In this interview with New York Times Best Selling Author Robin Sloan, we talk about his influences and idols, the challenges of writing a sophomore novel, and his latest book, Sourdough.
I picked up my first Robin Sloan novel about a week before my nineteenth birthday. It was two weeks after I’d moved away for college and I was feeling particularly lost. Naturally, I’d wandered into a bookstore a couple blocks from my dorm. Sloan’s debut novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, practically jumped off the shelf and into my hands. This book had set the tone for my first year of college and I’m really glad to have read it.
So imagine my excitement now, as a senior in college, with yet another Robin Sloan book coming out just days before my twenty-second birthday. I’d bought it without hesitation and devoured it immediately. This time around, I’ve got a lot more experience under my belt and an email interview with the author himself! What a perfect way to wrap up my college career!
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Robin Sloan is the New York Times Best Selling author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. His latest novel, Sourdough, follows the life of Silicon Valley programmer, Lois. After her favorite restaurant closes, the owners leave Lois a parting gift, the starter for their sourdough recipe. When the bread becomes a total hit at work, Lois sets her sights on getting her bread into one of the many farmers' markets happening on around the city. While she doesn’t make it into any of the mainstream markets, she does get into the mysterious Marrow Fair, an upcoming farmer’s market where Silicon Valley meets The Food Network. Throughout the story, she struggles to find a balance between life, making bread with a robotic arm, and the mystery of the Marrow Fair.
You are a man of many talents in my opinion. Not many other people can boast that they write, code, and make olive oil (and I'm sure even fewer people can do them all at once). You've also worked on a literary magazine of your own creation. But to start things off, I do want to focus on your beginning. How did you get into writing? Were there any authors or stories that inspired you particularly?
Robin Sloan: Like any voracious reader, there are too many to name! Some books and feelings are with you almost from the start, though. Ellen Raskin's Westing Game is one of the first books I can remember loving—I probably first read it when I was 10 or 11?—and across many years and many readings, there's just something about it—the suspense, the puzzle, the spirit. I hope some trace of that is present in all my books.
With technology and society changing at a rapid pace, a lot of people have been forced to find new and innovative ways to get their creative work out there. You call yourself a media inventor. How has this influenced your writing?
Robin: Like a lot of people my age—I’m 37—I feel like I grew up with the internet, and I've always had curiosity about computers and how they work. The result has been that the challenge of being a writer and writing on the internet has always felt, if not easy, exactly, then at least welcome: I've always been eager to try new formats and figure things out.
I have to ask (and I'm sure you've gotten this one before) why glow-in-the-dark covers? I read in your interview with NPR that you wanted to create a physical copy worth buying, but of course, you could have chosen any number of different designs.
Robin: Well, I have to give all credit to the designer of both covers, Rodrigo Corral! In my estimation, he's the best book cover designer working today. I didn't even know glow-in-the-dark ink was an OPTION! But of course, as soon as it was proposed, I said: yes. I must have it. And I've received surprised emails from readers, time-stamped 2 a.m., ever since!
Are you the type of author who spends a lot of time researching information for your novels? If so, was Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore more difficult to research than Sourdough or vice versa?
Robin: I definitely did more research for Sourdough. I feel like the world of Penumbra was my world; I'd been researching it, in a sense, my whole life, just by being a nerd about books and computers and typefaces and everything else. As I wrote Sourdough, I was getting deeper and deeper into the world of food, but I never felt like a native: thus, a lot more reading and research.
You write fiction in a way that seems like fact. I know that in my reading of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, you could have told me that it was creative nonfiction and I might have actually believed it. The same instances happen in Sourdough, like with the existence of the Mazg or the science behind Jaina Mitra's Lembas bread. Does this kind of matter-of-fact writing come naturally to you?
Robin: I think it does. The trick I love most of all is to tuck things into the gray space between the real and the fictional—to make people wonder, "is that really . . . ?” and then maybe hop over to Google to check. I think that's a fun opportunity for writers in the internet-connected 21st century—something to be embraced, not avoided!
After the success of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, what was it like jumping into Sourdough? Did you find it difficult? What inspired you to write about a rather mystical sourdough starter in the first place?
Robin: I knew I wanted to write a story set in the world of San Francisco Bay Area food, simply because it's so weird and interesting—it deserves to have stories told about it, and through it. I'd baked sourdough bread before, and as I started to piece this novel together, I realized it would be fun—well, a challenge, but a fun one—to try to make a supporting character out of a sourdough starter.
Both Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough showcase very competent women working in the tech industry. Was this something you intended from the start?
Robin: That's a good question! In Sourdough, it was at least somewhat by design. As I introduced new characters, even really minor ones, I purposefully avoided the "default male" approach that can sometimes occur if you're not paying attention. I have to say that I had a direct influence, which was the terrific science fiction novel Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. I don't want to say too much and give it away, but the book has a very interesting and, I thought, inspiring approach to gender.
Was Lois' ending something you had planned from the start? It was very lovely, by the way. I don't think I could have seen it go any other way.
Robin: I'm glad to hear it! Endings, of course, are always tricky. I didn't have this one planned from the start, but I agree with you: I think Lois ended up in a good place. I'm glad the robot came, too. (I hope that's a little bit enticing to people who haven't read the book yet!)
What do you hope the reader takes away from reading your latest novel?
Robin: Oh gosh—lots of things. First and foremost, I hope they simply enjoy it. I always want my novels to deliver pleasure, at the most basic level. Beyond that, I hope they regard the microbial world with perhaps a little more awe than they did before! When I think about all the things that microbes do—for us, in us, with us—I think maybe our world is more science fictional than we realize.