How a Tweet Inspired Robin Sloan to Write Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
Already a huge hit in the US, the New York Times best-selling Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore is a charming and lovable first novel of mysterious books and dusty bookshops. Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a San Francisco web-design drone and serendipity has landed him a new job working the night shift at the eponymous bookstore. After just a few days, Clay begins to realise that this store is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few customers, but they come in repeatedly and never seem to actually buy anything. Instead, they simply borrow impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store, all according to some elaborate, long-standing arrangement with the owner, Mr. Penumbra. The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he’s embarked on a complex analysis of the customers’ behaviour and roped his friends into helping to figure out just what’s going on…
Author Robin Sloan grew up near Detroit and has worked for various media companies, including Twitter. As he explains in the following exclusive blog, it was actually a tweet that first gave him the idea for the book:
I’m interested in the ways that novels begin — the ways that little seeds of story get planted and grow into rich, complicated narratives.
So, in that spirit, I’ll offer up the tale behind my own novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
Before it was a book from Atlantic, it was a short story, and even before it was a short story, it was merely a tweet. And not even my own!
In late 2008, my friend Rachel Leow tweeted: “Just misread ’24hr bookdrop’ as ’24hr bookshop’. The disappointment is beyond words.” I was walking down a sidewalk here in San Francisco when I saw it; it made me laugh; I copied the text into the notes app on my phone.
Just a few months later, I sat down at my desk to begin a new short story. I didn’t know what it was going to be about; I just knew I wanted to start something fresh. When I went rifling through my notes, I saw the tweet’s text again, and I wondered: why would a person run a 24-hour bookstore? What would it look like? And who would visit in the middle of the night? With that, I was off. The scene was set; the story began.
That was early 2009. I published the story on the internet just a few weeks later. It wasn’t the first one I would publish that year, but none of the others produced the same swift, sure reception. Somehow, this particular story’s voice and tone, its combination of subjects — new technology, old books – struck a chord out there in the world.
Now, I’ve worked at a couple of tech and media companies here in San Francisco, and in the process I have learned about the value of prototypes. I didn’t realise it in early 2009 but the Penumbra short story was just that: a prototype. A small-scale test of something potentially much larger. By the end of the year, it was clear: there was a deeper story waiting in this weird little shop. People wanted to read it, and – importantly – I wanted to write it.
So, in 2010, I began the work of writing a full-length novel: something I’d never done before. It took about a year to come up with a first draft; I fit my writing sessions into evenings, weekends, holidays. After that, there was editing to do, followed by the initial U.S. release in 2012. Now, finally, in the summer of 2013, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, the novel, is available in print in the U.K. and Ireland as well.
But I am still mindful of that tweet, way back in 2008. I am still amazed by the fact that the smallest scraps of language can blossom into whole books. And, above all, I am still taking notes. After all, who knows which one might grow into my next novel?
- Robin Sloan