Skip to main content

Interview: June 28, 2018

Amy Meyerson’s debut novel, THE BOOKSHOP OF YESTERDAYS, introduces readers to Miranda Brooks, who inherits a beloved bookstore from her eccentric uncle and sets forth on a journey of self-discovery. In this interview, conducted by’s Bronwyn Miller, Meyerson talks about her inspiration for the book --- an article she read in the New York Times Book Review that detailed the strange and memorable objects readers have found in used books. She also explains how she chose the novels that figure prominently in the clues Miranda is given for her literary scavenger hunt (it was a long and painstaking process), discusses the ways in which her work as a professor has informed her writing (and vice versa), and gives us a sneak peek at her next work of fiction --- a family mystery involving a historic diamond that has been missing for a century. Congratulations on the publication of your first novel! What inspired you to tell this particular story?

Amy Meyerson: Thank you! I’m very excited that THE BOOKSHOP OF YESTERDAYS is finally out in the world. The initial idea for this novel arrived several years before I began writing with an article I read in the New York Times Book Review. It detailed the strange and memorable objects readers have found in used books --- everything from a used Q-tip to a piece of bacon to thousands of dollars (I’d like to talk to the person who found that book!). I was really charmed by the idea that you can tell a lot about people by what they leave, intentionally and not, in books. I kept thinking about this in terms of character reveal, and that eventually led me to Uncle Billy, whom the reader only knows through the clues he leaves in books and the stories people tell about him in response to those clues.

BRC: Your bookstore knowledge is spot-on. Have you ever worked in a bookshop before?

AM: I haven’t. I’ve worked in a lot of restaurants but never retail. I definitely borrowed from my server days in terms of coworker camaraderie and interactions with customers, but I needed to do my homework to create a believable bookshop. It was really important to me that Prospero Books not only felt like a real bookstore --- and as an independent bookstore devotee, finding inspiration for the store itself was the easy part --- but also that it reflected the economics and daily upkeep of running a bookshop. I’m fortunate to live near one of the best indie bookshops in the US, Skylight Books. Early on, I reached out to the store, and the manager, Steve, graciously volunteered to give me a behind-the-scenes tour of Skylight and, over the next several months, answered any random questions I had. Additionally, I read a bunch of bookseller blogs, which were really frank about the financial challenges and rewards of managing a bookstore.

BRC: Billy Silver posthumously leaves a scavenger hunt for his niece, Miranda. How difficult was it to plot and execute a literary scavenger hunt within the novel? Are you a fan of scavenger hunts yourself?

AM: I love scavenger hunts and puzzles --- otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to write this book! It was incredibly fun to plot Billy’s scavenger hunt but also extremely challenging. Once I crafted the story I wanted to tell through the scavenger hunt, I had to decide how to divide it up into a collection of stories people would share with Miranda and what clues would facilitate her journey. Then I needed to find novels that would work with each of these clues. It involved a lot of trial and error, which was really fun because I got to revisit some of my favorite books.

BRC: Several books figure prominently in the clues Miranda is given, including JANE EYRE, ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND, FRANKENSTEIN and even Erica Jong’s FEAR OF FLYING. How did you choose which ones to reference?

AM: Painstakingly! It was really important to me that the novels where Billy stashed his clues didn’t feel random or inconsequential. I wanted them to resonate with the story Billy was trying to tell Miranda. I also wanted them to be novels readers loved. To further complicate my task, Billy would highlight a section of each novel to communicate with Miranda through the text. So each novel I selected had to meet these three qualifications: it needed to be narratively or thematically resonant; it needed to be a book that would make readers feel nostalgic; and it needed to have a passage that could work as an apt pull quote. This was no small task.

To pick the perfect book, I made a list of about five novels that might work, and then I reread these books to pick the right one. For instance, Billy leaves a clue in ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND that initiates Miranda’s journey. In an early draft, I’d chosen Dante’s INFERNO. As a journey narrative, INFERNO worked quite well, but ultimately I decided that it wasn’t a text most readers love, not in the way readers love ALICE IN WONDERLAND. The literary reference needed to celebrate not only literature but also booklovers. So I switched it.

BRC: What’s your local go-to indie bookstore? Besides patronizing them, are there other ways to help support indie booksellers?

AM: As I mentioned earlier, I spent a lot of time in Skylight Books while I was writing this novel, but LA has so many wonderful indie bookshops. I wrote most of the first draft in Stories Books and Café, which was a primary inspiration for Prospero Books. I also spend a lot time at Vroman’s, The Last Bookstore and Chevalier’s. There are lots of ways to support indie bookshops beyond buying books --- attend events at the store, special order titles they don’t have in stock, go to book festivals, celebrate Independent Bookstore Day, Record Store Day and Small Business Saturday. I think any time you shop locally, you’re supporting local businesses in general. That’s one thing I learned about the indie book world: booksellers view themselves as a community rather than as competition.

BRC: Besides THE BOOKSHOP OF YESTERDAYS, are there any other authors or books that you personally would hand sell to readers today?

