Gabrielle Zevin’s fictional indie bookseller A.J. Fikry is so authentic, his New England bookstore, Island Books, so perfectly realized, that undoubtedly members of the bookselling and publishing communities will recognize themselves—or their colleagues—in The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. Zevin’s eighth novel, due out in April from Algonquin, makes a serious case for the business of books.
The eccentric Fikry drinks too much and isolates himself to the point of despair; he holes up in his bookstore, where he ruminates bitterly on his wife’s death and flings resentments at customers whose literary tastes he cannot abide. But one morning, a young woman who is a publisher’s sales rep shows up for an appointment at the store, and Fikry’s life changes irrevocably.
Zevin’s first book was the very successful YA novel Elsewhere (FSG, 2005), published in over 20 countries. On her book tour in 2007 for her third novel, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesic, she was escorted around Chicago by Mark Gates, who, at the time, was an FSG sales rep. “He was a big talker and a big smoker, and I liked him enormously,” says Zevin. “Mark took me on a few sales calls, and I saw the way he pitched a list of books to buyers. I just enjoyed hearing him talk and tell tales. I had never really known that this person existed as such an important intermediary to get my book into bookstores.” Zevin was also unaware that Gates, PW’s Rep of the Year in 2006, was terminally ill with cancer. “I was really sad when he died,” she says. At the time, she had no idea that she would one day incorporate Gates as a character in a novel.
Zevin, who is now 35, graduated Harvard University as an English major. “I knew I wanted to do something creative, and you don’t necessarily go to Harvard to do that,” she says. “It’s not the best choice for creative writing.” Had she not studied there, however, she wouldn’t have met fellow student Hans Canosa, her current partner. The pair cowrote a screenplay while at Harvard, Conversations with Other Women, which Canosa directed. The film starred Helena Bonham Carter and was nominated for an Indie Spirit award; it also landed Zevin her first screenwriting agent.
Zevin’s mother is Korean and her father is a Russian Jew; she says that her unusual family gave her an atypical worldview. “Where I feel that having this background has helped me is that... I have empathy with a lot of different kinds of people,” she says. This is apparent in Fikry, a novel whose characters include the erudite Fikry, a blue-collar worker, and a biracial baby left at the front door of Island Books for Fikry to find.
The narrative glue is Fikry’s bookstore, lovingly helped along by sales reps who call on him, along with a coterie of loyal customers. “There were secrets in this world I’d never known much about,” Zevin says. “Why do certain books sit on the table, why are others shelved in a certain place? What’s co-op? What’s a shelftalker? I had a lot to learn.” She is in awe of book reps. “You’re in this little car driving all over America with your box of galleys to convince people to read this book because it’s going to be wonderful. And you do it year after year without knowing who’ll be on the other side of the door, or who’s going to be receptive to your wares. Reps are eternally hopeful.”
Zevin knows she is “super lucky” to have had eight novels published since 2005, and she’s also grateful for the warm reception she’s received among booksellers. “Writing blurbs for books means you have to read the book, and it cuts into the business of bookselling,” she says. “So every time I get a blurb from a bookseller, I try to write a thank you note. With Fikry, I wanted to explain why you should buy books at an indie bookseller, because nobody ever tells you why.” Until now.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Gabrielle Zevin worked as a screenwriting agent. She has never worked as a screenwriting agent.