Q&A: Robin Sloan on Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
Robin Sloan, author of Litro’s current Book Club pick, the fantastic Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, tells us how the idea for the novel came from a tweet.
Litro: Tell us about Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore – what’s the book about?
Robin: It’s an adventure and a mystery set mostly in San Francisco. The story begins when an unemployed designer gets a job working the night shift at a mysterious bookstore that is, needless to say, much more than it appears to be.
Litro: Where did the idea for the book come from?
Robin: The seed of the idea came from a tweet! Years ago, a friend tweeted: “just misread ’24hr bookdrop’ as ’24hr bookshop’. the disappointment is beyond words.” It made me laugh, and like many writers, I am a keeper of scraps—a scribbler of notes—so I copied it down. Then, months later, when I sat down to begin a new short story, I encountered it again, and it seemed to me that a 24-hour bookstore would be a pretty great setting for a story. So, I started writing. The scrap grew into a short story, and the short story into a full-length novel.
Litro: What do you hope people will take away from the book?
Robin: I don’t want to say too much about that, because I think it spoils some of the surprises. I will say that there’s a lot in this novel about the relationship between books and technology, and I hope people emerge a bit more optimistic on that front.
Litro: Tell us about the process of writing Mr Penumbra – how long have you been working on it? Did you know where the plot was going before you started?
Robin: The first draft took about a year, during which I also had a full-time job, working at Twitter here in San Francisco. I didn’t have the whole plotted out precisely, but I did have a sense of what was waiting at the end—the secrets that I wanted to reveal.
Litro: There are a lot of “secret societies” in the novel – the Unbroken Spine, the Google corporation, Grumble’s forum, the Accession Table – what interests you about these closed worlds?
Robin: I’m glad you picked up on that! I like writing about secret societies because I think they are, in fact, quite common. Most offices are little secret societies with their own strange hierarchies, right?—their own little rituals. I think families have those characteristics, too. Relationships certainly do. And so, I think dialing up the strangeness a bit—adding secret passwords, dark robes—actually helps us see these everyday cults a bit more clearly.
Litro: You’ve got a fantastic female character in Kat – where did the inspiration for her come from?
Robin: Kat is probably my favourite character in the novel, and the inspiration for her was very direct: I have, over the years, worked with many brilliant, ambitious women who were engineers and managers, and yet, reading fiction, I didn’t see them represented. Like—nowhere! I couldn’t believe it; still can’t, really. Kat is my small contribution toward balancing the scales and giving these bad-ass women their due on the page.
Litro: What kind of things were you reading while you were writing Mr Penumbra?
Robin: In general, I’m a huge fan of science fiction, and I think I was probably reading even more of than usual while I was writing Penumbra. I think you can see that in the story: it’s packed with SF homage, shot through with references and asides. All in all, I have to say SF is my favorite genre—my favourite shelf in the bookstore.
Litro: The book focuses on the relationship between “old” print media and new technology – what do you think the future holds for the printed book?
Robin: I think the printed book is going to be around for a long time to come. It’s a finely-honed format with lots of very attractive features; that sort of thing doesn’t disappear overnight. Now, there’s no question we’ll see more mixed collections, more hybrid reading—but that hybridity will, for a long time, include a healthy print component.
Litro: Is technology changing the way we read?
Robin: Well, I think it’s giving us new ways to read. There’s no question: the experiences of reading on a phone, a tablet, an e-reader, a laptop, and a printed book are all different. It has as much to do with our bodies as the screens themselves: what’s our posture like? Are we curled up? Where are we reading—on a train, under a tree, in bed? “Reading” is not just one thing, and right now we’re seeing a sort of Cambrian explosion of different kinds and contexts. That’s nothing but exciting.
Litro: What was the first book you ever loved, and why?
Robin: That’s hard to remember, but I can tell you that among them were the Chronicles of Prydain, the classic fantasy adventure series by Lloyd Alexander. I remember finishing the last book in the series—the pages dwindling beneath my fingers—and feeling this rising sadness, this great melancholy, because my time with the characters was coming to a close. For me, that’s still the purest expression of love for a book: the sadness when it’s over.
Litro: Tell us about the first time you realised that the world may not be as it seems.
Robin: This might sound strange, but I honestly think it was in my economics classes at Michigan State University. I had, of course, read about magic systems in fantasy novels for years and years prior to that point; but in those classes it seemed that I was encountering a real system of magic for the first time. I’ve become more skeptical of the discipline’s power in the years since, but I still remember that feeling vividly: like someone was lifting up the skin of the world, showing me the muscle and bone underneath.
Litro: What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?
I spend a lot of time working with computers—tinkering, programming, inventing. I’ve released a few digital experiments (I made an iPhone app called Fish, for example—a sort of touchscreen essay) and there are more to come.
Litro: What has been the most formative place in your life? Why?
Robin: Is the internet a place? I think so. I often think of the Web in particular as a sort of big, weird, sprawling city. I feel lucky to have wandered in relatively early and seen it grow and change.
Litro: What are you working on next?
Robin: There’s a prequel to Penumbra coming out in the fall, a digital short. It tells the tale of Mr. Penumbra’s arrival in San Francisco in the year 1969 how he first encountered this strange 24-hour bookstore, and why he decided to stay.