AM: Of course! While there are so many established writers I love --- Ann Patchett, Jennifer Egan, Amy Bloom and Francine Prose, to name a few --- I would probably focus on first-time authors. Some debuts get a lot of press, but there are so many talented new writers that don’t receive the attention they deserve.

BRC: And what would you say to hand sell your novel?

AM: That it’s a book for booklovers that celebrates reading, literature, family and community.

BRC: What do you hope readers will take away from THE BOOKSHOP OF YESTERDAYS?

AM: I’m very thankful for the readers who have reached out to me to tell me how much they loved the novel. It’s surreal to know you’ve affected a stranger. I’ve been especially touched by the readers who have shared stories of their own family estrangements. I wasn’t expecting to impact readers in that way. I’d also love to inspire readers to try new books and to see this novel as a celebration of a communal love of reading.

BRC: You teach writing at USC. How did you find time to write a novel? Has your work as a professor informed your writing? If so, how?

AM: As a professor, I’m fortunate to have summers off, but to be a writer you have to write every day (or as close to every day as possible). As with any job, this requires tremendous discipline. I try to steal two hours every morning to write. If I start doing other things, especially school-related responsibilities, before I write, I’ll never get to it. So, whether I want to write or not, I force myself to sit down and do the work.

I find writing and teaching to be a mutualistic relationship. My writing informs my teaching, and my teaching informs my writing. I’m brutally honest with my students about how much work it takes to produce your best writing. My intention isn’t to scare them but rather to make them commit to their writing. In turn, if I’m going to ask my students to fully engage with their work, I have to practice what I preach. I think teaching keeps me honest as a writer, and being a writer makes me a more open and relatable instructor.

BRC: Can you tell us about your writing process? Are you a big researcher? Do you storyboard or outline?

AM: I think writing is a lot like exercise: if you do it every day, you start to crave it; if you let too much time pass between sessions, it’s torture. So I find a way to write every day. This keeps me in the story. I also love researching. THE BOOKSHOP OF YESTERDAYS required a lot more research than readers might realize. I try my best to be as accurate as possible, so if I’m mentioning an earthquake that happened in the ’90s, I’ll make sure I get the day, location and magnitude right. Even if no one else notices or cares, I want to be precise. Research, however, can quickly become a procrastination tool. I try to be mindful of when I’m researching because I need to know something for the story and when I’m avoiding the page.

In terms of outlining, I always need to know where a story starts and ends before I can start writing. The middle can get a little murky, though. I tend to outline the first third before I start writing, then try to stay two steps ahead of where I am in the story. I find that if I outline too much, I get bored writing, and if I’m bored as the writer, there’s no hope for the reader.

BRC: Who are some writers who have inspired you? What’s the first book you read that made you think you could be (or had to be) a writer?

AM: This should be the simplest question for a writer to answer, but I always find questions about influence so tough because I love so many books. When I started writing THE BOOKSHOP OF YESTERDAYS, I focused on reading a lot of debut novels by authors I love: THE INVISIBLE CIRCUS by Jennifer Egan, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES by Jeffrey Eugenides, THE EDIBLE WOMAN by Margaret Atwood and WHITE TEETH by Zadie Smith. I like the rawness of first novels­ --- although THE VIRGIN SUICIDES is a masterpiece and an absolutely perfect debut in my mind.

BRC: You’ve started doing readings and appearances as part of your first book tour. How are you finding this part of the publishing process?

AM: I was really nervous about the readings, even though I was so excited to do them. I do my best to hide it, but I’m pretty shy. Teaching helps, but teaching isn’t as exposing as reading your work to a room of people. I did my first event at Skylight Books, my neighborhood bookstore, so the audience was filled with friendly faces. I quickly realized that everyone was there to support me and to share their love of the literary world. Even with strangers, people go to readings to be inspired, to find community, to celebrate their reading lives. I’m finding that it’s easy to get swept up in the energy and enthusiasm of the room, even if you have stage fright.

BRC: Now that you’ve gone through the journey of writing, selling and publishing your debut novel, what advice would you offer to first-time authors?

AM: The most immediate advice is to finish! Finishing a novel --- or a story, a script, an essay, a poem, anything you want to be good --- is the biggest obstacle. Once you’ve finished, be patient with the process and be open to feedback. Every step takes longer than you want it to take, and every stage involves a lot of revision. While you have to trust your vision, you also have to have faith in the professionals with whom you’re working. Trust that they know what they’re doing. And they do. This became a much stronger novel with the thoughtful input I got from other writers, everyone at my agency, and my editors. I think that’s probably my biggest advice: Don’t be precious about your work.

BRC: We hear you’re already hard at work on your next novel. Can you tell us a little about it?

AM: I am hard at work and so excited about my new novel! It’s another family mystery, only this time it involves a historic diamond, which in real life has been missing for 100 years. My novel begins when it materializes in the grandmother’s jewelry box after she’s passed. I’ve gotten to research historic diamonds and the diamond industry, as well as art law and European history. It’s been really fun, and I can’t wait to share it with readers.