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Robin Sloan on his new book Sourdough, San Francisco culture, and a more optimistic Silicon Valley

Robin Sloan on his new book Sourdough, San Francisco culture, and a more optimistic Silicon Valley


Books and bread

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Robin Sloan’s debut novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, was a charming look at Silicon Valley culture set in a San Francisco that almost felt like an ideal version of our own. Sloan’s city is a place where the sun feels a little bit brighter, the companies a little less evil, and where secret clubs, improbable bookstores, and delightful characters can be found around every corner.

A second course of the best parts of Penumbra

Sourdough — Sloan’s second novel, which comes out this week — in many ways feels like a second course of the best parts of Penumbra. But where Penumbra uses a mysterious book club as a lens to explore our modern startup culture, Sourdough uses a different, but equally foundational part of everyday life: food, and more specifically, sourdough bread.

The novel centers on Lois, who starts the novel as a burned-out software engineer at a company that manufacturers robotic arms. But when Lois inherits a rather special sourdough starter from a pair of brothers forced to abandon San Francisco when their visas expire, she’s quickly thrust into a world where food, science, and technology come crashing together.

Sourdough is not simply a find-and-replace version of Penumbra that swaps one secret society out for another. While the setting may be similar, Lois' journey from career disillusionment to unexpected happiness makes her a more complex character than Penumbra's happy-go-lucky Clay. Sourdough isn’t as neat a story as Penumbra, either, with Sloan leaving questions unanswered and mysteries unsolved.

I recently had the chance to chat a bit with Sloan about his newest book, including how the city of San Francisco inspired his work, and why he chose to write about food in the first place.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Why sourdough bread? Or, more specifically, why have a focus on bacteria and food culture in your new book?

That's a good question, that's a very good foundational question. I'll give you two direct answers and then one kind of curve ball. The most direct answer is I knew almost from before publishing Mr. Penumbras 24-Hour Bookstore that I would be interested in a story about food, set in and around the world of food and food culture. I just had had some experiences and heard some stories and read some things that all just seemed really interesting and suggestive to me.

About the same time that I was publishing Penumbra, I got a book called Tartine Bread, kind of a well-known baking book that insists that you've got to do it with sourdough. They have like no patience for dry, you know, store-bought yeast. And for me, learning what the starter was and how it behaved was a total revelation. I just did not know anything about that particular ingredient beforehand, and it was just stuck in my head as kind of an interesting and alien thing.

Across both Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough is the intersection of modern-day Silicon Valley startup culture with more traditional fields, like baking or bookselling. Why is this a focus for you?

I have to say that it's a direct and very straightforward reflection of this place that I live and have lived for more than a decade now — the Bay Area. You know, I came out here, not as a fiction writer, but as just kind of a packed-in media worker, and I didn't really know much about the Bay Area and California at that time. I came out for a job, and if this job that I started back in 2004 had been in like St. Louis, then I would have just moved to St. Louis and not given it a second thought. But as it happens, it was in the Bay Area, and in that time since, I've just really come to appreciate that mix of, you know, palpable science fiction all around you and people doing weird things that nobody's ever heard of before with plenty of people who are just masters of their own craft, whatever it is. These aren't necessarily new fangled things. You know, there are very good blacksmiths in the Bay Area. And I think that's kind of cool and kind of interesting.

Is that in the next book? Blacksmithing?

No, probably not. But you never know, you never know what will percolate. I want to learn to weld. That's one of my goals for the next year. I want to take a welding class. I figure it would be interesting.

Was there anything you did stylistically with Sourdough to try and make it stand apart from Penumbra?

Yeah, definitely. There's kind of two questions there, you know: did you try anything that failed? And did you try anything that worked? There is a lost first draft that is not in the first person, and it's kind of instead, that slightly more traditional was familiar fictional voice of kind of the observer, the narrator, kind of perched on various people's shoulders. And I wanted to give that a try, and I just could not make it work. I sort of found the limits of my skills at this moment as a fiction writer. And so I was like, "You know, I'm trying enough new things already. There's enough other challenges in telling the story and just writing a second novel at all." Which is always a very fraught endeavor.

But then the things that I tried that worked were maybe a little more — I don't know how to say it exactly — like a tiny bit more darkness. And also, I mean in the sense that you know our main character opens the book kind of unhappy, which is not the case with Penumbra. I think actually part of the appeal of the book is that he's just always this sort of upbeat like "Hey let's see what’s next" kind of character. And Lois in Sourdough, you know, she starts the story at least in kind of a different place, which is different for me and just a challenge.

And also, I think there's a little bit more ambiguity in Sourdough, like not all the questions are answered. And, as I was writing it, I would sort of feel my fingers twitching, just kind of like "Just explain exactly what it all is!" as if it's the Wikipedia entry. But I decided not to, and I'm happy with how that turned out.

Is there any specific inspiration for the Mazg?

Not really. I was thinking, you know of course, of like the Roma. On Clement Street, which is where I lived... it's a pretty special place in San Francisco, and I think on the planet, in part because it's such a marbling. [It’s] a dense and fine marbling of all these different languages and little communities of people from all over that kind of come together and set up shop there, but still also maintain their linguistic and cultural identity, which is really cool.

I think seeing some of those, just see[ing] a sign walking down Clement Street, and you'd be like, "What language is that?" And eventually you figure it out like, "Oh it's Burmese. Oh, that's Cambodian. Interesting!" I like the idea that you could see a script and wonder, "Well, wait, which one is that?" And so I think that's kind of what fed into this idea of a fictional and mysterious-to-everyone language and culture.

How based in reality are some of the more fantastic elements of Sourdough, like the Clement Street starter or the vendors in Marrow Fair?

