Interview: Lewis Buzbee



LG: How has the experience of publishing The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop surprised you? What about the experience has stood out from your other writing endeavors?

LB: It has been a lovely surprise all the way around, to find so many readers–booksellers, librarians, and civilians–so passionate about the bookstore. I’ve always knowns this, from my first bookselling days on, but to see it fleshed out like this, well, it’s great. Not for me necessarily (though it has been that, too), but for the bookstore. I’m not nearly as pessimistic about the future of the bookstore as others, and the reaction has been heartening.

One of the great delights of all of this is meeting these folks in person, at trade shows and in bookstores. I’ve been out of the business for 12 years–I’m a teacher these days, at the University of San Francisco’s MFA program–and so I’m seeing old bookstore friends, sales rep friends, old customers. And meeting new friends, too, booksellers and librarians and those merely besotted with booklust. Terrific. It feels oddly like home.

LG: What writing projects are you working on currently?

LB: Right now I’m working on a series of kids’ chapter books, JoJo Pearlwhite’s Mix and Match Adventures, for readers 6-9. It’s always been my hope to write kids’ books, and the moment seems right. We’re just sending those round to publishers now. Part of my desire to do this comes from having an 8 year-old daughter, Maddy, and the immersion in kids’ books that comes with her. But as a bookseller for so long, kids’ books have always been a part of my adult life, a compulsion. And it’s been a gas writing these.

LG: Do you practice any writing rituals?

LB: Well, with an 8 year-old, rituals get a little suspended. My ritual is to write when I possibly can. Usually when Maddy’s at school, and I’ve the time. It’s catch as catch can. The ritual that’s replaced the regular time-slot for writing is that since Maddy’s been born, I write in long hand again–at least for the first drafts–which I used to do all the time, of course, before computers. It was a wonderful return, writing with a pen again. The slowness and quiet of it, the commitment one makes to a sentence, the scratch and smooth of the paper.

LG:  What have you been reading lately? Is there anything you’re reading now, or have read recently, that’s impressed you?

LB: As you know, people like us are always reading and always reading too much. So much. And isn’t that a lovely feeling, that one never runs out of great, and I mean truly great books to read. I re-read a lot these days, books from an earlier time in my life I find it compelling to revisit. I’ve just re-read James Agee’s A Death in the Family, after a twenty year hiatus. What a beautiful, wondrous book that it. The writing is exceptional, and there’s something about the quiet of the times he writes of, 1915. Entrancing.

But the exciting new find is a book I’m about halfway through right now, The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, a young Australian writer. This is billed as a young adult novel, but like the best young adult novels, it’s as sophisticated and thrilling as any “adult” novel. The narrator here is Death, who tells the story of a young girl in WWII Germany. It’s sweet and harrowing, absolutely unflinching, and the writing is exceptional, completely unique. A true discovery for me.

One of the great developments in recent years in publishing is the breakdown of the barrier between children’s literature and adult. Harry Potter, of course, helped that along. But Philip Pullman’s novels, too, and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, and Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi, and many others.

LG: Aside from writing and reading, what else do you feel passionately about?

LB: My daugher, of course, family life. That’s where I live now, and most of my recent fiction’s been about that. I’ve also just published a new book of stories, After the Gold Rush, and they’re all centered on this. But music, too. I play bass–badly–with some musician friends now and then, and there’s nothing better than playing music with friends.

Family, friends, that pretty much takes up the space in a day. And what a way to take up one’s time. 
LG: Do you have a favorite quotation, or perhaps just a few words, you feel sums up your philosophy on life?

LB: Ach. Such a hard question. I’m more of an Aristotle than a Plato. I don’t think I’m smart enough, or sure enough, to have a philosophy. In fact, it seems that so many of the problems we have in the world today come from philosophies, this one or that one, and the people who carry those philosophies and try to impose them on everyone else.

But a question that made me think. So, not a philosophy, but a stance rather, an attitude. Italo Calvino said the he was a pessimist of the mind and an optimist of the soul. I try to keep that in mind. A balance of engagment and observation. Or as the Canadian musician Jane Sibbery sings, “half eagle, half angel.”

Oh, and one should always be as polite as possible. That helps.

LG: If you were marooned on a island, stuck on an elevator, or otherwise cut off from society, what one book would you want to have with you?

LB: Oh, I want a clever answer here. But honestly, the one book that comes to mind is The Norton Anthology of English Literature, volume 1. From Beowulf through Shakespeare. And preferably the one I had–and still own–in my sophomore year in college. It’s all beat up, taped together in places. But that would last me.

LG: What memories do you have, from your childhood, about your experiences in public libraries? Did they play a role at all in your love of books and reading?

LB: I was visiting my mother in San Jose recently, and happened to drive by the public library I’d used as a child, the local branch. It was gone, razed. I couldn’t believe it, shocked. Then I saw that construction was going on and that they were building a new branch, a much bigger one. I was saddened to see the old one go, but thrilled to think there’d be a new one.

Perhaps my most vivid memory of a childhood library is of the very tiny one at my junior high school in San Jose, where one late, dusty afternoon, the librarian introduced me to a wonderful little book called the Teddy Bear Habit, by James Lincoln Collier. It’s one of those important memories that just attacks you now and then; I’ll be walking along, and boom, something in the shade of light or the particular quality of a hushed moment will strike me, and I’m back there. We can never underestimate the importance of libraries in the literacy of our culture. I mean, just imagine this, after centuries of books being owned and read by only the most wealthy, here come public libraries. Every book is yours, and for free. That’s progress.


From The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop:

“It’s not as if I don’t have anything to read; there’s a tower of perfectly good unread books next to my bed, not to mention the shelves of books in the living room I’ve been meaning to reread. I find myself, maddeningly, hungry for the next one, as yet unknown. I no longer try to analyze this hunger; I capitulated long ago to the book lust that’s afflicted me most of my life. I know enough about the course of the disease to know I’ll discover something soon.”


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