Gabrielle Zevin’s The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry is one of the most beautiful books I have read in a long long time. It doesn’t pander to baseless emotions to make the thoughts and feelings work, nor does it deal in excesses. The story of book shop owner A.J Fikry and how his life changes with the sudden entrance of a child he adopts and names Maya, flows out as incredibly as the stories of the books he makes Maya read as she grows up. Thus, when it came to interviewing Zevin, I knew I would not miss it for the world! Read...
Let’s start with a bit about you. Tell us how you started writing.
My grandmother had an electric typewriter that I was obsessed with as a little girl. When we would visit her, she would always set me up with paper, and I’d spend hours and hours typing a few words, basically nonsense. I liked the satisfying clatter of the keys and the scent of ink on paper. I always tell people that before I liked to write, I liked to type.
How did The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry come into being?
Since I was first published almost a decade ago, I’ve wanted to write a book about that experience and the way publishing a novel changes your relationship to books. I played with this novel—my book about books—for many years, but I could never quite work it out. It was originally focused on what would become the Maya character, the fledgling writer. After about seven years, I realized that the book would be much better if it were about the bookseller and not the writer. And once I knew that, the writing went very quickly!
And A.J Fikry. How did he come about? Were you inspired by someone into creating this character?
At nearly every bookstore I go to, someone tells me that they know a person just like A.J. Fikry. But no, he wasn’t consciously based on anyone. There are many A.J.’s in all aspects of bookselling and publishing. And even when these people aren’t fans of my books, I don’t mind them. We need A.J.’s. There are A LOT of books published every year, and we need people to tell us what is good and what is not.
My dad, who I adore, is probably a bit of an A.J. He is a runner like A.J., and he has many, many, many opinions. My mom, incidentally, is a bit of an Amelia. She always studies the menus before she goes to restaurants.
Besides A.J who is your favourite character? I’ll make it a little harder - besides Maya as well!
Probably poor Daniel Parish. The first time someone called him a villain at an event I was doing, I remember feeling a bit sad. I know his shortcomings, but I have empathy for him. For many years, the most successful book I published was the first one, the one I wrote when I was 25. Daniel has a similar backstory though I should mention that my personal life is a lot less complicated than his.
The books A.J notes down for his daughter - are those books that made an impact on you some way or the other? Are they your favourites?
They are not my favorites, and I wouldn’t necessarily say they were A.J.’s either. They are a broad selection of short stories that A.J. thinks would be instructive for a young writer to have read: a mini-cannon. But the truth is, that’s only what the stories are from A.J’s point of view. From my point of view as the novelist, the stories had to do quite a few other things as well. They had to provide a way for A.J. to tell Maya about his life. They had to work thematically with the events of the novel. They had to be good chapter titles, too! And so I will tell you that the business of choosing them was quite complicated.
If they aren’t - what are yours? And what would your comprehensive list of ‘what-my-daughter-must-read’ look like?
Oh, my favorites change all the time! I’m always finding new favorites. My three favorite books I read this year were The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, The Dinner by Herman Koch, and Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo. It’s funny. I feel like a lively reading life should include a degree of randomness, a degree of discovery. So...I probably wouldn’t make a list like A.J.’s in the first place. I do think short stories are a good place to start with young writers (and readers), though. My list would probably include more female writers, more twenty-first century, more genre. A.J. doesn’t have, for instance, any sci-fi. When I was a kid, one of my favorite short stories was Ray Bradbury’s The Veldt. It’s an early virtual reality story, and I remember that it blew my tiny child mind. There’s a list A.J. makes for Maya when she has writer’s block. That list, which includes Z.Z. Packer and Amy Hempel, is closer to my taste.
Tell us about the best and the worst times you faced while writing this book.
Once a book is finished, I have the mysterious ability to block out almost the entire process of writing it. I know I’ve done a good job when I’m finished writing, and I feel a sense of loss. I know I’ve done a good job when I feel like the characters are people I used to know, but who I won’t be seeing anymore. Anyway, I sometimes find it hard when I’m finished to move on to the next thing! I But in a way, this is the best and the worst part. You are always meeting new colleagues and having to say goodbye.
Would your book make the cut at A.J’s bookshop?
Depends on what day it crossed A.J.’s desk and what kind of mood he was in. Depends on how much the sales rep sold it to him and how much he trusted his or her opinion. As I was writing, I knew that A.J. would probably not have read anything I had written and if he had, he wouldn’t necessarily have liked it anyway. I made peace with A.J.’s indifference to my work very early on in the process. A delightful discovery for me has been that it is not required for all your characters to approve of you.
Someone said to me that the A.J. of the beginning of the story would not like the book, but the A.J. at the end might. I agree with this assessment.