Garth Stein went from racing in the rain to climbing trees with ghosts.
The Seattle-based writer had a massive literary hit with his 2009 novel “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” narrated from the point of view of a dog named Enzo who is fascinated by the human condition.
Five years later, Stein returns with the much-anticipated follow-up, a dog-free novel named “A Sudden Light.” Part family drama, part mystery, part ghost story, “Light” follows 14-year-old Trevor as he follows his father back to the the family estate, a gigantic mansion called Riddell House overlooking Seattle’s Puget Sound. As Trevor unravels the riddle of his father’s strained relationship with his father and sister, he also discovers secret passages and rooms in the house that offer clues to the Riddell family’s secrets, dating back over a century.
The novel is out this week, and Stein is clearly excited to finally put it in readers’ hands, embarking on a 33-city book tour that will bring him to Madison this Friday as a Wisconsin Book Festival preview event. Stein talked to The Capital Times about the new book, the pressure brought by the success of “Racing in the Rain,” and what it’s like to live with the name “Garth.”
This is a major book tour you’re on.
It’s pretty hardcore. I’m really excited about it. It’s what I like to do. I’m anxious to do it, and I really want this book to succeed, and if I have to go around and put the book in people’s hands, and turn to page 1 and say, “Let me read with you,” like I do with my 7-year-old, I’m going to do that.
Did the success of “Racing in the Rain” give you all kinds of freedom for your next project, or all kinds of pressure, or both?
Certainly there’s the freedom, the economic freedom to say, “I’m a writer now, and I don’t have to teach fifth-graders.” I mean, I loved doing that, but it’s nice to say, “No, now I’m devoted to working on my craft.” With that comes an obligation, and then demands, and then expectations. It’s like the Seattle Seahawks winning the Super Bowl. You’re like, “Wow, nobody expected them to do that!” and then it’s, “What else you got?”
This is a book that feels like you can go deep into. It’s a multi-generational story with elements of history and supernatural elements.
I’d like it to be. My intention was to write a book that lets you go as deep as you want to go. It was a lot of fun. It was very difficult. I had to go back and write the chronological history of the Riddell family from the 1890s forward.
A friend of mine used this phrase: “Epic yet intimate.” That’s what I was going for. It’s about a kid who wants his mom and dad. But it reverberates through all these major issues: conservation, the stigma of homosexuality, assisted suicide. I wanted to have all that stuff in there, as long as you understood it had the intimacy of a person with a goal.
There’s several father-son relationships going on here, across generations. Why was that such a big theme for you?
When I first sat down to start working on this in 2009, my father got ill from a lung ailment. It progressed rather rapidly, he was in the hospital for five weeks, and then he died.
The Dead Dads’ Club is something ... you’re either in it or you’re not. But that’s what dads do. Dads die. It affected me profoundly. Your dad is like the net under the tightrope. I’m a fully formed human being — I have a family, and I’ve been in charge of my life for a long time. But still, there’s always the net. And when they take the net down, it’s a different feeling.
While this was going on, I was in the early embryonic stages of figuring out the story as a novel. And he managed to find his way into that.
Do you feel like you have to let your characters find the story?
Without a doubt. I often say the first draft of a book is written for the author. It’s my idea, it’s my plan. The first pass is all about me. Every subsequent pass is not about the author at all, it’s about the characters and the story. The author has to step aside and let the story work in an organic way so that it’s true. It’s fiction, but it’s true.
Your novel is set in 1990, which was a great year for people named Garth, between Garth Brooks and Garth from “Wayne’s World.” What’s it like to be named Garth?
I’ve heard it all. It started with Garth Vader, and then of course "The World According to Garth,” and “Party on, Garth.” I’d always been the only Garth. When I went to college, I went to Columbia University, and I was a freshman, and there was another guy in my class named Garth Winfield. He’s also a writer. He writes for TV.
He was a nice guy, and we were kind of friendly. We’d walk through campus and I’d say, “Hi Garth,” and he’d say, “Hi Garth.” And after a couple of weeks, I had to say to him, “Dude, it’s just not working for me anymore.” And he said, “It’s not working for me either.” It freaked me out!
We’re kind of friendly now in Facebook. But what’s so funny is that one of his friends on Facebook will message me and say, “Oh, Garth, remember that time we did this and this.” And I’m like, "You’ve got the wrong Garth.”