I first discovered Lewis Buzbee through his witty collection of bookish essays, The Yellow Lighted Bookshop which received a starred review from PW. Here's a bit of it:
Woven into these personal essays is a tangential discourse on the history of bookmaking and bookselling, from the ancient Romans and Chinese to the modern era. He describes the scriptoriums in Roman bookshops where the wealthy could order a book copied, the stacks of unbound quires a customer would have chosen from in a 15th-century bookshop (proto-paperbacks) and everything one would want to know about the modern business of bookselling, from ISBNs to remainders. On current hot-button issues, like predatory pricing by big-box stores and Internet vendors, he's careful where he draws his bottom line, which is 'between bookstores and the absence of them.'
The ideas behind his latest book, a novel for younger teens about a boy who helps save his local library while also becoming embroiled in a ghostly mystery surrounding John Steinbeck, really appealed to me although I did not expect at all to fall for the book as hard as I did. Steinbeck's Ghost was reviewed in my October column and I also wrote about here last summer:
Steinbeck's Ghost is an exceedingly literary mystery for teens and certainly on par with comparable books written for adults. Buzbee doesn't shy away from digging into Steinbeck's life or books and all of it - from Cannery Row to his westerns to his constant exploration of life for the "common man" is analyzed here by Travis and his friends (some of whom are young and some who are much older). I never read Cannery Row or Sea of Cortez or The Pastures of Heaven, all of which I am determined to pick up now. For that alone, Buzbee is to be commended - he is a writer who generates interest in the works of others. But I also loved Steinbeck's Ghost because it knows its audience is smart and capable and treats them that way from the very beginning. You've got a mystery, a ghost story (several in fact), a coming-of-age tale, a family drama with some serious discussion of social and economic class and what that means to a kid, and some very excellent "buddy" moments. It's rare I find a book that is the whole reading package but this one certainly is it.
Lewis answered the following questions earlier this fall and also added some wonderful back story on how a very Bradburyesque character ended up in Steinbeck's Ghost.
Chasing Ray: Okay obvious question - have you been a Steinbeck fan all your life or was your interest kindled by the near closure of the library?
LB: I first read Steinbeck when I was fifteenâ€”The Grapes of Wrath, for a book report. I hadn't been that much of a reader to that point; I thought perhaps I'd be a rock star. But when I read that, everything changed. I immediately began reading and writing, and the rock star dream, alas, died.
CR: You name drop several titles and authors in your book, most notably A Wrinkle in Time. What was your first encounter with that book?
LB: In sixth grade Mrs. Shamblin used to read to us in the afternoons, and one of those was A Wrinkle in Time, which had a profound impact on me. Part of my pleasure in hearing that book was the sleepiness that comes in late-spring, late-afternoon classrooms, the half-sleepiness of all that, both drowsy and attentive.
CR: You did an excellent job of weaving together several storylines here but the one that surprised me the most was the aspects of the plot dealing with Travis and his parents. The sharp way in which you addressed the conflict between "keeping up with the Joneses" and having enough time to enjoy that life really hit home for me. Do you think Travis's problem with his parents is a common one for today's young people?
LB: At my daughter's school I see this all the time. Or rather, don't see it. After a while you realize you never meet certain parents, mothers or fathers but mostly fathers, who are always at work. Kids stuck after school, waiting for their parents to return, parents gone until 8 or 9 at night regularly, or away on business trips. I understandâ€”trust me, I understandâ€”that it's hard to make a living and support a family. But what's the use working so hard to support a family you never see? It's all fine to think of your family's financial situation, but what might be lost to that?
CR: I'll confess that I actually thought Corral de Tierra [which is mentioned in Steinbeck's Ghost] was a real book. Is there a title about Steinbeck similar to that one or is this a book based on what you wish had been written?
LB: No, all my invention. Maybe I need to write that some day.
CR: There is a lot of Salinas history in the book, as well as Steinbeck history. Did you craft it as a mystery from the very beginning? It seems like a very unusual (and effective) way to "celebrate" a literary figure - especially to young audience. Since your first book was a memoir on your love of reading, did you consider at all writing about Steinbeck in a nonfic way?
CR: Creating a mystery for this book seemed imperative. I needed, first, to have a story that readers who didn't know Steinbeck could engage with, in hopes that it would take them to Steinbeck. And I also wanted to write a mystery that was an un-mystery, an anti-mystery. So much of our literatureâ€”for adults and younger readersâ€”are based on mysteries that actually get "solved." But most mysteries, that is, life's mysteries, don't have solutions, they only deepen and expand. At the end of the book, Travis understands some small pieces of the mystery he's lived through, but these mysteries also propel him, I hope, into the next stage of his life. Writing a mystery seemed the best way to comment on this.
LB: I also have a 10 year-old daughter and she gets very impatient with books that have no mystery to them. It's not because, I don't think, that younger readers are too impatient; I think it's because life is a mystery to themâ€”to all of us?â€”and reading can help you weave your way into and around and maybe even out of these mysteries.
The other part of the question: because I was so formed, in some way, by Steinbeck, I have always had an urge to write about him, but non-fiction never felt the right venue for me. His letters are so good, there are several fine biographies, not to mention Benson's brilliant epic biography, and I know that I am no biographer. When I first started writing this book, I thought it was all about the libraries, but for me it was all about Steinbeck, in the end, trying to pay tribute to the power of his words. That part of it kind of snuck up on me.
