As a kid, I used to come home from St. Frances De Chantal Elementary in the late 60’s and early 70’s to find my grandmother sitting in front of the television, sipping brandy, watching the soaps. She especially loved “The Edge of Night.” Then at 4:30, I’d get up and switch the channel for her, turning the big knob over to “The Mike Douglas Show.”
It was a daily, syndicated variety show, and Mike would begin each day’s show by singing a popular song. I loved it. I sat with Granny Good Witch — as we called my grandmother — for many, many hours watching Mike Douglas. He seemed like such a nice man.
One of the great things about the show was that he’d have guest co-hosts who would stay for the full week. It could be Sammy Davis, Jr., Richard Harris, Charo, Soupy Sales (photo, below), Barbra Streisand, whoever. Most famously, Mike snagged John Lennon and Yoko Ono for the week-long co-host gig, February 14-18, 1972. It was an inspired invitation, and made for legendary, if at times uncomfortable, television.
That’s how I want to play it this week. I’m Mike Douglas, and my guest co-host will be author Lewis Buzbee, and he’ll be hanging out all week long. There will be laughs and there might be pie.
Originally, we set out to do a standard interview. But as happens with good conversations, we couldn’t stop talking. Lewis is a terrific guy, quick on his feet, with deep thoughts and insights, and a sense of humor, too. Mostly, he’s a book lover and a man of great passions (fortunately, I carry a taser). I know you’ll like him.
What follows is Part One of a Three-Part Mini Series, titled “The Never-ending Lewis Buzbee Interview.”
Hey, everybody, look — it’s my co-host for the week, Lewis Buzbee! The man who asks the question, “How do you press a wildflower into the pages of an e-book?”
Everything all right, Lewis? You look a little drawn. Ho-ho. Seriously, thanks for stopping by, Lewis. No, we don’t need to hug. I mean it, DUDE. That’s enough. I’m warning you! I keep a taser in my man purse . . .
. . . and I will tase you, bro. Go sit in the big comfy chair.
Don’t tase me, bro!
And don’t tase my bro, either.
Congratulations on your first children’s novel, Steinbeck’s Ghost. I definitely want to talk about that book later in the week. But first, I have to say: I loved The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop.
Thank you, Mr. Preller.
Please, not so formal. “Mr. Preller, Sir,” is fine. Your book opens with a confession of sorts:
“When I walk into a bookstore, any bookstore, first thing in the morning, I’m flooded with a sense of hushed excitement. I shouldn’t feel this way. I’ve spent most of my adult life working in bookstores, either as a bookseller or a publisher’s sales rep, and even though I no longer work in the business, as an incurable reader I find myself in a bookstore at least five times a week. Shouldn’t I be blase about it all by now? In the quiet of such a morning, however, the store’s displays stacked squarely and its shelves tidy and promising, I know that this is no mere shop. When a bookstore opens its doors, the rest of the world enters, too, the day’s weather and the day’s news, the streams of customers, and of course the boxes of books and the many other worlds they contain — books of facts and truths, books newly written and those first read centuries before, books of great relevance and of absolute banality. Standing in the middle of this confluence, I can’t help but feel the possibility of the universe unfolding a little, once upon a time.”
First, Mr. Buzbee, Sir, that was beautiful. But as I read your book, I kept worrying about your family. Do they have enough to eat? Does his daughter have new clothes for school? You seem to buy a LOT of books.
You know, we do buy a lot of books, but now that I’ve given up bookselling for the glitzy life of a writer, well, it’s just money, money, money.
It’s a funny question, though, that I get a lot. People assume if you buy hundreds of books a year that, well, it’s somehow superfluous spending. But people with $60,000 cars never get the same sort of grief. I mean 60 G’s for a car? You’ve gotta be kidding.
You’ve lived a life that’s been centered around the reading life. Tell us about your background.
I grew up in a very working class home in San Jose, California, where we had books, of course, and where my parents read for their own pleasure, but nothing too New York Review of Books about it. My parents, children of the Great Depression, looked at books as a way for their kids to get a better education. But I never set out to be a bookseller or a writer. It happened, and quite by accident. I was on my way to being a rock star, when my life was changed by a high-school book report on Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
I was fifteen. I had never before felt anything so powerful, his words, and I had never felt so connected to the rest of the world either. After that, the other pieces of my life followed, if not purposefully, then easily. When I was eighteen, I got a job in a bookstore; I’d heard you got a discount on books. And when I discovered that booksellers sometimes got free books, well, that was it.
Can you remember a specifc scene in the book when the light turned on for you? I have to confess, I read it for the first time this summer — and I was staggered by the writing, the pure telling of it. Also, Steinbeck’s humanity, the strong feeling he so obviously had for those characters.
It’s that first chapter, the description of the Dust Bowl, one of those epic, overview chapters. Seeing the world described with such power — that’s magic isn’t it? You put some black squiggly lines on a page, and an entire world appears.
And it was that sudden. I read that first chapter — somewhat grudgingly — and put the book down, deciding there and then that I would become a writer. Then I wrote my first short story, and it was only I finished that story, that I went back to the book. And the world just kept getting bigger and bigger.
