.
Popular young adult novelist Gabrielle Zevin, a New York native who now calls LA home, introduces us to A.J. Fikry, a curmudgeonly small-town bookstore owner still grappling with the pain of his wife’s death 6 years ago when an unexpected package shows up in his store and changes the way he sees things forever. Zevin’s third book for adults features a likable cast of supporting characters (including an energetic book sales rep and friendly town police chief), references to classic books sprinkled throughout, and a charming New England island setting.
Here, Zevin dishes on the role books played in her plot and the inspiration behind her fictional Alice Island:
Coastal Living: What inspired you to write a novel that’s sort of an ode to books and the publishing industry?
Gabrielle Zevin: Most of my books have started with a question, but for The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, I had two: Why do bookstores matter, and how do the stories we read define our lives? It’s been a little over ten years since I sold my first novel, and these years have been a time of enormous change for the book industry—the rise of the e-reader, the way social media has changed the author/reader relationship, the question of whether to order online or shop locally, etc.— and of course, I wanted to write a book that talked a bit about that. But for me, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is really about the difference books can make in a person’s life. It’s about A.J.’s daughter Maya, and the way her life is changed for the better because it has books in it.
CL: Who or what was the character of A.J. Fikry based on?
GZ: Well, bookstore owners and people who work in publishing in general are a peculiar breed with very particular tastes. And really, this is as it should be. Their taste is their business. Almost no one I’ve met in publishing does so because they just want to make money. I’m sure there are exceptions, but truly, there are easier ways to make money than messing around with books. The people who work in books believe in it. It’s a calling. And when you take people who are deeply invested in their taste AND aren’t particularly money driven (sometimes to their detriment), you end up with a character like A.J. Fikry.
CL: Why did you choose the fictional Alice Island as the setting? What role does the secluded island atmosphere play in the novel?
GZ: I wanted to write a place like Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket, a place that took some doing—a plane, a car ride, a ferry, perhaps another car ride—to get there. Nobody goes to Alice Island by accident. You choose Alice Island in the same way a person chooses to be a reader. The story is also a romance of sorts, and I wanted the island to provide obstacles to courtship. At the beginning of the story, A.J. is in a bad place in his life, and although he lives somewhere beautiful, Alice Island has become a prison to him. On some level, A.J. has isolated himself intellectually, and I liked the symbolism of isolating him geographically too. At an event, I was talking to another author who had written a book with a fictional island, and we both agreed that fictional islands are the best. They’re, by far, the most accommodating kind of island.
CL: Do you have a favorite small-town coastal bookstore?
GZ: It’s hard to choose just one. I’ve recently moved to California and it’s the land of small-town coastal bookstores! I’ll probably get myself in trouble if I answer this question. Not so long ago, I met bookstore people from Nantucket Bookworks in Nantucket and from Edgartown Books in Martha’s Vineyard. Both stores were pretty sure that A.J.’s store Island Books was based on them. I have to keep a tight lid on this secret. In theory, my favorite could be either one.
Pick up your copy of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry to read along with us, then gather your own questions together for a live Twitter chat with Gabrielle on Thursday, April 24, at 1 pm EST! Happy reading!