CR: There is a lot here about community service for young people and Travis serves as an excellent example of how they can effect positive change in their community. Do you think most teens understand the value of community service or that adults appreciate their potential contribution?
LB: I was 13 in 1970, in the middle of all that foment, and for one reason or another, I became very political at an early age. I worked on behalf of the ecology movement, as we called it back then, and protested against the war in Vietnam, and for the rights of farm workers. Perhaps that's one reason Steinbeck spoke so loudly to me a few years laterâ€”that sense of social justice that underlies much of his work. So I've always known that kids can make a difference. They really can.
I don't know how kids feel about community service these days. My intuition tells me that, like many of the adults around them, they feel cut off from the political processes. Although I have teenage god-children who are very activeâ€”building low-cost housing, refurbishing dilapidated schools. But they are the exception. And adults, on the whole, don't seem to view kids as contributors, as even interested in such issues. Which is too bad, because if you want passionate and committed workers, turn to teenagers. They can be loud and tireless.
CR: I can't help but think that libraries must have held (or hold) a significant place in your life. Can you explain a bit of how you personally feel about them and what place you feel they hold in communities?
LB: My memories of libraries are mostly personal ones, intimate ones. Walking into the public library near my home, spending late afternoon hours there, flitting from book to book, and thenâ€”magic of magicâ€”taking the books home. I was only ever disappointed that I had to take the books back. I also had several librarians recommend titles to me that I still think about.
What I always have loved about librarians is that they take each of their readers seriously, as individuals with interests that need to be addressed. Money, class, appearance, cool-factor, none of that really matters in a library. Everyone has the same library card; there's no platinum version. In that senseâ€”and in many othersâ€”libraries are exceedingly democratic.
And of course, they're free. What an amazing idea. When we look back and see how information has been controlled over centuries, and how that control has conferred power to the few, it's quite stunning to come upon a public library. It's not just books people get from libraries; it's power. And it's free.
CR: From the blurb on the cover it sounds like you are working on a book about Charles Dickens. Can you share a bit about it?
LB: I've just finished The Haunting of Charles Dickens, which will come out late next yearl. In this, it's 1862, London, and Dickens is a living character this time. He's a long-time family friend of the main character, Meg Pickel, whose brother has disappeared into the London Underworld. Meg and Dickens team up to recover her brother, a journey that introduces them to some of Dickens's most well know characters and settings. Meg's family are printersâ€”this is how they know Dickensâ€”and the literary emphasis in this book is on printing and publishing, and the craft and power of each. Full disclaimer: I stole this idea whole-cloth from my daughter, who, while we were in Salinas researching Steinbeck's Ghost, piped up from the back seat and said, "Dad, the next one has to be Dickens." And she was right.
After Dickens comes Mark Twain and the Mysterious Stranger, with an emphasis on journalism and newspapers. It's a time travel novel, with a contemporary boy and girl waking up in San Francisco in 1864, when Mark Twain was a reporter there, and just as he's begun using the name Mark Twain. What I'm so looking forward to with this bookâ€”I've just started researching itâ€”is the time-travel scheme I've invented. Mark Twain will arrive in contemporary San Francisco, and I know that's gonna be a lot of fun.
In our email exchange, Lewis and I also discussed our mutual affection for Ray Bradbury and his amazing talent. Here is some of what he shared with me about his long ago meeting with that great American author:
"In Steinbeck's Ghost, the reclusive writer Ernest Oster, tells Travis a story about meeting Ray Bradbury in the late 1950s, when Oster was a senior in high school. Oster had grown up in the same town as Bradbury, twenty years his senior, and Bradbury's come back to visit his high school. After lunch in the school cafeteria with some students, Bradbury invites Oster to join him in a nearby park, where the two sit and Bradbury speaks to Oster about being a writer.
Well. That's actually a story of mine that I've put on Oster.
Ray Bradbury was, lucky me, the first writer I ever met in person. I was a freshman in college, at UC Santa Barbara, and had been writing for a few years already, and reading up a storm, which, of course, included Bradbury. Fahrenheit 451 was, and still is, one of my favorite novels, along with all the rest.
Bradbury came to UCSB to give a reading, and some students, mostly English majors, I think, were invited to join him for lunch afterwards. Poor Ray, we ate in the dorm cafeteria. Well, as soon as lunch was over, the rest of the students got up and leftâ€”though why still baffles me. Bradbury does not drive, of course, and so had a few hours to wait before his train left, and he invited me to join him on the lawnâ€”it was a beautiful, warm day, early spring. We sat out there and talked for several hours, right by the lagoon, and Ray took all my questions seriously. Much of what he told me is in Steinbeck's Ghost, but here's the most important thing he told me that day: Always eat sandwiches at lunch; that way you can read and eat at the same time.
It was an incredible afternoon, to say the least, and I am still amazed at Bradbury's generosity, at how seriously he considered my questions and my ambition. I've met a lot of writers in the intervening years, and he is by far the most generous of them, and the most important, too.
When we parted that day he made me promise to send him my first published story, and I did, then he made me promise to send him my first published novel, and I did. I still write him a letter now and again, and his generosity continues. It was important to me that I get this story down somewhere, and to have it in Steinbeck's Ghost feels like the right place."
[Post pics include Castle Rock, located on the Markham ranch in Corral De Tierra near Salinas and Cannery Row circa 1945.]