The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop feels like an inevitability — this unlikely book that absolutely had to happen — and that it had to come from exactly you.
I knew a long time ago — many years into my writing career, and after my first novel, that I would have to write this book. Perhaps fifteen years before I actually sat down to write it. There were, I knew, a lot of books about the antique book trade, but nothing, really, that was a general appreciation of the new bookstore. I suppose I needed to write it, too, because, as I said earlier, the bookstore had given me so much. So much pleasure.
Easy, Lewis. Get back in the chair.
Not the ta —
Man, I love that crackly sound! You should have seen your face, Lewis, the way your eyes bulged out! Hysterical. Now please continue . . .
Um, okay. Just let me get the feeling back in my arms and legs. I think I waited to write the book until my bookselling career — as both a bookseller and sales rep — had come to an end. I needed that distance. I never wanted to write a critique or an expose. It had to be an appreciation.
I can identify with that, because I knew I’d always have to write a baseball book of some kind or another. Baseball had seeped into every aspect of my life, as a boy, as a father, in my relationships with people, these powerful associations with my own mother, my sense of competition and play. It had to spill over into my writing.
There is a tired old maxim, write what you know. It’s often misinterpreted, of course. I think it has to be this: write what you love. Even if you’re arguing with it, or hating it at the moment, write what you love. Yes, I know bookstores, but thousands of other people know much more than I do about the business. No one, though, has quite loved the bookstore as much as I do. I’ve stared at it for decades, and always with love.
Yes, write what you feel. We can learn about all sorts of things, do research, find out, know. But unless the heart attaches to it, well, I don’t know how you can go to work each day.
I once had a student who offered up a great piece of advice — write about what you are most ashamed of. An interesting tack, that. It immediately calls you to powerful emotions.
Obviously, you analyzed the marketplace and decided: What the world needs now (besides love, sweet love) is a book that’s part memoir, part history of bookstores. Instant bestseller! Why James Patterson didn’t do it already is beyond me.
Well, that would have required Patterson to write much longer paragraphs. So, that answers that. But a psychotic murderer in the bookstore — hey, let me write that down.
Actually, I did know the book would do well — it did quite well, thanks. Because I’ve spoken with too many people over the years who feel as deeply about the bookstore as I do. And I knew they would want to the words to express that feeling, words to help them see it new.
I love that observation, Lewis. Writers can provide that, I think; so can good public speakers. Many people don’t seem to have the language to articulate those feelings. We see it at weddings, funerals, toasts at family events. I’m always so grateful to those people who can kind of, I don’t know, say it for us.
Of course, I am thinking of all those copywriters at Hallmark.
My mother is possibly the greatest supporter of Hallmark cards in the country, by the way. I get Thanksgiving cards from her! Thanksgiving cards? Amazing. And very specific ones — Thanksgiving cards that extol the virtues of a “very special son.”
I’m not dissing this, by the way, I’m glad people have that outlet. Otherwise, whoo, what a world.
There were so many moments in the book that I enjoyed — and not just that it came in at the optimal length of 225 pages — but sentences I had to underline, paragraphs where I’d put exclamation points in the margins. There’s a line you wrote, “to remember a book is to remember the child who read that book.”
It’s sort of a crib from Proust actually. I had the idea, of course, for a long time, but in his wonderful essay, “On Reading,” he helped me put words to it. When I remember a favorite book, I’m remembering, too, who I was at the time I read it. I just re-read Ray Carver’s first book of stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, and as well as being reminded of his genius and moved by the stories, I also remembered being a freshman in college who did nothing during spring finals week but read Carver instead. It was not a good semester grade-wise.
I guess that’s where the memoir aspect of this book became inevitable for you. You couldn’t talk about books without memories flooding back — it was impossible to separate the reading life from your actual life.
I knew that the memoir of a bookseller was bound to be pretty dull stuff. It’s not an amazing life, in that way. My father was a deep-sea diver for the Navy; now that’s a life worth writing about. I included the memoir bits kind of strategically. I wanted to put in enough of my own experience — but not too much — so that the reader would be able to relate to the memories, and yet still have enough space to put in their own memories. My memoir, as if were, is really only there as a touchstone.
But it’s true. I am a reader — and I would guess you are, too. In fact, anyone reading this, well, it goes without saying. But I’ve always been suspicious of people who want to separate the “reading” from the “life.” For many of us, reading is an integral part of life, not a vacation from it. And not in a self-help way, either. It’s just a part of what I do, and it influences how I go into the world, how I engage with it. I’ve always considered reading an active undertaking, not passive.
Wow, Lewis. Word.
End of Part One. Please come back on Wednesday for Part Two (or click here right now!) of “The Never-Ending Lewis Buzbee Interview” — he’ll be here all week! We’ll talk about the Kindle, Star Trek, Facebook, Katharine Ross, the “death of the novel,” the twitterverse, and raise a glass to idiots everywhere!
Next week my co-hosts will be: Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme!