Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Interview with Sophie Chen Keller, author of The Luster of Lost Things

Please welcome Sophie Chen Keller to The Qwillery as part of the of the 2017 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Luster of Lost Things is published on August 8th by G.P. Putnam's Sons.

Please join The Qwillery in wishing Sophie a Happy Publication Day!

TQWelcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?

Sophie:  Thanks for having me! I’ve always loved books and reading. Some of my earliest memories are of my mom reading out loud to me before bed, from books by EB White and Roald Dahl, to help me learn English after we moved to the US from China. Pretty soon I started writing stories of my own—one of them was about talking animals who lived under the sea, after I became obsessed with the Redwall series. Back then, in elementary school, whenever someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “A writer,” and when I was 15, my first short story was published in a literary magazine, Glimmer Train.

TQAre you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?

Sophie:  A pantser, which makes me feel like a mischievous kid who’s about to get in big trouble. My writing usually starts with some kernel of an idea—a person, an image—that just gets stuck in my heart, and when it bothers me enough, I start writing about it, trying to better understand it and figuring out the rest as I go along.

TQWhat is the most challenging thing for you about writing?

Sophie:  I lean a lot on instinct when I write. I love the sound and rhythm and sensation of words, and the creation of a fictional world out of nothing as I try to make sense of this real world and the people in it. Revising is more deliberate and critical. It can give me a headache, but it’s necessary in order to tell a satisfying story.

TQWhat has influenced / influences your writing?

Sophie:  In middle school and high school, I spent much of my time reading about writing and reading good writing. I loved Stephen King’s On Writing and short stories by writers like Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates and Jhumpa Lahiri.

I find inspiration anywhere there are people living their life, doing their thing, telling their stories. I’ll have a brief exchange with a stranger, I’ll overhear an offhand comment, I’ll notice some detail or situation, I’ll be struck by a strange and random thought—I never know when something will flip a switch and send me scrambling for my notes.

TQDescribe The Luster of Lost Things in 140 characters or less.

Sophie:  When all seems lost, 12-year-old Walter Lavender Jr.—who has an uncanny ability to find missing objects—searches for what matters most.

TQTell us something about The Luster of Lost Things that is not found in the book description.

Sophie:  Writing the book, I thought of it as a grown-up version of those childhood classics my mom would read to me before bedtime. I wanted it to be warm and wondrous and pure, yet layered with meaning to dig into and questions to ponder around what it means to live and be human. I wanted The Luster of Lost Things to take us back to that time when the world was bright and brimming with possibility, so that when we are feeling suffocated by darkness, we might remember that there is goodness that lives in us and around us. It’s a breath of fresh air that I feel so many, including myself, need.

TQWhat inspired you to write The Luster of Lost Things?

Sophie:  In the summer of 2014, my husband and I spent a night camping on a volcano in Maui as part of our honeymoon. At the campsite, I stumbled across a “Lost” flyer that someone had posted, for a missing camera that held sentimental family photos. That detail captured me, and I wondered about the things people lost, and what they were really looking for when they looked for something like a missing camera. I wondered if the camera had been found, if anyone had seen this flyer and returned the lost item. That’s when I had my first idea of who Walter would be—a boy who answered “Lost” flyers, bringing home the things that people had lost and were so desperately looking for.

TQWhat sort of research did you do for The Luster of Lost Things?

Sophie:  The book’s main character, Walter Lavender Jr., is 12 years old, but virtually never speaks. Because of his silence, he’s often written off as a “slow amiable boy,” but we can tell from the beginning that he clearly is not. He has a motor speech disorder called childhood apraxia of speech, a neurological disorder where the brain knows what it wants to say but has trouble coordinating the muscle movements necessary to produce the intended speech. To better understand his condition, I read books like The Late Talker (by Lisa F. Geng, Malcolm J. Nicholl, and Marilyn C. Agin), and spoke with parents, speech pathologists, doctors, professors and researchers. I was surprised to learn how often childhood apraxia of speech is misdiagnosed as autism or ADD, among others, which results in frustration for the child, who isn’t getting effective treatment, and for the parents, who can’t figure out what’s going on.

TQPlease tell us about the cover for The Luster of Lost Things.

Sophie:  I love how the cover evokes a sense of magic and awe, and at the same time is tinged with something melancholic, a feeling of longing. It captures the tone of the book, and it gives us our first introduction to Walter and his overweight golden retriever, Milton. They’re searching for something, although they’re not sure what they’ll find…

The cover design is by Sandra Chui. The cover photo of the boy is by Sean Gladwell/ Getty Images and the dog is by Maya Karkalicheva/Getty Images.

TQIn The Luster of Lost Things who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?

Sophie:  I’m not sure if any of them were easier or harder to write. The characters are the beating heart of the book, and their faces, their stories, were so vivid to me. I wrote them because they had to be seen and heard. Milton was especially vivid. He was inspired by Thor, my dog from when I was growing up. Thor was always getting in the way (tripping you when you were carrying precarious stacks of breakable things, for one), and doing what he wasn’t supposed to (eating toilet paper and chewing up the carpet, for another), but boy, did he have soul. When I played the piano, he would half-sing, half-howl along to the passionate parts, a most beautiful and sorrowful wail.

