Midnight At The Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan
What do you do when the life you’ve carefully built for yourself comes apart?
Lydia Smith lives a quiet life, spent in the company of her colleagues and customers at the bookstore where she works. But when Joey Molina, a young and mysterious regular, hangs himself in the bookstore and leaves Lydia secret messages hidden in the pages of his books, her world starts to unravel.
Why did Joey do it?
What did he know?
And what does it have to do with Lydia?
Q&A with Matthew Sullivan:
Q) For the readers, can you talk us through your background and the synopsis of your new novel?
A) I grew up in Denver in a pretty wild house with seven brothers and sisters. After moving to San Francisco for college, I spent a number of years bouncing around different states and countries (including living in England for a year), and was always a voracious reader and committed writer. Beginning in my twenties, after college, I spent a number of years working in independent bookstores, and those settings had such a strong impact on me that I eventually decided to try to capture them with fiction.
Enter Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, a crime novel about a 30-year-old bookseller named Lydia who, as a little girl, was the only survivor of a horrifying attack. Those murders traumatize her and define her life for many years, until eventually she finds sanctuary in an urban bookstore. As the novel opens, whatever semblance of peace she has found is disrupted when her favorite “BookFrog,” a young bibliophile named Joey, hangs himself in the store. Lydia soon discovers that Joey has bequeathed her his collection of books—as well as the messages he has cryptically carved into their pages. As Lydia follows his messages, of course she is led right back to that awful childhood night.
Q) Can you talk us through the journey from idea to writing to publication?
A) In the early stages of this book, I knew I wanted to write a dark mystery that focused more on character development than anything else, and I knew I wanted to pay homage to independent bookstores. Lydia would see books and the bookstore as an escape from her past, as she had her whole life, but early on I wasn’t sure what specifically she’d be escaping from. And then, during the writing process, I found myself returning to a horrible crime that happened not far from my home in the suburbs of Denver when I was 13 years old: one snowy night, a man with a hammer broke into a house and attacked a family as they slept, killing three of them and leaving a toddler badly injured. This was in a new, quiet neighborhood, and even now, three decades later, the killer—The Hammerman—has never been caught. We were all terrified. It was a disturbing entrance into adulthood. These things have a way of sticking with us, working their way out, and for me that was through fiction.
I spent many years writing the novel, mainly because I was also raising kids and being a teacher and trying to find time to write whenever I could. Once I had a draft done and was lucky enough to be noticed by my current agent and editor, I still ended up rewriting this beast for several more years. It helped to have some great editorial guidance along the way.
Q) What are your favourite authors and recommended reads?
A) Where to even begin? Some recent favourite reads are Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, Jane Harper’s The Dry, Ian McGuire’s The North Water, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, Colum McCann’s 13 Ways of Looking, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and Denis Johnson’s posthumous collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden.
In the literary-mystery genre, I’ve always been drawn to crime writing that pushes against expectations, such as Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, Tana French’s Dublin Squad series, Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths, Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories, and Jess Walter’s Over Tumbled Graves (and everything else he writes).
Q) What were your childhood/teenage favourite reads?
A) I loved the Encyclopedia Brown series and Judy Blume’s books, especially the Fudge books (Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Superfudge). A bit later it was S.E. Hinton’s books, such as The Outsiders and That Was Then, This Is Now, and I eventually made my way to Tom Robbins and Kurt Vonnegut and Flannery O’Connor, all of whom blew my mind.
Q) What has been your favourite moment of being a published author?
A) I’ve been very touched by the support people have given. You expect that from friends and family and the obligatory neighbor, but many, many other people—booksellers and students and childhood classmates—have really come out of the woodwork to support me and this story. They’ve been wonderful.
Q) Who has been your source of support/encouragement, throughout the writing process?
A) My vision for this book fell somewhere between an edgy contemporary mystery and a character-driven literary novel, so it has always run the risk of slipping between the two genres and disappearing. Despite that, from the start, my agent, Kirby Kim, was steadfast in his support, and steadfast in helping me stay true to my own vision of the book, even if in some ways it was different from a conventional mystery.
My most important ally, of course, has been my wife, Libby. We met over two decades ago while we were booksellers working together in the Children’s section of the Tattered Cover in Denver, and we’ve been together since. We still work together, too, at a community college in the rural Pacific Northwest. She’s a librarian there and I teach writing and literature. We try to keep our marriage on the lowdown at work, but plenty of students have seen the two of us around campus together. Their jaws sometimes drop when they realize that we’re a thing.
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