Debut Novel Pays Homage to Melville -- and Independent Bookstores

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Sheridan Hay
Photo: Marion Ettlinger

Sheridan Hay wrote The Secret of Lost Things in her office, which sits in the space created by an addition to her family's home in a suburb of New York City. One wall of the office is the original stone foundation of the house, and Hay brought in comfortable furniture and bookshelves that catch the light from the French doors. "I just love it -- it's my sanctuary," she recently told BTW. "Not to get corny, but people always talk about sacred spaces. In my case, it's really true."

It's true, too, that for Hay, bookstores have long been sacred places. Hay's experiences in and feelings about those bookstores were the inspiration for the Arcade Bookshop, which is the setting for -- and the heart of -- The Secret of Lost Things.

"Growing up in Australia, my family didn't have money, so I had to have a job, and my jobs were always in bookshops," she explained. "They were a welcoming sort of safe place for me, a very humane place where it didn't seem problematic to be different. This novel really is an homage to the kind of a world that was home for me for a long time."

And, much like protagonist Rosemary Savage -- who leaves her home in Tasmania for a new life in New York City, and promptly gets a job at the Arcade -- Hay moved to Manhattan as a young woman, and right away got a job at a bookstore. She said, "It was a real sort of salve for me, what the structure of life in a bookshop gave to me, and what it gave to Rosemary. In an autobiographical sense, it's her comfort in that kooky world."

Another key similarity between the author and her protagonist: Hay's mother died just before she began writing The Secret of Lost Things, and in the book, Rosemary's beloved mother dies, leaving her adrift and uncertain. Yet even as she mourns her mother's loss, Rosemary finds solace in the strange, wondrous bookstore and the people who work in it.

The owner of the fictional Arcade, George Pike, revels in the literary dictatorship he has created and, like a captain on a ship, issues orders from an elevated platform high above the other workers. Pike's assistant, Walter Geist, is an albino suffering from vision loss and other physical ailments -- as well as an obsession with Rosemary. In turn, Rosemary becomes obsessed with nonfiction specialist Oscar, a man with unerring taste and an unwillingness to become emotionally entangled with anyone. She also befriends Pearl, the funny and wise pre-op transsexual cashier, and a medley of customers and collectors who are forever in pursuit of that next great find.

"I always found a certain quality of openness in people who work in bookshops and work in books," Hay said. "It's a vast generalization but it certainly was my experience that they were less quick to judge. I try to convey that sense of the characters' acceptance of each other, even as varied and different as they are."

The collectors that frequent the Arcade are another kind of bibliophile altogether -- the sort of people who are nearly consumed by the way in which wants become needs. Hay noted, "A bookstore and collectors give you a perfect kind of metaphor to talk about the nature of desire, which is not about having it satisfied -- it's about having it." And, she added, "The most intimate relationship you can have to an object is to possess it, to own it.... I wanted to make the larger point that one disappears in one's collection. It has halted time, and you can pretend to have escaped mortality."

Hay spoke of writing in similar terms. "On those days when you look up and four hours have gone by -- you've spent them in an envelope of time," she said. "That's what you keep going back [to writing] for, to be lost in an attenuated moment."

The author said she's been building toward those moments for much of her life. As a child, she was in a theater company and wanted to write or act in plays. She worked in publishing for many years, at Simon & Schuster, Touchstone, and Fireside; she was publicity director for HarperCollins in Australia, and a sales rep in Sydney, too.

"There was no money for education," Hay said. "That really was my education. And I feel like this has been a very natural progression for me: I went to grad school at 40 and got an MFA in writing from Bennington," and The Secret of Lost Things came to be a few years later. She's now working on her next novel, a work of historical fiction set in the mid-19th century.

Hay's graduate school exit lecture was about Melville, with whom she "completely fell in love." That fondness translates into a central element of The Secret of Lost Things: the characters become fixated on (and secretive about) a possible lost manuscript by the author. Their growing obsession with finding the manuscript adds a strongly suspenseful element to the tale, as the characters' capacity for self-interest and betrayal dramatically comes to the fore.

That's no accident, Hay explained: "I'm far more interested in the true than the real, and I'm very interested in the theatrical in fiction. The Arcade Bookshop is like a ship; it's also a theater. And in a way, New York City is a theater of the world, with everyone playing a role." But, she cautioned, "a role is also a disguise, and not nicely what one imagines it to be. Each person has something to impart to Rosemary."

The Secret of Lost Things is a March 2007 Book Sense Pick, and Hay did a 10-city author tour in support of the book. "The tour was structured very heavily toward the independents -- it seemed exactly like the right thing to do," she said. Even when the turnout was just five or six people, Hay told BTW, "It was a deep pleasure, hanging out in a bookshop until 9:00 p.m. with the bookseller who was going to close the store and talking about books with them, and about how the store started."

The former bookseller said of bookselling, "It's such the accidental profession. Everyone has a story about how and why they're working in a bookshop. It's like asking someone about their family: there's always something curious and interesting about how they came to books."

However, she said, "I'm not a Pollyanna. I'm the wife of a publisher [Michael Jacobs, president and CEO of Abrams]. How could I be?"

Hay added, "The book trade feels sort of forever in decline, forever being questioned by modernity: What's the next technology? But this is the technology that works: You turn the page." --Linda M. Castellitto