This is an interview I did with the wonderful Jennifer Smeth on her blog Bookalicious Mama. Unfortunately, Jennifer no longer runs the blog, but this is one of my favorite interviews so I’m sharing it here.
Jennifer Smeth: Thank you for agreeing to sit down with me, Shelly. Your debut novel The Moment of Everything is about a young woman finding her calling while saving a used bookstore. What inspired you to write this story?
Shelly King: Thanks for inviting me! Many things inspired The Moment of Everything—bookstore cats, Silicon Valley geeks, my love of bookstores—but I guess the main thing is that I love finding things in old books. When I find a book with a bit of writing in it or a scrap of something left behind, it gives the book a second story. There’s not just the story the author has written. There’s also the story of the book as an object. I love wondering about the journey of an old book. So I was thinking about this one day, and I got the idea of two people writing to each other in a book. And that’s how it started.
JS: How many different titles did you experiment with before deciding on The Moment of Everything?
SK: About 6,094. Seriously, it was soooo hard! I’m completely inept when it comes to titles. My wonderful agent, amazing editor, and I had lots of long conference calls with painful silences that seemed to stretch over decades while we were trying to squeeze out the right title from our brains. I think it was fear of another one of these meetings that was coming up that inspired my editor (Emily Griffin at Grand Central Publishing). She came up with The Moment of Everything from a quote in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the book that plays a central part in my novel. I love it.
JS: What role have books played in your life?
SK: There are no words for how big of a role they’ve played. One of my favorite pictures of me as a toddler is of me sitting on a stack of picture books in a chair and looking through them on the kitchen table. Before I could even read, I remember just turning the pages through adult books with no pictures, looking at the words. I think I must have known their importance even at that age, like they were a magic spell I wanted to learn. I was the kid who always had a book.
As an adult, I’ve bonded with so many people over our love of books. And I have to say, the lack of books in someone’s life has been a warning flag for me. Before I was married, I always knew on a date early on if things were going to work out with a guy. Nothing would turn me cold like “I don’t really read” or “My favorite book is Atlas Shrugged.” On my first date with my husband—who is kind of a rugged, Sam Eliot type of physics nerd if you can believe it—he told me he loved reading Janet Evanovich and Sue Grafton novels on his frequent business trips. I knew he had potential then!
JS: Which novels have had the most impact on you as a writer? Is there a particular book that made you want to write?
SK: Wow, that’s a big question. Love in the Time of Cholera came out when I was in college. I remember a friend who worked in a bookstore shoved it into my hands with such urgency that I couldn’t help but pay for a new hardback on a student budget. It was beautiful. I signed up for a creative writing class the next quarter, but it was a disaster. I didn’t try writing again until I was in my 30s after I read Possession. That novel floored me. It still does. A Prayer for Owen Meany is a book I go back to over and over. And any short story by Anne Proulx is a micro-MFA if you’re paying attention. Not enough people read her. If you’re starting out as a writer, reading Annie Proulx is like learning to play blues guitar by hanging out with BB King.
JS: What kind of reader were you as a child? And what were your favorite childhood books?
SK: I was in an odd situation as a child because my father was very suspicious of my love of books. Unfortunately, even though he was a very educated man, he felt very strongly that nonfiction books were the only books that were acceptable. He thought storybooks and novels would make me view the world in an unrealistic way. So missed out on a lot of classic kid lit. But I read a ton of biographies as a child. I loved baseball so I read lots of biographies of players from the early days of baseball. The character Dizzy in my novel is named after the pitcher Dizzy Dean who played for the St. Louis Browns in the 30s. I must have read his biography a hundred times. I think they stopped letting me check it out at the library. I did manage to convince my dad that some novels were OK, like the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books, because they were based on real events. And I, of course, snuck a lot of novels home from the library or spent my allowance on the Weekly Reader at school. Novels were always a little subversive in my childhood home and that made me more obsessed with them.
JS: What book is currently on your nightstand?
SK: I usually have several books going at once. I’m reading The Queen of Tearling by another Bay Area author, Erika Johansen. It’s fantastic. And even though it’s a fantasy novel, I relate so much to the main character. I’ve worked in high tech for (gulp) 25 years now and the Erika’s protagonist’s struggles to prove herself resonated with me as a woman working in high tech. I’m also finishing up The Stand which was my big summer read. It’s just as great as everyone says it is. And I’m finally getting to read my friend M.P. Cooley’s debut novel Ice Shear that my husband grabbed when I brought it home before I had a chance to read it. (He loved it!)
JS: What was the last book to make you laugh?
SK: Cat Sense by John Bradshaw. He’s written about what we know about cat behavior. I laughed because so much of what I believed has been so wrong! It’s a great book for any cat lover.
JS: The last book that made you cry?
SK: The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy. His writing makes me ache in all the right ways.
JS: The last book that made you furious?
SK: I’ve been catching up on GRR Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series. I’d started it years ago, well before the HBO series. I lived in an apartment building where all my neighbors and I were obsessed with the first three books (that’s all there were then). But I stopped after book three because I felt like nothing good was ever going to happen to these characters…ever! I’ve picked up the series again at book four because I want to be ahead of the HBO series. I knew this fourth book only covered half the characters before I started, but it was still infuriating not to know what was happening with Jon Snow! Maybe I should have read books four and five simultaneously.
JS: I recently wrote a post with Robin Kall about the books we’re embarrassed to not have read, despite their occupying space on our shelves. Robin’s pick was Atonement and mine was Middlesex. Shelly, what books are you embarrassed not to have read?
SK: This is not a cop out answer, I promise. My philosophy is to never have book shame, either over what you like to read or what you have/haven’t read. I developed this in college where I was an English major and everyone expected me to have read every book that had ever existed. There are too many good books out there and too little time! But, having said that, I get painfully embarrassed if the author is a friend and I see him/her and I haven’t had time to read their book. Being a writer can be so hard and being able to genuinely tell someone that you loved her/his book is such a gift. So I always fell embarrassed when I haven’t gotten to it, like if I didn’t bring a hostess gift to a party.
JS: Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
You ask such tough questions! I cringe as I type this, but I didn’t like Twilight at all. I love YA and so many people I know LOVED that series. But I found myself getting near the end of the first book and hoping some big baddie would just eat Bella and Edward. Sorry, Twihards!
JS: Shelly, your book was a fall release that I was eagerly looking forward to. Which of the big fall books are you most looking forward to?
SK: Without a doubt The Bone Clocks. I think David Mitchell is one of the most brilliant writers who has ever lived. I would read a napkin doodle by that man.
JS: You were recently selected to be part of The Debutante Ball Class of 2015. Can you explain what that is? And what it means to be picked?
SK: The Debutante Ball is a blog run by five authors who all have debut novels coming out over the course of the year. Each year, the outgoing class of Debs picks the incoming class. I was thrilled to be selected for the Class of 2015! We write about our writing life and other topics, invite guest contributors, host book give-aways. If you’re in a book club, the site is a great way to find out about upcoming books (not just by the Debs, but other writers) and be “in the know” about new titles. I was in the unique position of having my book come out my first week on the Debutante Ball! So I’m just now getting sea legs with the blog. The other Debs have been so patient with me while things are setting down a bit after my book launch.
JS: I know that you are busy promoting The Moment of Everything but what are you working on next?
SK: Oh! It’s so hard to talk about because I’m still in the early stages. But it is another comic novel that takes place in Silicon Valley. It’s not a sequel to The Moment of Everything but there are a couple of people in it that TMOE readers will recognize.