Sophie Chen Keller has lived all over the country, but it’s her former home — New York City — that features prominently in her debut novel.
“The Luster of Lost Things” (out Aug. 8, Putnam’s Sons) tells the story of Walter Lavender Jr., a young boy who has a gift for finding lost possessions. His talent is put to the test when a magical book disappears from his mother’s West Village bakery and he travels across the city to find it.
We chatted with Chen Keller about her journey as an author and the city’s influence on the book.
Congratulations on your first novel. How long did it take you to write it?
Thank you! It’s a dream come true and I still haven’t gotten over it. It took about four months to write the first draft of the manuscript, then a year and a half of revisions with first my agent and then my editor. I turned in the final manuscript around two years after I started writing the book.
Did you have another job in the meantime?
I quit my day job to write the book. After graduating from college, I worked in brand consulting for three years and then in fashion for one year. In those four years, I didn’t write anything. I knew that if I wanted to write a novel, then I needed to dedicate myself fully to it.
You grew up in Ohio and California. How did you become so familiar with New York City?
I moved to New York City right after college and lived there for over four years. The magical bakery featured in the book is located on Carmine Street, in the West Village — a place where I felt like I could actually stumble across a magical bakery. I crossed paths with people on a daily basis — from train conductors to sidewalk vendors — people who were part of the urban landscape.
Where did you get the idea for the story?
In 2014, I spent a night camping on a volcano in Maui. In the campsite bathroom, I came across a lost flyer taped to the mirror. It was for a camera that the owner was clearly desperate to find. I wondered if anyone responded to flyers like these. That was when I had my first inkling of who Walter might be.
Is that the book’s message — that there are people out there who are that selfless?
I wanted to send something joyful and uplifting out into the world — something to reaffirm our faith in the goodness that lives around us and in us. I feel that it’s a message so many need to hear. When we start to feel hopeless or afraid, I hope that Walter can remind us of how we used to experience the world [as children], when it was bright and miraculous.
Are you worried about coming up with ideas for a sophomore novel, or do you have plenty more?
Remember Wile E. Coyote? Whenever he ran off cliffs, he was fine until he realized that he was running in midair. It was only when he realized he wasn’t supposed to be able to do what he was doing, that he fell. So I’ll just keep running and not overthink it!
When did you know you were a writer?
I’ve loved books for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of my mom reading bedtime stories out loud, from dog-eared library copies of E.B. White and Roald Dahl, to help me learn English after we came to the U.S. [from Beijing at 4 years old]. Books remained my one constant companion as I grew up, and it wasn’t long until I started writing short stories of my own. If you’d asked me in third grade what I wanted to be, I would’ve said a writer.
Name: Sophie Chen Keller
Lives in: West New York, New Jersey, with her husband
Career she left to become an author: Brand consulting and fashion
First published: “Burying Twelve Yuan,” a short story, in Glimmer Train magazine when she was 15 years old
Biggest influences as a writer: Stephen King (“On Writing,”), Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, George Saunders, Jhumpa Lahiri, T.C. Boyle and Tim O’Brien
NYC neighborhoods she’s lived in: Murray Hill, West Village, Lower East Side
NYC places mentioned in “The Luster of Lost Things”: Central Park, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Fort Tryon Park, among others
Favorite spots to seek inspiration in NYC: “Anywhere there are people going about their lives.”
Writing process: “It starts with coffee. Then, for the next several hours, I focus only on writing until I reach my daily word quota. I don’t write in coffee shops or libraries or anything like that — it has to be just me and my laptop, alone in the room and preferably the house.”
Most difficult part of writing a book: “Revising it. I hadn’t gone through the process before and didn’t know what to expect, so everything was a learning experience.”
IF YOU GO
Sophie Chen Keller celebrates the release of “The Luster of Lost Things” on Aug. 8 at 7 p.m. at powerHouse Arena | 28 Adams St., DUMBO, 718-666-3049, powerhousearena.com