When a bookshop patron commits suicide, his favorite store clerk must unravel the puzzle he left behind in this fiendishly clever debut novel from an award-winning short story writer. Bedazzling, addictive, and wildly clever, “Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore” is a heart-pounding mystery that perfectly captures the intellect and eccentricity of the bookstore milieu and will keep you guessing until the very last page.
Matthew Sullivan received his M.F.A. from the University of Idaho. His short stories have been awarded the Robert Olen Butler Fiction Prize and the Florida Review Editor’s Prize for Fiction and have been published in The Masters Review, Joyland, and elsewhere. He worked for years at the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver and currently teaches writing, literature, and film at Big Bend Community College in Washington State.
What inspired you to write this book?
This story came directly from my experiences working at the Tattered Cover Book Store in LoDo for a number of years in the 1990s. The booksellers I worked with were creative and well-read and a little bit surly, and always had something funny or smart to share. The store was in LoDo right at the beginning of that neighborhoods’s transformation, so the physical environment was brimming with personality, as well. The customers who made the choice to shop at a local indie (rather than online) were generally positive to be around. And, of course, being exposed to so many books, 40 hours each week, was an education in itself. That period in my life had a profound impact on me as a person and as a reader and I wanted to try to capture it in fiction.
Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?
I have a hard time with favorites because there are so many fine writers out there. I do like character-driven, well-written literary mysteries, so Tana French, Jane Harper, Jess Walter, and Kate Atkinson come to mind as recent favorites. I also like writers who push the limits of storytelling in some way, such as Paul Auster, Jesamyn Ward, Patrick DeWitt, and Colum McCann. And lately I’ve been reading some authors who manage to be entertaining and thought-provoking without doing much in the way of plot, such as Rachel Cusk and Otessa Moshfegh. Though these writers are all pretty different from each other, they share an attentiveness to language and character.
Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?
“Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore” is at its core about a bookseller trying to solve several mysteries, and this opening incident gets that quest going.
What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?
I wrote this entire novel about Colorado while living in rural Washington state. But I grew up in Colorado and lived there through my 20s. My dad still lives in the same home in Aurora that he and my mom bought in 1971, and much of my family still lives in the state, so I visit often. So it was rewarding to use my imagination in a way that pays homage to my home — to the version of Colorado that I miss the most, the Colorado of my mind, I guess.
What was the most difficult section to write in this book? Why?
I was a kid in Aurora in 1984 when the real-life “Hammer Man” went on a killing spree and murdered three members of the Bennett family, not far from my house. Your readers are probably aware that just this summer, through a DNA match, the police finally have a suspect for those very real crimes, but for decades the Hammer Man got away with it, and as a kid, knowing he was out there was absolutely terrifying. It had a major impact on me. Deep fears like that work themselves out of us in different ways. For me, as I was writing this book, I found myself being drawn back to that fear I felt as a child, and integrating a killer named “The Hammerman” in the story. I think I was attempting to give some closure to those experiences in fiction because that closure hadn’t happened in reality. So while the particular “Hammerman” scene in the book was actually easy to write (because it had been stewing in my subconscious for years), I spent many late nights being disturbed by the process of revisiting those emotions.
What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?
I.M. Pei designed the granite pavers on the 16th Street Mall to resemble the back of a Western diamondback rattler or a Navajo rug. I’d walked that mall hundreds of times and never knew that!
What project are you working on next?
I’m writing another literary mystery, this one about a young woman who grows up in a small lake town in the Pacific Northwest. She leaves home as a teenager and on the night that she returns, some years later, she is found murdered. I’m also contemplating a book that focuses on Detective Moberg, one of the characters in “Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore.” He may have some stories in him that are waiting to be told…
Buy: “Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore” at BookBar.
Excerpt: “Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore”
Produced in collaboration with the Colorado Book Awards, a program of Colorado Humanities & Center for the Book. Learn more at coloradohumanities.org.