The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

Enchanting Read by a Master Story-teller –2014

An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Gabrielle Zevin
Author of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (1 April 2014, Algonquin Books)

Columnist Anna Roins

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
by Gabrielle Zevin

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The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is an enchanting read by a master story-teller who does not resort to the usual tricks (gratuitous sex; depravity, and dire-consequences) for her book to be a suspenseful page-turner. She simply tells a good old-fashioned tale with numerous laugh-out-loud moments which show her skill and talent as a writer. It’s about a man who is devastated by the recent loss of his wife who owns a book store that is losing sales. To make matters worse, his prized possession, a collection of original poems by Edgar Allan Poe, have gone missing. Just when things become too much for him, a mysterious package is found in his store. Gabrielle Zevin writes novels that appeal to the youthful side in all of us. The novel has been a New York Times bestseller, a #1 Indie Next Pick, and the #1 Library Reads Selection.


“The hardest thing about writing a book is always the same thing for me. It’s committing to an idea. “

AUTHORLINK: Ms. Zevin, thank you for sharing your time with us to discuss your remarkable book, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. It was such a delightful read! What was the hardest thing about writing this novel? What was the easiest?

ZEVIN: Thank you! The hardest thing about writing a book is always the same thing for me. It’s committing to an idea. I flirted with the idea for the book that would become A.J. Fikry for six years before I actually sat down to write it. The second hardest part is putting myself in a space where I am emotionally open enough to do my best work. A lot of novel writing involves receiving and processing criticism, and on some level, this can make a writer a bit skittish, a bit fearful when it comes to new work. But to do good work, I have to let go of that fear and clear the room of other voices. The easiest part of this book? Well, after six years of thinking about the book, I have to say that, as far as books go, this one was an awfully good baby. Like Maya herself actually! She wrote fairly quickly and she didn’t give me many problems.

AUTHORLINK: Some of the themes in your novel deal with the relationship of the bookseller to the independent bookstore. What would you say are the main advantages and/or disadvantages of self-publishing against being published the old fashioned way? Where do you see publishing going in the future?

ZEVIN: I am a reader before I am a writer so I’m going to speak from the point-of-view of a reader. As a reader, I know we need traditional publishers. Life is short, and although I am sure there are gems among self-published books, I don’t have life enough to read all of the work that is, for lack of a better term, less finished. I want to read books that have been curated and edited. Gatekeepers are problematic—whose voices get to be heard?—but I believe necessary in all of the arts. In terms of publishing in the future? Who can say? What I know for certain: as long as there are people, there will be stories.

“I try to be a good listener, and I enjoy the interesting ways people use language.”

AUTHORLINK: You write so beautifully. The exchanges between the characters of A.J., Amelia and Maya, are entertaining because their natural spontaneity seems authentic. Do you have a special, well-studied trick that you’re willing to share about writing such believable characters and scenarios?

ZEVIN: That’s a lovely compliment. I don’t have a trick, but I can tell you a few things I do. I try to be a good listener, and I enjoy the interesting ways people use language. As for writing characters? This is not something I’ve always done, but for my last couple of books, I’ve written character biographies before I’ve started writing the book proper. Character biographies can include everything from birthdate to photos of people I think the character might look like to religion to how the character feels about his mother. I want to know as much about a character as I can before I begin. I try to think of characters from angles other than just physical characteristics. For instance, what is inside a character’s purse can be more revealing than hair or eye color.

AUTHORLINK: Thank you that’s helpful advice! Each chapter starts with the title of a well-known short story that A.J. recommends to his daughter. They serve as a window into their evolving relationship and relate to each chapter in some way that link the larger storyline. What gave you the inspiration to do this?

ZEVIN: Early in the process, I wrote lists of all my characters’ favorite books. I decided that A.J. would love the short story collection because I had always heard that they were notoriously hard to get readers to buy. Of course, my struggling bookseller would love them. I also liked the idea that the book itself could act as A.J.’s “collected works.” That readers, and not just writers, could make their own collected works. Finally, I am intrigued by the way people who are avid readers have the tendency to see their lives through the lens of story. I liked the idea that what a person reads could change the way she thought of (and even related) a certain incident or period in her life.

AUTHORLINK: That’s interesting. You once said that you didn’t always know you wanted to be a writer. What would you have liked to have done with your life if you weren’t an author of books and screenplays?

ZEVIN: I never seriously thought about being anything else, but when I’m stuck writing a book, I enjoy fantasizing about other professions: forensic linguist, art curator, police officer, teacher, music supervisor, psychiatrist, or sports reporter.

AUTHORLINK: All very different from one another! In 2007, you were nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay for the movie,‘Conversations with Other Women,’ which starred Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart (directed by Hans Canosa). Which other of your novels or screenplays have been optioned for film? What do you think are some of the reasons that some are still waiting to be produced?

