Sophie Chen Keller Interview

Sophie Chen Keller

In this story for readers of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and A Man Called Ove, when all seems lost, you need to find what matters most. Walter Lavender Jr. is a master of finding. A wearer of high-tops. A maker of croissants. A son keeping vigil, twelve years counting. But he wouldn’t be able to tell you. Silenced by his motor speech disorder, Walter’s life gets lonely. Fortunately, he has The Lavenders—his mother’s enchanted dessert shop, where marzipan dragons breathe actual fire. He also has a knack for tracking down any missing thing—except for his lost father. So when the Book at the root of the bakery’s magic vanishes, Walter, accompanied by his overweight golden retriever, journeys through New York City to find it—along the way encountering an unforgettable cast of lost souls. Steeped in nostalgic wonder, The Luster of Lost Things explores the depths of our capacity for kindness and our ability to heal. A lyrical meditation on why we become lost and how we are found, from the bright, broken heart of a boy who knows where to look for everyone but himself.
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JL, Tower Review) What gave you the idea to write this book?
Sophie Chen Keller) Some of my earliest memories are of my mom reading out loud to me from the books we’d check out from the library in stacks of twenty or thirty at a time—books that would whisk me off to magical places, by authors like EB White and Roald Dahl. I wanted my debut novel to be a grown-up version of those childhood classics—a tale that was warm and wondrous and pure, yet at the same time layered with meaning and observations on what it is to live, to be human. I wanted to take people back to that lost time, when the world was bright and brimming with possibility, because as we get it older, it becomes easier to forget that it can still be that way. There are times when we all could use that breath of fresh air—that reminder of the goodness that lives in us, and in the people around us. The specific idea of a boy who looks for lost things came to me later, in the summer of 2014. I came across a “Lost” flyer posted at a campsite, for a missing camera that contained sentimental family photos. I started wondering whether the lost camera had been returned, and about all the other things that people lost. What did it say about them? What were they really looking for when they looked for something like a lost camera? As I wondered if anyone responded to “Lost” flyers like that one, I had my first idea of who Walter would be—a boy who answered “Lost” flyers, finding the things that people had lost and were so desperately looking for.
TR) How does food figure into your conception?
SCK) I spend a lot of time eating food, thinking about the food I’m going to eat next and watching people on TV prepare food that I can then imagine eating. I like exploring different foods—I’m the one holding up the line at the gelato shop or the bakery, inquiring about every item in the display and hemming and hawing over which one to choose. So really, I couldn’t resist writing about food.
TR) A real sweet tooth! And Walter?
SCK) In the book, the main character, Walter Lavender Jr. struggles to find a place to belong because of the motor speech disorder that renders him virtually speechless, trapping him inside his own head. Food, desserts especially, have a way of bringing people together, and of transporting them back to a time and place where they felt like they belonged. One bite, one whiff of warm chocolate chip cookie, and you’re transported decades back to Grandma’s kitchen as she’s pulling a baking sheet out of the oven. At The Lavenders, the magical bakery run by Walter’s mother, Walter is able to experience the sense of belonging and connection that he longs for. The Lavenders is what my ultimate dream bakery would look like, comprised of my favorite elements from various bakeries I’ve been to—the whimsical touches of a California chocolatier, the home-spun coziness of a German bäckerei, the classic brass elegance of a French patisserie, the sugary brightness of a closet-sized Manhattan bakery.
TR) So inviting, and imaginative.
SCR) You’d step in, order, and be transported to anywhere in the world you wished—the bourbon peach pie would take you to the South, the maple walnut whoopie pies to New England, the mango napoleon to Thailand, the sticky toffee pudding to England, the rose macaron to France, the green matcha croissant to Japan. And now…I’m hungry!
TR) What is your favorite dessert recipe?
SCK) Rainbow cupcake cones! On the surface, they look like that hot-weather staple from childhood…but once you dig in, you’re in for a delightful surprise. These “ice-cream cones” are actually cupcakes baked inside ice-cream cones and frosted to look like scoops of ice cream. Whimsical, delicious and easy to make, I love them most of all because they capture the magic of being a kid, in a fresh, unexpected way—kind of like The Luster of Lost Things itself. To get the recipe, download The Luster of Lost Things custom book club kit from Putnam’s Facebook page, here: http://bit.ly/2eRCBSH.
TR) Have you found your writing voice, and what’s next for you?
SCK) When my parents and I first immigrated to the US from China, I didn’t know a word of English. I remember starting school and not being able to understand what anyone was saying to me. I couldn’t communicate my thoughts or even my basic needs—being thirsty, hungry, tired. I wound up crying in the bathroom at lunchtime from the loneliness and frustration. But as Walter does in his journey, through my journey, I ended up discovering something unexpected: my writing voice. To help me learn English, my mom would spend hours reading out loud to me every night, and that was the beginning of my love for books—those bedtime stories that taught me English and kept me company when I felt alone. Soon enough, I started writing stories of my own while continuing to read anything I could get my hands on—books of all genres, books on the craft of writing, short stories. My first short story was published when I was 15, in Glimmer Train. A decade later, I started writing The Luster of Lost Things. Now, I’m working on a second novel, and am already very excited about it!
TR) Kirby Heyborne is your talented narrator for the audiobook. He narrated a Murakami book recently, plus romance from Karen Kingsbury, and children’s books like “Terrific,” which was terrific. What did you think?
SCK) Kirby Heyborne is phenomenal. His voice is the epitome of timeless magic, all golden warmth and nuanced emotion. I felt like I was sitting in front of a crackling fire—with a giant hot chocolate, of course—being regaled by a master storyteller. His range is incredible, and that’s another reason I’m so excited he’s narrating the book. As Walter searches for the one lost object that will save The Lavenders, he encounters people who are a familiar and distinctive part of New York City, including food vendors, can collectors and train conductors. These characters are the beating heart of the story, and Kirby imbues each of them with that unique spark as he brings them to life. I am deeply grateful for the love and care that he and the Penguin Random House Audio team put into bringing The Luster of Lost Things to audiobook.

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