The last time Garth Stein was at Book Expo it was 2008, and he admits he was happy to get “spill” from Tom Wolfe’s (I Am Charlotte Simmons) autographing line. His third novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, had just hit the New York Times bestseller lists and would stay there for three and half years. Stein went on to adapt the story of his racecar-loving dog Enzo into a line of children’s books.
When he focused his attention on a new adult novel, Stein—who once worked for a big Broadway producer whose office was visited by theater greats Helen Hayes, Patricia Neal, and others—returned to a play he had written about a haunted house in South East Washington. After a few years expanding it into a novel, Trish Todd, his editor at Simon & Schuster, told him on a visit to New York that there did not seem to be any people in the story. “I’m getting to that,” Stein recalls telling her. But on the plane ride back to Seattle, Stein says he knew there was only one thing to do: throw out the entire 100,000-word manuscript and start again.
“If I hadn’t done that, I don’t think I could have written this book,” says Stein. A Sudden Light (Simon & Schuster, Sept.) opens in the summer of 1990 and is told by 14-year-old Trevor Riddell, whose father—facing bankruptcy and a separation from his mother—brings him to their ancestral home, a mansion near Puget Sound. Once there, Trevor realizes his father plans to conspire with his Aunt Serena to put their father, Samuel (who may or may not have Alzheimer’s), in a home so they can sell the land for millions. There’s just one catch: the family’s dead patriarch, Elijah—or at least some spirit attached to him—is determined to see the estate, built on the spoils of the family’s timber fortune, restored to untamed forest land.
As Trevor explores Riddell House, he starts to uncover secrets and to understand why his father never talked about his past before. When he strikes a match on a hidden staircase, Stein says, Trevor is able to “see things that are unseen” and become aware “that there are different realities.”
There’s no dog and no race cars, but Stein says he thinks fans will recognize themes that permeate his fiction. “In all my books, it’s about how we need to find our path, and we find that path by looking inside us,” says Stein. In A Sudden Light, he adds, the path shows that you can look into multiple generations, but still find that “we are in charge of our destinations.”
Stein signs today at the Simon & Schuster booth (2638, 2639), 3–4 p.m.