5 Questions for author Robin Sloan

Welcome to the second edition of PuzzleNation Blog’s newest feature, 5 Questions!

We’re reaching out to puzzle constructors, video game writers and designers, writers, filmmakers, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life, talking to people who make puzzles and people who enjoy them in the hopes of exploring the puzzle community as a whole.

And I’m excited to have Robin Sloan as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Robin Sloan is the author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which has garnered critical acclaim for both its writing (named one of the best 100 books of 2012 by the San Francisco Chronicle) and its cover design (named one of the 25 best book covers by Bookpage).

The book spent time on the New York Times bestseller list (Hardcover Fiction section) and was named Editor’s Choice by the Times. (Check out our review of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore here!)

Robin was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!

5 Questions for Robin Sloan

1. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore has that wonderful new-medium-vs.-old-medium conflict at its heart, but as a puzzle fan, I found a similar conflict beneath the surface. Some puzzles are too tough, some answers will elude us, and that’s part of what makes the challenge so enticing. But there’s also the disappointment that can follow victory. After all, if the unsolvable puzzle turns out to be solvable after all, the answer might be unsatisfying. And where do you go from there, once the quest is over?

Were those questions that were important to you during the writing of the book? How do you view the puzzle at the heart of the story?

J. J. Abrams often talks about something he calls the Mystery Box—basically, it’s the secret at the center of a story. And it’s amazing how potent it can be; I mean really, you just close a door or lock a chest and suddenly, you’ve got the basic kernel of a narrative; you’ve got a reason for readers to ask, “What happens next?” But it’s a double-edged sword: the heavier you lean on a Mystery Box for narrative momentum, the higher the stakes for the ultimate reveal. It turns out there aren’t too many secrets that can stand up to a book or movie’s worth of anticipation. So, I think it’s a balancing act: you can set up your Mystery Box, but it can’t be the ONLY thing drawing readers forward. You need to buttress it with smaller challenges; with fun characters; with a compelling voice.

2. The book also features a truly high-end bucket list item of mine: uncovering and infiltrating a secret society. Penumbra and his fellow devotees are like many hardcore puzzle fans, operating by an internal logic and set of rules entirely their own (as most fandoms and hobby groups do). Was there a particular group or organization that served as inspiration for you?

None of these are nearly as arcane as the secret society in Penumbra, but I do have a real fondness and respect for old-fashioned private lending libraries. I’m thinking, for instance, of the New York Society Library in Mahattan, or the Mechanics’ Institute Library & Chess Club here in San Francisco. I love public libraries too, of course; but every time I’ve walked into one of these private libraries, I’ve gotten a little thrill that is, I imagine, similar in flavor—if not magnitude—to the feeling of discovering an honest-to-God secret society.

3. If you’d been presented with a mystery like the one in your book, would you have taken the Google road or the slow-and-steady grind of Penumbra’s visitors?

Oh, Google all the way. I mean, we live in a remarkable time! It’s possible for anyone with a modicum of technical ability to sign up for Amazon’s cloud services and bring dozens—or hundreds, even thousands—of virtual computers to bear on a problem. I’ve poked at those tools around their edges—when I worked at Twitter, for instance, I got to know the distributed data-processing software called Hadoop—and I find them totally thrilling. It’s a different kind of problem-solving… a different way of using your brain and, ultimately, your time.

4. What’s next for Robin Sloan?

I’m working on another novel. It’s not perhaps quite as puzzle-y as Penumbra, but I think there will be plenty of secrets waiting in this book’s plot, too.

5. If you could give the readers, writers, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

Well, following up on what we were talking about earlier, I really do think that, in the year 2013, people ought to know how to code, at least a little bit. The good news is that there are better resources to learn than ever before—services like Codecademy. You can find tutorials for almost any kind of programming problem; I feel like I’ve learned to code mostly through the Google search prompt. And finally, some people share their own tales of learning; Diana Kimball’s post here is a great example. It all starts with a problem you yourself want to solve—something small, something personal. Maybe even… a puzzle?

Many thanks to Robin Sloan for his time. Check out Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore on his website, and follow him on Twitter (@robinsloan)! I can’t wait to see what he’s got for us next.

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PuzzleNation Book Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Welcome to the fourth installment of PuzzleNation Book Reviews!

All of the books discussed and/or reviewed in PNBR articles are either directly or indirectly related to the world of puzzling, and hopefully you’ll find something to tickle your literary fancy in this entry or the entries to come.

Let’s get started!

Our book review post this time around features Robin Sloan’s novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

Clay Jannon just lost his web-development job, and on a whim, he stumbles into a strange bookstore looking for a new night clerk. With stories-high shelves loaded with strange books that aren’t for sale, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is more like a library for an eccentric smattering of visitors who come and go at all hours, checking out a single book at a time for reasons that elude Clay.

As Clay’s small circle of friends is drawn into the mystery of Mr. Penumbra’s store, Clay discovers a curious pattern dictating which book each visitor will select next, unintentionally taking the first step into tackling far greater and more peculiar secrets.

Whimsical yet still grounded in a believable world, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is never what you expect. Wrapped in layers upon layers of curiosities — a puzzle within a puzzle about a puzzle, you could say — the book incorporates elements of urban fantasy, coming-of-age stories, and old-school mysteries to tell a wonderful story about the irresistable allure of a quest.

Every character in the book, from Clay’s friends to Mr. Penumbra’s patrons, falls into a situation plenty of puzzle devotees are quite familiar with: confronting a puzzle that seems unsolvable. That thread, that idea of a challenge awaiting if you’re just clever enough to conquer it, is a tantalizing one, and it drives a good chunk of the book’s plot.

What’s truly engaging about Sloan’s story, though, is its willingness to acknowledge the potential for disappointment from both sides. After all, some puzzles are too tough, some answers will elude us, and that’s part of what makes the challenge so enticing. But there’s also the disappointment that can follow victory. After all, if the unsolvable puzzle turns out to be solvable after all, will you be satisfied with the answer? And what comes next?

This double-bladed sword of possibilities elevates an already-intriguing plot and a thoroughly likable cast of characters into something truly enjoyable. This is a book rich in detail, setting, and charm, and even in the slow moments, your interest never flags.

The modern setting also added depth to both the mystery and how the characters confronted it. The book could’ve easily condemned paper books as old fashioned or e-readers as an obnoxious affront, but instead, it charts the highs and lows of the crossroads between print publishing and electronic media, allowing the best of both worlds to shine as the characters delve deeper into the mysteries surrounding Mr. Penumbra’s bizarre bookshop.

You know, the puzzle world can seem like such a secret society sometimes, working by its own weird rules and internal logic, and to see a book tackle that idea with such charm and lightness was a real treat. I look forward to seeing what Robin Sloan cooks up next.

Well, that’s it for the latest installment of PuzzleNation Book Reviews. I hope you enjoyed the post and look forward to more book discussions in the future. In the meantime, keep calm, puzzle on, and I’ll catch you later.