A&E

Garth Stein: still in the race

Bestselling author isn't slowing down

How do you follow up a beloved novel that has captured the hearts of fans around the globe, sold four million copies, spawned a picture book series and a special edition for young readers, been translated into 35 languages and is now being adapted as a major motion picture?

That was the dilemma Seattle author Garth Stein faced in the wake of "The Art of Racing in the Rain," his hugely successful 2009 novel. Narrated by Enzo, a dog with a passion for race-car driving, the book won acclaim with readers and critics alike. Re-creating that kind of success would be a tall order for any author.

Six years after the publication of "Racing in the Rain," Stein answers that challenge with "A Sudden Light," a family saga about the Pacific Northwest lumber industry, intergenerational secrets and spectral presences.

Stein will discuss and sign "A Sudden Light" at Books Inc. in Mountain View on Thursday, March 5, at 7 p.m.

"A Sudden Light" opens in 1990, when 14-year-old Trevor arrives with his father Jones at Riddell House, their dilapidated ancestral estate in Washington State. The boy only dimly understands the adult conflicts that swirl around him. His parents are separated, his Grandfather Samuel is slipping into dementia and his father and aunt need the cash that would come from a quick sale of the property.

To make things even more confusing for Trevor, Riddell House seems haunted. Weird noises, missing items, bizarre dreams and secret passages all point to the presence of a lingering spirit in the mansion. Gradually, the boy pieces together his family's secret history, which includes a star-crossed male couple from the turn of the 20th century.

After "Racing in the Rain" took off, Stein didn't waste much time wondering whether he would be able to top himself.

"It's always a difficult time writing a book as a follow-up (to a big success), but it has to be done," he said. "Unless you're Harper Lee."

"A Sudden Light" has its origins in Stein's play, "Brother Jones," produced in 2005 in Los Angeles. The drama wasn't an artistic success, largely because the main character wasn't a sufficiently vibrant protagonist, according to Stein.

"One character calls him 'a waffle.' Waffles do not make good protagonists."

Once Stein saw the possibility of re-imagining elements of the play as a novel, he realized that he needed a more actively engaged main character.

"Audiences want a character with a clear goal who's going to go out after something," Stein explained. "He has to overcome obstacles and find a path through the (emotional) rubble. That's why I decided to give Brother Jones a son. Trevor is a good protagonist."

Stein also selected a specific time frame for "A Sudden Light."

"1990 was a very innocent time," he said. "It was the very beginning of the Digital Age. There wasn't all this communication everywhere. You couldn't just touch email wherever you went."

Stein wanted Trevor to feel isolated as he unearths the Riddell family secrets. Some of those secrets involve Ben Riddell, the long-dead gay son of timber magnate Elijah Riddell. Stein researched male friendships in the early 1900s and used some of the historical details he discovered to inform "A Sudden Light."

"I wanted to bring that into the book because it had an interesting historical aspect and because it felt genuine. Ben, who's motivated by humanity's connection with nature, who's inspired by the writings of the Transcendentalists, believes that love is pure and that any preconceptions we have about it are our own problems, not the problem with love."

One of Ben's pastimes in the novel is climbing giant redwood trees. Deciding he needed first-hand experience with the sport, Stein consulted professional tree climber Tim Kovar and learned to scale the ancient trees, including "Grandfather," a spectacular specimen in the Santa Cruz mountains.

According to Stein, the first 100 feet are the hardest, since sturdy branches don't grow below that height.

"There isn't anything to hold onto, so you're kind of dangling by a rope. If you lose touch with the trunk, you start to spin around. And that really freaks me out. But once you get up to the very upper reaches, it's amazing."

"A Sudden Light" is dedicated to Stein's father, who died unexpectedly at age 75, and speculation about life after death suffuses the novel. Stein said that he had a series of four especially vivid dreams in which he conversed with his own departed father.

"Maybe there was something unresolved, and maybe he did want to complete something with me. So he came back and had his say. We had our conversations, and he went off. I haven't seen him since."

"A Sudden Light" was published in October 2014, but the ambitious touring schedule continues through the next two months.

"I believe you have to follow through on the life of the book. It's not just about launching it," Stein said. "It's my job to get people to read the book, and if I'm going to have to go out on the road to do it, I will. I'm pretty dedicated that way."

Stein is also dedicated to the dog who made him famous. Illustrated by R.W. Alley, the "Enzo Races in the Rain" picture book was published last October, and there are more adventures on the way.

"At the end of this year, the Christmas book is coming out, to be followed by the Halloween one, which I just turned in," Stein said. "It's been a lot of fun, and I've been coming up with ideas for the fourth one."

As for his next novel, Stein is 15,000 words into it. "There's a technical issue I need to work out, but it's exciting for me to be getting back to it. It's good to be going out and meeting people and seeing the world and then saying to myself, 'OK, you've got an hour and 45 minutes to write -- go!'"

For Garth Stein, the race is on again.

What: Novelist Garth Stein signs and discusses "A Sudden Light"

Where: Books Inc., 301 Castro St., Mountain View

When: Thursday, March 5, at 7 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to booksinc.net or call (650) 428-1234.

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