WWW.SHAKER.LIFE | FALL 2019 21
How did your Shaker upbringing help
to form you as a writer? Did certain
teachers or classes inspire your writing?
I had incredible teachers at the
Shaker schools, and I credit them with
encouraging me to write and making me
feel the magic of words. Ms. Buehler and
Mr. Heaps, who I had for English in high
school, were my greatest teachers
When did you know you wanted
to be a writer?
From the time I could read I knew I
wanted to write.
How did you prepare to write The Library
Book? When did you first learn about the
fire and how did you research it?
I prepared by talking to as many staff
members as I could, including a score of
retired librarians, and reading everything
I could find about the library – its history,
the reporting about the fire, the quest to
reopen the library. I had first learned about
the fire when I was being given a tour of
Central Library, and the person giving me
the tour mentioned it casually.
I immediately seized on it – who wouldn’t?
– and wanted to know everything about the
fire, about how and why it happened.
Did you start with a focus on the library
and then discover the characters, or did
you intend to write about the characters
from the start?
I always knew that the heart of the
story was the people. I couldn’t imagine
writing about a library without making it
a story about people.
Did you intend to include the personal
touch about your mother at the start or
did that evolve?
My childhood memories were central
to my interest in writing the book. But I
never imagined that the book would end
up being so much of a meditation on my
mother – it simply evolved that way. And
when my mother developed dementia and
began losing her memory, it became even
more connected to the story I was telling.
It was very emotional to write that part
of the book, but it also was an essential
element of why I was drawn to this story.
You don’t draw a conclusion on who
started the fire. Why is that?
I didn’t draw a conclusion because
I couldn’t reach one. I remain absolutely
torn on the question of whether Harry
started the fire or not.
Can you talk about community
and the role the library plays
in it? L
ibraries are the heart of our
communities – they’re the centers
of information and knowledge
and stories, so they’re both
actually and symbolically the
key to who we are and what
we know. While we can access
information in many ways
these days, libraries remain
vital and meaningful places
where we can gather and
share and learn together.
What is the significance of
the book titles and library
catalog information at
the beginning of each
chapter? How did you
select the titles?
The book titles are
meant to foreshadow
the contents of the
the connection is very
obvious and sometimes it’s more subtle.
They’re all books that are currently in the
collection of the Los Angeles library.
I chose them to give readers a bit of the
experience of browsing through the
catalog before they land in the chapter.
Your description of how the fire
traveled reads as if you were there.
How did you manage that amount of
detail and who kept those records?
I interviewed many firefighters who
were at the library the day of the fire, and
asked them detailed questions about the
experience. I also got lucky and found the
logbook that the fire department kept
of the event, which detailed minute by
minute what happened. Combined with
newspaper accounts of that day, I was able
to craft that description.
What writers have influenced
John McPhee, Joan Didion, Tom
Wolfe, Joseph Mitchell, A. J. Liebling, and
How is your writing day structured? Do
you have any writing rituals or quirks?
I try to sit down by 10 am to start
writing, and I have a daily quota of 1,000
words that I try very hard to reach. Sometimes
that comes fairly quickly and other
times it takes forever. I like to write in a
quiet space – no music, no background
noise – but otherwise I’m pretty flexible.
What is one of your biggest challenges
as a writer?
Reaching those 1,000 words every day.
What are you reading now?
I just started Kate Atkinson’s new
book, Big Sky, and when I finish that,
I’m going to read Vivian Gornick’s book
What’s your preference:
books, audiobooks, or ebooks?
I prefer a gorgeous hardcover book
to anything, but I use ebooks when I’m
traveling for the sake of convenience.
We know you were a card carrying
member of the Shaker Library. What
library card does your son carry?
He has a library card from his school
and a Los Angeles Public Library card. SL