Garth Stein, the author of the wildly successful 2008 book “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” explores one family’s secrets against the backdrop of a timber baron’s rambling Northwest estate in his latest novel, “A Sudden Light.”
The book is narrated by Trevor, a man looking back at a time in his life when, as a 14-year-old, his father and mother separated, leaving him feeling lost and isolated. His solitude grows when his father, Jones Riddell, takes him to the house in which Jones grew up, a decrepit estate that is still home to Jones’ sister, Serena, and father, Samuel. And more than a few ghosts.
Stein is visiting Madison this week to promote his new book, finally touching down in Wisconsin after a string of bad luck. His two previously planned stops, pegged to “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” didn’t happen. The first visit was canceled because of a health issue and the second because of his father’s death. Stein was reached by phone at home in Seattle to talk about the hand his father played in this book and the role of the supernatural in his writing.
Q: Why did you explore the father-son relationship?
A: I tend to do that. My books have a lot of family drama and I think that’s kind of what I lean toward. I wrote the book originally as a play back in 2004, and the title was “Brother Jones.” It had only one production in Los Angeles in 2005. I knew there were some flaws, so I would have to work on it a lot, but then I had this idea to write a book about a dog and I got totally distracted by that.
When it was time to write a new book, I wanted to go back to this story. When I was figuring out how to take this play and make it into a novel that was worthwhile and substantial, that was about the time that my father got sick. He lingered for about five weeks or so, and then he died. I dedicate the book to my dead father, because in a sense, his death — well, it’s kind of a big deal when your father dies. My method of coming to terms with that was writing this book. He was the invisible hand from the grave that had a lot to do with the formation of the father and son relationships in this book. Not that we had a bad relationship — we had a very good relationship — but the idea of the dynamic of fathers and sons was something I was very much thinking about at the time.
Q: What drew you to tell a ghost story?
A: When I write a book I want to provoke something in people. I want to challenge them, perhaps, to look beyond the obvious. To peel back the layers. All but one of my books has had supernatural elements to them. It’s American magical realism. I wanted to do a story that explored how the generations of a family affect each other, not just through the actions they take in different times but also through continuing participation, perhaps. Through memories, legacies, maybe through supernatural contact. I really like that idea that, even if something happened a hundred-some-odd years ago, the volcano is still active.
Q: Do you believe in ghosts?
A: I believe very much in the spirit world. I’m not sure I’m a big believer of reincarnation. That came up in “The Art of Racing in the Rain.” I believe it’s a little more amorphous than that, in terms of soul material and the way the spirit moves from dimension to dimension, but, yes. I do believe that there are spirits who can find themselves in a difficult situation and manifest themselves in a way that is visible to people. This makes it very uncomfortable for people sometimes. We as a society tend to marginalize people who say they’ve had encounters. I’ve had certain encounters myself. For instance, when I was working on the book, I had certain dreams in which my father was there. You could say, of course, it’s natural you would dream of something you know. I believe there was a message in there, in those dreams, some guidance, something from beyond that was not generated from me. So, who’s to determine the truth of that?
(To read of Stein’s encounter with a spirit who possesses a flair for decorating, visit www.asuddenlight.com/paranormal.)
Q: How was it to narrate a book from a 14-year-old’s perspective?
A: The book is narrated by older Trevor, but I do slip into young Trevor’s voice for extended periods. It’s narrated by 38-year-old Trevor telling his family about his time as a 14-year-old. It worked for me to create this lens, and the extra added benefit is I have this separation of years and I can set it in 1990, the pre-digital age. For me that worked great, because it adds an air of isolation. This kid is going to a place where he doesn’t know the people, he can’t drive himself anywhere, it’s a long walk to the bus stop, the only person he’s in touch with in the outside world is his mother, by telephone in England. His father is distant, his grandfather may or may not have dementia and his aunt is always playing a game. He feels totally isolated. I wanted him to feel like he has to go through this distant land in order to discover the truth of things.
Q: Do you see this book spurring a lot of discussion? It hits on topics like conservation, gay relationships, the paranormal ...
A: Definitely. At asuddenlight.com I offer extra items for discussion, things I discovered when writing the book about the history of the Northwest, spiritualism, history of the railways. I think there’s a ton of great things to talk about.