ZEVIN: The list is too long and the history is too complicated to talk about all of them! But I can give you an example of a screenplay that I wrote. The first screenplay I ever sold, just out of college, was a vampire love story. This was six years before Twilight came out. It was called Vamp, and it was about a girl vampire who worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Many producers liked the screenplay and it was optioned several times, meaning I got paid for the script several times. Ultimately, despite many close calls, the movie never got made. The script was too high budget, and producers didn’t feel that the movie would have been “horror” enough. I remember specifically being told by a producer that, “There wasn’t any money in a vampire love story.” But the truth is, if you write screenplays, many more screenplays are written (and even optioned) than get made. Frankly, it’s a miracle any time a movie gets made. So many elements have to come together.

AUTHORLINK: That screenplay sounds great! What a pity the producers weren’t very farsighted. How did you get started in writing? Did you find your literary agent straight after university? Is it the same person that you have today? Likewise, we note you have had different publishers. Why is this so and is it difficult to find other publishers once you have already put out a book?

ZEVIN: The first job I ever had was writing music reviews for a medium-sized Florida newspaper. I was fourteen years old and I had written an angry letter to the paper about their review of a Guns ‘n’ Roses concert I had attended. The editor there called me and offered me a job, writing album and concert reviews for $25 an article. He didn’t ask my age, and I didn’t volunteer it. This was my first published writing.

My first agent was for screenwriting, and he took me on because of a screenplay I wrote when I was a senior in college. I got my first book agent because he had gone to summer camp with someone in the screenwriting agent’s office. I’ve had several book agents over the years. My current agent has been my agent for the last six years. The reasons it didn’t work out with the other ones vary. But essentially, as with any relationship, it can take a while to find a fit that really works.

The main reason I’ve had different publishers is because I’ve written for different markets. I’ve written books for younger readers and books for adults and books in a variety of genres, too. For instance, my second book for adults, The Hole We’re In, was published at Grove Atlantic. The Hole We’re In was a very political novel, and it very much fit with the kind of books Grove publishes. None of the other books I have written would have made sense at Grove Atlantic. I haven’t found it particularly difficult to find different publishers and I’ve enjoyed the experience of seeing how different publishers work. Perhaps I should add — in America, five of my eight books have actually been with the same editor at the same house.

AUTHORLINK: That’s helpful to know. How do you deal with constructive criticism?

ZEVIN: When it shows up and it’s truly constructive, I’m grateful for it. Especially if it arrives before the book comes out and I can still do something about it.

“I think a writer’s process is an evolving thing. What works with one book doesn’t necessarily work for another. “

AUTHORLINK: Are you part of a trusty, select writers group where you can share your work for constructive feedback? Or is writing a solitary experience for you? Who reads and edits your earlier drafts?

ZEVIN: I do not have a writer’s group though I have nothing against them. I value my time alone with the manuscript. I want to make sure that I’ve said what I meant to say before I ask anyone to weigh in. I have a few early readers and they are very important to me. I rarely ask them to read early drafts. Their feedback is most useful when they can come to the work with fresh eyes. All this said, I think a writer’s process is an evolving thing. What works with one book doesn’t necessarily work for another. And perhaps this is tautological – but what works for one author will not always work for another either. I think the temptation—and I have not been immune to this—is to read an interview with a writer you like and think, that’s the answer! That’s the RIGHT way to write a book! But truly, there are lots of ways to write a book.

AUTHORLINK: When you’re writing your books, how many hours a day do you spend on actual writing and how much on re-writing? What are you writing at the moment?

ZEVIN: I think for a long time before I start writing a project. I notice that young writers are sometimes afraid not to write. They shouldn’t be. Progress can come in ways other than adding word count to a word processing document.

I tend to write very little at the beginning of a project. I write more as I head toward the finish. I would estimate I write an hour or two at the start, but by the end, I can be writing upwards of ten hours a day.

What am I “writing at the moment”? At this very moment, I am answering interview questions! But also, I am writing one book and seriously flirting with a different one. I’m pretty much the writer equivalent of a womanizer. Once I start writing one book, I’m super attracted to the ideas I’m not working on. AUTHORLINK: That’s interesting to know, thanks. Where would you like to see yourself in five-years- time?

ZEVIN: I don’t tend to think that far ahead. I hope I’ve finished another book or two! Maybe I will have learned to play the guitar?

AUTHORLINK: Ms. Zevin, you’ve been very gracious with your time today. We wish you all the very best in your continued success.

ZEVIN: Thanks very much!


About the Author:

Gabrielle Zevin is the author of eight novels, which have been translated into thirty languages. Her books for teens include Elsewhere, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, and the Anya Balanchine series. Her novels for adults are Margarettown, The Hole We’re In, and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. She was also the screenwriter for Conversations with Other Women, for which she received an Independent Spirit Award nomination. Zevin is a graduate of Harvard University. She lives in Los Angeles.

If you wish to learn more about Gabrielle Zevin, please see the following links:

About Anna Roins:

Anna Roins was a Senior Lawyer with the Australian Government Solicitor, before she embarked on a career in writing seven years ago. As a freelance journalist, she has contributed to articles on social and community issues and edited a number of books, websites and dissertations. She has continued her studies in creative literature with The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London. Anna is currently writing her first novel and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with bestselling authors. You can find out more about Anna Roins on and