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A Vision of Where You Want to Be: A Conversation With Robin Sloan

by Brendan Dowling on May 30, 2013

Robin Sloan’s debut novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, received rave reviews when it was published last fall and quickly became a bookclub favorite. When out-of-work web designer Clay Jannon finds employment in an usually-shaped bookstore, he soon finds himself thrust into a world of  secret societies, forbidden books, and cardboard scanners. The book is a celebration of reading and friendships, yet Penumbra also explores how we process information in the 21st century and how technology fits into our lives. Brendan Dowling spoke to Robin Sloan by telephone on May 22nd, 2013. You can find more information about Robin at his website, Facebook page, and Twitter account.

PUBLIC LIBRARIES: You wrote part of Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Book Store in a library. What made the library such an appealing work space for you?

ROBIN SLOAN: Honestly, it’s the books, it’s the presence of all those other books. And this predates Penumbra—ever since I was a little kid, I was always a big reader of books, but I always liked to see them all there too, in that sense that each one represented a part of some person’s life. And even more so as a writer, I’ve found that really encouraging and really inspiring—to sit among the stacks myself. It’s kind of a vision of where you want to be.

PL: The book is a valentine to reading, and a fictional series, The Dragon Song Chronicles, plays an important role in the plot. What was your version of the Dragon Song Chronicles when you were growing up?

RS: There was definitely more than one. But I will have to admit that the most direct antecedent was a series of books called The Dragonlance Chronicles. There’s actually like sixty books in that series! It’s one of those things that just went on and on and branched in all these different directions. But in particular there was a core saga by these two writers, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. I read them when I was in middle school and was obsessed with them. I would talk about them with my friends and just like in Penumbra, I met a guy who’s still one of my best friends, primarily because we were both fans of these books.

PL: Part of the fun of the Penumbra is the world outside of the book that you created, with everything from the glow-in-the dark book cover to your 24 hour Google Hangout to Kat Potente’s working email address. Where did the idea for the book to have a life outside of its physical format? Why was that important to you?

RS: I think it’s less a bright idea on our part and more a necessity. I just think these days with both the growing immateriality of books and the fact that so many people read them in digital forms, and also, more acutely, the competition from everything—from TV and Netflix and Twitter and Facebook and everything you can read online—I think you have to do a bit of extra work to carve out space in the world for any book. There’s a lot of things you can do to make that happen. I think real world events are part of it. I think giving a book a beautiful package or making the cover glow in the dark is part of it. It’s almost like making a little clearing in this otherwise very crowded chaotic jungle of words.

PL: You wrote your first book, the novella Annabel Scheme, as part of a Kickstarter campaign. Can you talk about why you used Kickstarter and how it shaped the creation of your book?

RS: I used it primarily because I was uncertain. This [uncertainty] is common when you’re just starting out and maybe haven’t published anything too substantial yet. I think one of your biggest questions is simply, “Does anybody want to read this? Is there anybody on the other end?” So for me, the most important part of Kickstarter, far more important than the money or that I was actually able to print the book, was that people were potentially pledging to read the book, to read what I produced.

My Kickstarter project was a little unusual in that I was actually writing it as the project unfolded. It wasn’t like I had a draft ready to go and I was at the last stage – I was actually producing this thing! And as I was doing it, I found the promise of a readership, however small, hugely encouraging. I don’t know if I would have been able to write that first novella without it.

PL: Just to have that validation was important.

RS: Yes, and it doesn’t have to be much. That’s the thing I tell people now who are just starting out or thinking about doing something similar. It’s not like you need a thousand people or ten thousand people on that first day. My goal that I set for Kickstarter was to print 300 copies of the book and send them to people. For any real commercial publishing endeavor, that’s not enough. (laughs) But before that, I had published zero books and I had zero readers. It’s really encouraging just to know that there’s a group of people of any size out there waiting for it.

It was a neat opportunity too. The fact that I was writing it as the project was unfolding and as people were backing it and essentially pre-ordering the book, [meant that] I got to have a conversation about the process and talk about what I was doing and decisions I was making and give people glimpses without spoiling the story. That was actually a really fun experience.

PL: When you started the campaign, did you have any idea of all the changes in your life that would take place—that you would leave your full-time job to become a writer?

No, definitely not. It was the early days of Kickstarter too. Kickstarter was very much an unknown quantity. I can remember very well the terror of hitting that “start project” button and really not knowing what would come next. I had no idea if the project would even be successful.

I would say that the decision to leave my job and really focus on [the book] was partially because I had gotten more support than I had expected, and it was an exciting opportunity. But there was a bit of fear there too. I had created sort of a trap for myself. I had pledged that I would finish this book and I was going to make it good. And suddenly, all these people whose names I recognized, who I really respected, were appearing on this list of backers and man, it turns out that’s a really effective motivator. I didn’t want to let those people down. I wanted to make something really good—at least as good as I could make it at that time—and really make them feel like it was worth it to support this project. So in some ways, I thought, “I have no choice. I need to do this, because the alternative is just too horrifying.”

PL: You had to be accountable.

RS: I think that’s one of the cool things about it. When people talk about Kickstarter, especially these days, a lot of the stories are about huge dollar amounts and movies raising millions of dollars. I still think it is at its most powerful on a much humbler scale, when people are raising money to do a much smaller project and it’s more about that accountability and building a community who are both cheering you on and also expecting you to do your best work. It’s hugely motivating. It’s very different than working in a vacuum.

