“We ought to recognize that (things) are weird. By doing that, we pay them more respect.”
Uncanniness is an ideal by which author Robin Sloan, most famously known for titles “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” and “Sourdough,” lives. He also works for a small olive oil press, produces music with AI, pioneered the field of hyperliterature, authors a famous newsletter and more (the list has probably grown since I began writing). Sloan has not only a penchant but a deep admiration for chasing rabbit holes: When I asked him about his varied body of work, he shrugged. “Everything you do in the world, as long as you’re learning from it — it can always become something.”
Sloan is chirpy. Were we to meet in person, we decided it would be over macchiatos while watching trains go by at Highwire Coffee Roasters in Market Hall near the Rockridge BART Station of Oakland, Calif. (but since this was a Zoom call, Sloan makes sure to change his background to the painting “Allegory of Sight” by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens). Sloan has a passion for waxing poetic about the East Bay in his novels; he’s no different in conversation. His books “Sourdough” and “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” are known to evoke nostalgia while playing with technology; “Penumbra,” his first book, follows Clay Jannon, a recently laid-off web designer, as he begins work in an obscure bookstore that proves to be an encrypted front for something more. It’s undeniably a love letter to San Francisco. “Sourdough,” my personal favorite, chases Lois — a programmer who learns to love baking bread — through the East Bay as she puts her all into making perfect sourdough loaves with a suspicious starter.
“‘Sourdough,’” Sloan said, “almost sometimes makes me feel self-conscious, because I feel like it is so transparently the book of a person who has just moved from San Francisco to the East Bay and wants you to know how great it is.”
I mentioned his description of Michigan skies in “Sourdough” being “gray and drippy like the undercarriage of a car” — “Don’t extrapolate too much,” he said, laughing. Sloan grew up in Troy, Mich., one town over from where I spent my high school years. He spent a large fraction of his childhood at the Troy Public Library, which he calls “a terrific space.” He majored in economics at Michigan State University, where he was convocation speaker and co-founded a literary magazine named Oats. It wasn’t until college ended that he realized, “I may have made a wrong turn somewhere. I’m not actually enjoying any of this,” at which point he pivoted to journalism (“Obviously,” he adds, “I don’t have to explain the appeal of that to you.”). His playfulness got buried under years of dust as he chased the “catnip” of esteem, but he said he’s glad the steam never fully disappeared. “I think people who have that little stream somewhere in them, it’d be impossible to try to extinguish it entirely, And so, mine was kinda there, trickling along,” Sloan said. “Every so often, I’d think about it some way, and be like (sigh), yeah, maybe there’s something I could write, and I’d kinda start something and then abandon it immediately, ’cause I was frustrated with it and myself.”
The Troy Public Library, San Francisco and a writing group (of which he created with two office friends in 2008) — without this list, Sloan tells me, he wouldn’t be an author. San Francisco was his “fuel in the tank.” Meeting ambitious people who “felt like characters out of novels” proved a catalyst. He adds that “for anyone who puts the pieces together, it is evident that ‘Sourdough’ exists because of Kathryn (Tomajan, his partner) and her influence on my life. Without Kathryn, I would have been Lois in the first two chapters of ‘Sourdough,’ but then stuck there,” referring to the opening chapters of the novel, which portray Lois in a state of emptiness. As his world grew weirder and more wonderful, it grew harder for Sloan to ignore the part of himself that loved to create fictional realities, whether it was in his writing or immersive online universes.
Sloan is part of a wave of authors that bring realities of the internet into fiction; his first novel, “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore”, is remarkably similar to “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing” by Hank Green (“Penumbra” was published first), especially in the books’ beginnings, both of which open with uncertain young art school graduates looking for jobs. Sloan, a fan of Green, noticed that both authors write “at this almost frantic pace that I believe is evidence that the writer is afraid that the reader is just gonna close the tab … we are just keenly aware of attention and the potential scarcity of attention.”
Both authors handle technological magical realism deftly, managing to convey both facts and feelings of the internet in exploratory formatting: “The internet is kind of doing five things at once,” Sloan said, “How do you write that down in a novel?” The author makes sure to draw inspiration from a multitude of media, including poetry.