I'd be curious to know if somebody finds out something or there's some kind of line of research that unfolds that proves me wrong. I'd be interested to know it. But absent that, I don't think there is anything — maybe just a couple things at the very end — in the book that is physically impossible or implausible knowing what we know about the physical world and microbes and all the weird things they can do.

‘I want to mine the real weirdness of the actual world’

And I really wanted to keep it in that register or play by those rules. I guess I'm not sure why, it seems inappropriate to me that, at any point, the Clement Street starter would literally start to speak and say like, "Hey Lois," even though that's kind of an interesting book. And you could see that there'd be a lot of delight and fun in that, but I was like, "No, I want to mine the real weirdness of the actual world," rather than just leap over into that sort of magic.

So that's all to say that as far as I know, certainly all the stuff that is kind of portrayed in the Marrow Fair, but even the strange activity of the starter, I think it's all things that could be real.

The city of San Francisco and the surrounding areas really are an integral part of both your books. How important is that to you that the city that you love is such a big part of your novels?

It is really important. I mean, this place has made me. I think I'm one of those people that kind of thinks everybody's got an identity and maybe that's the core of their personality. But I think we change enough over the years that it's like a succession of different people. Everyone's lives are sort of a succession, almost like handing the baton of your life off from one person to the next, to the next, to the next. And hopefully that goes on for a long time, and the changes are healthy and interesting, and not like, spiraling into darkness. I just happen to think that there's a lot of things about this place that are really special and lively and inspiring.

Is it an intentional move on your part to look for the optimism in a Silicon Valley culture that tends, especially lately, to be caught up in scandals and corruption?

That's a really good question. I would say that it is. And here's the reason: I always think of books and all writing as existing in context with everything else that you know is out there. It would be both silly and arrogant — beyond arrogant — to assume that the thing that you write is going to provide like the picture of a world, a scenario, a milieu like Silicon Valley to a reader.

And as such, I'm just conscious of the fact that a sort of more critical take — which is super appropriate, by the way, and much needed — is well-represented. That's out there, and people are getting that and reading that and grappling with those arguments, I think, a lot. And so in a way, I think that actually makes a little room for different stories talking about different parts of the way this culture unfolds. And I'm comfortable with that. I'm comfortable understanding that I'm providing one tile in the mosaic. And there's other tiles next door, and I think that's great.

Penumbra came out just about five years ago. Do you feel that you've changed as a writer since then?

For sure! Definitely! And you know, in some ways, I think the changes have been very simple and I guess mechanical. Like, I think my sentences are longer. Which is sort of a rinky-dink thing to say, but that's part of how you grow, and the way your prose appears on that page sort of changes and evolves. And I flip through Sourdough, and I'm like, "Hey, that sentence is almost a whole paragraph!"

I think, personally — I don't know if other readers would agree — but reading Penumbra, I detect an internet writer or a writer who came up on the internet. I think there's this kind of a punchiness, a lot of conjoined fragments, and in some places — actually to its detriment — a sense of wanting to like hurry along so as not to lose people's attention and have them close the tab.

So maybe that's actually the simplest way to answer your question. I think I have gotten better at writing books, as I've spent more time doing that and moved further away from my roots as a blogger, a writer of short snappy little things for the internet.

There are a couple of references to your first book in Sourdough. Is this the start of a Robin Sloan Literary Universe? Should fans expect to see Samuel L. Jackson show up in the credits of the next book?

I have no idea. Just hearing that you picked up on some of the links makes my day, possibly my week. Who knows? Who knows how deep it will get. But I was committed from jump to making this the same world just because there's no reason not to. It seems like leaving a really easy and fun opportunity on the floor if I'm writing a story set in a mostly realistic take on the Bay Area, and it doesn't kind of wink back to these other stories. So, yeah! Clay will be played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in all of the interlocking Penumbra Cinematic Universe adaptations. Yeah, it's definitely the same world.

What's next for you on the writing front?

I'm working on a bunch of stuff. And as I was finishing up that process [of writing Sourdough], I was suddenly conscious, or I just kind of remembered or saw clearly the fact that Penumbra had started as a short story.

And I had taken it for granted at the time, but I realized in retrospect that it was really helpful. And of course, I'm going to parrot the language of Silicon Valley here, which is maybe not always the best thing, but that's just how I think now. It was almost like a prototype. It was like a way of testing out the idea with a constrained scope, but validating that people liked it, which is really important. And again, this is all in retrospect. I just took it so for granted at the time. I was then able to proceed with that full-length version knowing that it was something that people responded to, and it wasn't just like, "Oh, what a waste of everybody's time."

‘My next big project is going to grow out of something smaller like a prototype’

So that's all to say that I'm certain at this point that my next big project is going to grow out of something smaller like a prototype. And by extension, what I'm going to work on next is sort of a series of these prototypes. And it will just be some shorter stuff, mostly published online. I've got a few things kind of banked already. And you know, as I have in the past, I'm going to play with format a little bit as well.

But the intention is not just to play around and throw out some smaller stuff, but to find maybe which one of those clicks both with me and with readers out there in the world and then try to develop that into something longer.

Is there a real recipe for the spicy soup?

There is! There is indeed! Here is where I have to give a lot of credit to my partner; her name is Kathryn Tomajan. She's deep in the food world and has been since I met her, and of course, her influence therefore was kind of a powerful one on the formation of Sourdough, and just the kind of notion to write a story like this at all in the first place. And earlier in the springtime, it was really all starting to come together and the final draft of the book was getting copyedited, and I realized that I was going to need a real recipe. And she was like, "I can help you with that."

So, we have a recipe under development. We're at about our third iteration here in South Berkeley, and the hope is to have it finalized by the time I go on tour. So maybe I can even print up some of those little recipe cards and hand them out at all the book events.