TQWhy have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in The Luster of Lost Things?

Sophie:  The book touches on gentrification, immigration, homelessness, and alternative family structures. Walter’s journey takes him through many of New York City’s characterful neighborhoods, and to the diverse people who live in them; I encountered all those issues when I lived in Manhattan, and a true characterization of this great city must articulate them. The people he meets are different from each other in many ways, and yet they are united in their humanity. They have aspirations and disappointments and joys. They know the pain of losing something; they know the ache of searching for what’s missing.

TQWhich question about The Luster of Lost Things do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!

Sophie:  In The Luster of Lost Things, the main character, Walter Lavender Jr., has a knack for finding the things that people lose, thanks to his extraordinary abilities of perception. Can you explore that idea?

Because he has spent his entire life in silence, simply listening and observing, Walter has developed an ability to perceive “traces of light, shifts in matter, changing undercurrents”—subtle details that are all-too-easy to overlook. He’s literally able to see beyond the surface—and not just when it comes to lost objects. In his search for the one lost object that will save his mother’s magical bakery, Walter encounters some of the lost and forgotten people of the city, from an aging immigrant who forges ahead on a crippled leg, to an Upper East Side girl with a tragic past and a defiant streak, to a grieving Columbia physics professor with haunted dreams of flying. As Walter hears their stories—unexpected and poignant tales of heartbreaks and losses and yearnings—he learns that there is more to them than meets the eye. And as he narrates his own story to us, his voice—fluid and rich with insight and compassion—stands in sharp contrast to the verbal speech patterns of the “slow amiable boy” he is often dismissed as, the clearest reminder of all that when we see beyond the surface, what we find can be luminous.

TQGive us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from The Luster of Lost Things.


On the significance of the things we lose, and the appeal they hold for Walter Lavender Jr.:

“In the things they look for, parts of people turn clear as glass and you can see into them and what they are made of and how they live…There was the long-ago transplant who lost a piece of Maine driftwood, and there was also the man with lupus who lost an unused barber kit and the tattooed biker who lost a picture of his grandmother and the teenager with scarred wrists who lost George and Martha.”

“Lost things are bridges. They are connections to some other time or place or person or feeling.”

On the power of kindness:

“Walter Lavender Sr. never taught me to play catch or ride a bike or fix a blown fuse or grow to be a man. He left only one lesson for me and the Book is the embodiment of it: physical proof of how much a gesture can matter and how it can even expand across time and place.

An introduction to The Lavenders, the magical bakery portrayed in The Luster of Lost Things:

“The shopfront was small and plain, a solid gray-blue that your eyes wanted to skip past. But on the right day, when you finally saw it, you’d step through the door and take in the brass trimmings and the saucer chandeliers, the black-and-white checkered tiles and the gleaming glass cases, and you would be transported. Inside the shop, it smelled like whipped butter and light and sugar, and a happy breeze seemed always to be dancing through. Dazzling mirrored displays encased little desserts like gems, and dark polished surfaces were offset by battered accents collected by Lucy on her early travels with Walter Lavender, Sr., here a dappled giraffe carved from a jacaranda tree in South Africa, there an embroidered scroll arrayed with the colors of Tibetan folklore.

But the most extraordinary thing was that something happened in the slice of time when the vols-au-vent baked in the oven or waited to be dressed, because when they appeared finally in the displays, stuffed with fig mascarpone cheese and outfitted with chocolate whiskers and ears and tails—before they were chosen and eaten, the undersized treats sniffed endearingly at each other and squeaked and sometimes stood on their hind legs and bounced.”

TQWhat's next?

Sophie:  I’m working on a second novel, and am already very excited about it! Keep in touch—subscribe to my newsletter at sophiechenkeller.com/subscribe.

TQThank you for joining us at The Qwillery.

The Luster of Lost Things
G.P. Putnam's Sons, August 8, 2017
Trade Paperback and eBook, 336 pages

In this story for readers of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and A Man Called Ove, when all seems lost, he finds what matters most.

Walter Lavender Jr. is a master of finding. A wearer of high-tops. A maker of croissants. A son keeping vigil, twelve years counting.

But he wouldn’t be able to tell you. Silenced by his motor speech disorder, Walter’s life gets lonely. Fortunately, he has The Lavenders—his mother’s enchanted dessert shop, where marzipan dragons breathe actual fire. He also has a knack for tracking down any missing thing—except for his lost father.

So when the Book at the root of the bakery’s magic vanishes, Walter, accompanied by his overweight golden retriever, journeys through New York City to find it—along the way encountering an unforgettable cast of lost souls.

Steeped in nostalgic wonder, The Luster of Lost Things explores the depths of our capacity for kindness and our ability to heal. A lyrical meditation on why we become lost and how we are found, from the bright, broken heart of a boy who knows where to look for everyone but himself.

About Sophie

Photo © Kai Keller
Sophie Chen Keller was born in Beijing, China, and was raised in Ohio and California. Her fiction has won several awards and has appeared in publications such as Glimmer Train and Pedestal. After graduating from Harvard, she moved to New York City, where she currently resides with her husband and a not-so-secret cabinet of sweets.

Website  ~  Facebook  ~  Twitter @ImSophieCKeller


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