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Robin Sloan talks tweets and 'Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore'

October 17, 2012|By Jasmine Elist
  • Robin Sloan and his novel "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore"
Robin Sloan and his novel "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" (Sloan c. Helena Price / FSG…)

Robin Sloan's debut novel, "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25), follows Clay Jannon after he lands a job working the night shift at the bookstore of the title. Clay quickly learns just how peculiar and curious Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is: Not only does the store see just a few customers, but they come in at strange hours of the night and check out obscure volumes from the darkest corners of the store.

Embarking on a quest to figure out exactly what is going on, Clay uses his friends and modern technology to get some answers.  

Sloan, a former employee at Twitter and Current TV and a self-proclaimed "media inventor,” firmly believes literature and technology can compliment and advance each other. His colorful novel combines friendship, a secret society and the thrill of an adventure -- and if that isn't enough, the cover glows in the dark.

Sloan is scheduled to read and sign at Skylight Books at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 19.  

You have a rich career in the digital world. What propelled you to write a novel?

I can't overstate my love for the Internet; I really do think of it as my hometown, my native country. But even if you love it, the Internet can be a depressing place if you aspire to make things that last. There's just no escaping it: The half-life of media on the internet is super short. Tweets flow and fade; pages that look great today will be gone or, at best, riddled with broken links and outmoded code in five years, tops.

Books, on the other hand, seem to exist in a different, deeper space-time continuum. Even in digital formats, they hold our attention better. They stick around longer. So, without renouncing the Internet and its churning vitality at all, I wanted to make a play for that kind of engagement and -- maybe -- that kind of durability. So I wrote a novel.

"Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" reveals two worlds: one, an old-fashioned bookstore filled with obscure volumes of books. And the second, a world of electronic communication, frequently referencing Google, iPhones and social media. Do these two worlds exist side by side?

The two worlds aren't adversaries; in fact, they're not two worlds at all. They're just one. Books and technology are braided together, and always have been. Doing research for "Penumbra," I read quite a bit about the early history of printing, and the more I did, the more it sounded like ... the Internet today. There was crazy competition and upheaval; there were constant arguments about new techniques, new materials, new machines; and of course, there were fortunes to be made. All of this was at the very beginning, 500 years ago, and it hasn't really ever stopped. So technology is not some strange new visitor to the bookstore: It's been here all along.

How would you describe the story at the core of "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore"?

It's my favorite kind of story: a quest! And it dwells, in particular, on my favorite portion of any quest: the portion where the hero gathers his allies, both by calling in old favors and by meeting new friends along the way. People tend to think of the quest as a sort of fanciful or fantastical form, but actually I think it's pretty realistic. I think that story of gathering allies to your side -- recruiting your band of companions -- actually matches the shape of most great careers, most great lives.

What inspired the idea for a bookstore that is open for 24 hours a day?

The original inspiration was a tweet! Back in 2008, a friend tweeted: "just misread '24hr bookdrop' as '24hr bookshop'. the disappointment is beyond words." I was walking down the street here in San Francisco when I saw it; it made me smile, and it went into my notes. A few months later, when I sat down to start a short story, I scrolled back through them, and there it was again. It seemed clear to me that a story could start in a 24-hour bookstore. During the night shift, obviously. I imagined a seedy stretch of street, a tall skinny store next to a strip club ... and went from there.

Mr. Penumbra's bookstore is depicted in incredible detail as "the kind of store that makes you want to be a teenage wizard." Did you do research to create this world?

Oh, I think it was just the kind of "research" that any bookstore lover does naturally: I've spent a lot of time in bookstores and libraries, large and small -- and plenty of time ogling crowded shelves on the Web, too. Call it "bookporn." (That gallery is the work of the friend who supplied the 24-hour bookshop tweet, by the way. It's all connected.)

The main character, Clay Jannon, possesses some obvious similarities to you, both living in San Francisco, both starting out in the tech industry. In what other ways do you relate to your main character?

We both love San Francisco and Silicon Valley and this whole area's weird and wonderful assumptions about life and possibility. We both like design and typography, though Clay is better at both than me. We're both aspiring programmers, though I might actually be a bit better at code than Clay. And we are both deeply impressed by our friends.

Do you have plans to write a second novel?

Absolutely! I've been working on it this summer. Although maybe I should just be waiting for the right tweet.

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