PL: And the campaign itself was serendipitous because that’s how you met Penumbra’s editor, right?

RS: It’s not actually how I met the editor. It is what led me to my agent, Sarah Burnes. Penumbra’s editor, Sean MacDonald at FSG, meeting him is straight up serendipity, that part of your question is right. He was a reader of a blog that I used to write for a lot, Snarkmarket. The blog’s gone a little quiet these days, but it really had its heyday back in 2007-2008. He was a reader [of the blog] and we used to correspond. He’d send me books and that was pretty exciting, to be getting books in the mail from a fancy New York publisher. He had followed along with my writing projects and was always super encouraging. So I actually thought of him first when I was finishing the full length novel manuscript of Penumbra.

PL: You’ve talked about how writing for your blog had the unexpected benefit of training you to write your books. What were the specific traits you learned from blogging that were so helpful in writing fiction?

RS: I would say there are actually two traits you pick up: one’s bad and one’s good. The bad one, honestly, was a real preference for short writing, and I would call it a facility with short writing. I actually found myself struggling with that. On the internet you become very aware of the limitations on people’s attention spans. You see it in the analytics for any blog or website that you run. You see people appearing and then closing the window ten seconds later. People talk about the idea of the bounce rate and people just bouncing off these words. It gets to be pretty harrowing.

So you make a practice of writing things short and punchy and not wasting time and not wasting words. It turns out that’s actually not a good habit for full-length novel writing. It’s funny now to look at the earlier drafts of Penumbra. They feel very bloggy, almost as if I’m afraid that the reader’s going to get bored and close the tab, even though it’s a book not a website. So in some ways I had to unlearn that piece of it.

I would say happily the good thing blogging taught me, and the thing that was very productive, was just the ability to write and not overthink it. The idea that in some ways just producing words is more important than getting them right the first time. I would say, thanks to blogging, I’ve never had problems with writer’s block or obsessing over a sentence and never making it past the first page. It just taught me to write and write and write and edit later.

PL: So how did you unlearn the bad habits of blogging?

RS: I can’t say that there was any special trick. It was really an iterative process of going through drafts and getting feedback from people who told me, “This is kind of choppy. This is a cool moment. This is a cool scene, draw it out, have some fun with it. Readers want to spend more time here. They want things to slow down so they can almost luxuriate in this weird scene or strange setting you’ve created.”

It felt almost muscular, like unlearning something, like changing your accent. I had to think about it and work against my instinct. And I would say slowly that’s gone away. I’m working on a new book now and that instinct is not as strong. I’m able to stretch things out more easily. In some ways you could say I had to learn to have more confidence in the reader.

PL: You describe yourself on your website as a media inventor. Can you talk about what you mean by that?

RS: Basically, through the history of media, there are times when we essentially get new formats. You can pick whatever one you want. There was a time in history when there was really no concept of a pop song or a radio single. But then through the invention of the radio and the record industry, that became a format. And now, everybody knows what a great pop song is: how it feels, what length it is and everything else.

You could say the same for movies. There was a time when the word “movie” didn’t mean anything. It wasn’t that long ago—it was the turn of the twentieth century—we literally didn’t have a word for it. People were still struggling with it, “What do we call these things? Cinematographs?” We didn’t know what the content was supposed to be, how they were supposed to look, and how they were supposed to feel.

So the truth is, there’s been a whole history of invention, paired with the development of different media, different formats, and different technologies. So to call myself a media inventor is actually hugely aspirational. Any time you hear somebody say that, it’s more about what they want to do rather than what they’ve already accomplished.

But basically, I’m interested in the idea that new formats have been invented and they can still be invented. So one of the things I’d like to do, besides working in traditional formats like novels and short stories, is to try my hand at the invention of new formats as well.

PL: And do you have any idea what those formats would look like?

RS: The best example so far in my own work is an app that I made for iPhone. It’s called Fish. It’s a funny thing. I called it a Tap Essay, and the very fact that I had to invent a weird name for it is almost like a good sign, that it might qualify as media invention. Essentially it’s an essay about the internet and the way we consume things there and what might or might not be wrong with that. But it’s delivered not as words scrolling down a page but almost as a series of cards—a little bit like a slide show but with a few twists that I think make it different.

So basically it’s a situation where I had something I wanted to say but then I had to design a custom format to deliver it. As it turns out it was pretty successful, and people liked it and responded to it well, and now other people are making tap essays using the same ideas and the same tools. So it’s not movies or a whole new kind of music or anything as big as that, but it’s a small example, and I think it’s indicative of the kind of work I want to be able to do.

PL: What role have libraries played in your life?

RS: Oh man, in all seriousness, I can’t imagine being a writer without the influence of the public library as a kid. My library was the Troy Public Library, in Troy, Michigan. In a very real sense I grew up there; I migrated from the kid’s section to the teen’s section to the little spinning wire racks that held all the pulpy fantasy novels and the Choose-Your-Own Adventures, and finally made the leap to the adult section and the nonfiction shelves. I spent a lot of time there. I consumed a lot of words and ideas there. And it was really important.

I think a lot of writers—not all, but a lot—are motivated by a spirit of emulation. You’ve had these experiences with books that were so remarkable and you almost want to honor them by doing it yourself and keeping it going. And that’s the case for me. If I hadn’t had those early experiences at the Troy Public Library, I wouldn’t have a reason to be writing today.

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