Queensland author Karen Foxlee‘s new novel Lenny’s Book of Everything promises to be one of the biggest books of 2018, after Allen & Unwin (and the team behind Marcus Zusak’s phenomenally successful novel The Book Thief) secured the publishing rights in a fiercely-competitive seven-way auction. Ahead of its much-anticipated release on 24 October, QWC member and author Chloë Cooper spoke to Karen about the book.
CHLOË: Can you tell me, in your own words, what Lenny’s Book of Everything is about?
KAREN: In a nutshell, Lenny’s Book of Everything is the story of Davey—a young boy who, from the age of five, starts to grow and grow and grow. By the time he is seven, he is as tall as a tall man. His story is told by his older sister Lenny, who loves beetles more than anything in the world. She tells the story of Davey’s brief, remarkable life. Over the course of the story, which runs over a period of about two and a half years, they have an encyclopaedia set that arrives issue by issue to their letterbox. They live in a tiny little apartment with their single mother in a middle-sized city in the mid-West of the States, in Ohio. But, through the pages of the encyclopaedia issues, they experience the wonders of the world. Much of the story is about loss and grief, but it’s also about love and what a wonder it is to be alive.
What was the inspiration behind the story?
I had a rough idea, maybe ten years ago, after I wrote The Anatomy of Wings and thought that it would be my second book. I remember liking the idea of a single mother who has a child who just grows and grows. I tried and tried to write it, but nothing I did worked. So I just put it away and went on to write my other books. It was while I was doing the edits for A Most Magical Girl, which was a couple of years ago now, that the story, all of a sudden, started to call me again. It was really interesting. I tried to ignore it—I had to do those edits! When I finally got back to the story, the character Lenny was there; her voice was there. Straight away she said me the opening words that still start the story. It just felt like the right time to write it. My mum had died in the previous year, so I had all these things that I needed to sort out and think about. I think it was just the right time to deal with those big issues.
I loved the theme that the Burrell’s Build-it-at-Home Encyclopaedia provides. What was the inspiration behind this?
I’ve just always had this fascination with reference books. When I was eight, my family got an encyclopaedia set and that was a huge part of our lives. It was really quite life changing, actually. I tried to explore that idea and it ended up becoming such a huge part of the novel. I didn’t know how it would work when I sat down to write it, but when I did it just sort of became the metre of the novel. It kind of times the novel out, because issues arrive every week and they are going through the alphabet, learning about lots of lots of amazing things in the world… so I just went with it!
What was the best or most rewarding part of writing Lenny’s Book of Everything?
The most important part of any writing for me is bringing the characters to life. So seeing them all, draft after draft, just slowly coming to life on the page was very rewarding. I started to care about them all so much. Especially Cindy Spink, her story… I really love how she changed throughout the course of the story. Writing the book just made me really happy. Even though it is, at times, a sad book, it gave me a lot of hope.
What was the greatest challenge you faced in writing Lenny’s Book of Everything?
The ending is always very hard. I also found the whole thread about Great Bear Lake quite difficult—I can still get quite emotional when I think about it. The fact that they didn’t get to physically go there, but on some other levels they did. I’m funny about books and there’s probably a bit in every novel that I’ve written that can still make me cry. If it does, then I know that it’s worked.
Did your approach to writing this book differ from writing your previous books?
It did in a way. I felt, when I got to this story, that everything would be all right… the story was kind of all there. Usually, I just take so long to wallow around and I don’t really know what the story is about. But this one was different. Sure, I didn’t have everything mapped out and I did discover a lot of things on the way, but I just knew pretty quickly what the story was going to be. So that was quite different for me. And I think I just felt more confident. It’s taken me a while to feel a bit more confident in myself as a writer. But I think that grows with every story. This time around, I knew what I wanted to do and how I was going to do it. I don’t know why, but this was one of the easiest novels I’ve written.
Did you draw on any of your own personal experiences when writing the book?
I have a brother, so I did try and draw a little bit on our relationship; just some of the funny, silly things you do with your siblings when you are young. I definitely drew on personal experience with the character of Cindy—I’m a single mother who works two jobs, so I know exactly the kind of exhaustion she feels. That’s pretty authentic. And I guess also, the joy of opening up those encyclopaedia pages. I really did think a lot about when I was a kid and what that kind of knowledge meant when it came into our house.
Why did you decide to set the book in America?
I didn’t actually decide. It sounds weird, I know! Originally, I thought that the story was set in Australia. When I sat down to write it, all I had was Lenny’s voice. She started to tell the story and I was just kind of mucking around with her voice in the beginning, seeing what she could tell me. She kept talking about this place called Second Street, which is the street they live on. I was trying to imagine that in my mind and it just didn’t seem Australian. It looked American. And I thought, well that can’t be right, there’s no way I can do that, that’s too hard, I can’t set it somewhere else. But, you know, A Most Magical Girl was set in Victorian London and the book before that was set in an unknown city at the top of the world where it always snows. So I told myself to stop thinking about it and just write. I started to describe the street first and then it grew and I could really see it. I never had a name for the place—the publishers made me give it a name. A couple of times I thought that I could still change this, I could make it in Australia, I could make it in England, but by that stage I already had Great Bear Lake and I just knew it was where it was meant to be. So it’s fictional, it’s a completely fictional place, but it’s kind of a mix of places I’ve seen in the States and also stuff from TV and books and my imagination.
What books and authors have had the greatest influence on you as a writer?
My influences are quite diverse. I will always remember The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. I just love the story so much and it had such an influence on me and made me really want to become a better writer. I also love Ian McEwan and Philip Pullman… Philip Pullman wrote the most perfect fantasy novel… and Ruth Rendell—I’ve read every single book that she’s ever written because she does people so well. And I love the beauty of fairy tales, especially when I’m writing for children.
You work full time as a nurse—how do you manage to fit in your writing?
I’ve had a very good run at times, and I should never ever complain… Ophelia and the Marvellous Boys did very well overseas, so I was able to have a couple of years off. During that time I wrote The Most Magical Girl and Lenny’s Book of Everything. So there have been periods when I have been able to live the dream and write full time, but mostly it’s always been working and trying to write, working and trying to write… which, I guess is what most people do. It would be better to just live the dream, though!
What would you like readers to take away from reading Lenny’s Book of Everything?
I would like them to take away a sense of what a cracker of a miracle it is to be alive… what a wonderful world we live in and how much there is to learn and know. I think, also, a sense of hope that these difficult things in life can be faced. And, above all, love—all the different kinds of love there are in the world: neighbourly love, motherly love, sibling love, and the love between friends.
Chloë Cooper is a writer and a bookseller at Avid Reader Bookshop in Brisbane. She regularly interviews authors at Avid Reader and has appeared as a book reviewer on Radio National’s show The Bookshelf. Her work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, Overland, Kill Your Darlings, and others. You can find more of her work at chloecooper.net.