Every New Year’s Day, Sloan reads Simon Armitage’s translation of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” out loud. Initially, the reading was solely with his parents, but five years later, it’s a three-hour-long affair with a few hundred attendees. He made sure to add in a jokingly pompous voice that he is no “scholar,” but he believes “there’s something to that: returning to things.” It’s something he’s stood by: In his hyperliterature tap essay “Fish,” he writes about what it means to love something in the age of the internet, concluding that “to love is to return.” Still, in 2022, Sloan told me, “you gotta pay your respects however you can to all the great work that’s out there.”
Much of Sloan’s own work can be considered a paying of respect to the art which inspires him; M. F. K. Fisher’s “How to Cook a Wolf” and William Gibson’s cyberpunk novels are evident in his prose and preoccupation, but perhaps his most significant inspiration are the films of Hayao Miyazaki (he just completed a rewatch — his favorite is “Kiki’s Delivery Service”). The temperament of his work can be summarized in the term eucatastrophe — popularized by Tolkien, indicating a massive turn in fortune from a seemingly unconquerable situation, making the world seem much friendlier and more low-stakes than it initially appears.
“You could look at that with a really cold eye and say it’s sort of PollyAnna-ish and naive, or for kids, and whatever, maybe all those things are true,” Sloan said. “I think it’s also unquestionably beautiful and gracing. It sort of takes your breath away in these moments.”
He continually realizes that “drama and plot are actually quite fractile — they can exist completely at any stage. And I just think that anybody who reads enough books realizes that the stakes can be, indeed, the end of the world, or a comet hurtling toward earth. Or it could just be a walk in the park, and there are great books about walks in the park. I mean, I like the meteors too, but I like the walks in the park best of all.”
I unassumingly added “Sourdough” to my to-read list after reading Jason Sheehan’s NPR’s book review describing Sloan’s preoccupation with “bizarrely low-impact conspiracies that solely concern single-noun obsessives.” Now, when I reflect, I think of reading it in August while the sun snuggled into my shoulders, as I lay on a hammock strung up outside my parents’ kitchen window. Growing up, reading a book I liked was a mad dash — eating and sleeping were put on pause as I sprinted to the back covers, eager for conflict resolution. For the first time since I began reading, I remember finishing a dense, fruitful chapter of Lois’s journey in “Sourdough,” sighing with contentment and falling asleep on the hammock (only to be woken by a frog jumping against the bottom of the fabric).
“Sourdough” has been my favorite book since I was 16 years old. I bonded with one of the first friends I made in college over Sloan’s “Fish.” The friend gave me his parents’ copy of “Penumbra” at the beginning of my sophomore year, and months ago — when I slipped it into the conversation that I was interviewing Sloan, he stopped in his tracks on the sidewalk. I have squeezed meaning out of “Sourdough” many times; I even gave it as a gift for our Secret Librarian article. All of this is to say, my palms went numb when I saw that Robin Sloan entered my Zoom meeting room.
I tried not to embarrass him with my love for his work. Still, Sloan made sure to downplay his own artistry when speaking of Green, Miyazaki and others. He told me, “I’m not the person who has thoughts that no one else ever had, but I do think that I’m good at mixing them all together in a stew pot, and not to be gross about it, but digesting them and metabolizing them a little bit” — his voice went up at the end, as if he was wondering aloud.
That’s what Sloan does best: He draws in stark oddities and makes them seem mundanely wonderful. In the same vein as the quote, “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed,” from his inspiration William Gibson, Sloan’s next project will dive even deeper into “threads of science fiction that are twisted into the normal everyday,” possibly even having multiple “single-noun obsessives” (in the words of Jason Sheehan). On his future work, he added, “I hope I can find ways to zoom in on more specific parts of the world, and I’m interested in the cosmic, you know, this sort of strange world that’s out there in the universe and inside cheeses and everywhere else.” Smiling, he decided to stop himself from giving any more away, adding, “I’m sorry to be so cryptic.” Until Sloan digests more love for the world around him, we’ll simply have to return to the weird and wonderful world of Lois and her bread.
Daily Arts Writer Meera Kumar can be reached at email@example.com.