For best-selling author Nicholson Baker, the creative fuel for his latest book, “Traveling Sprinkler,” was parked in the driveway.
“I wrote this book mostly sitting in a car, a Kia Rio,” says Baker, who is appearing at the 15th annual Litquake literary festival, which kicks off this week. “A car is a great place to think. You roll up the windows and it's quiet … it's like one of those sensory-deprivation chambers.”
Propping up his MacBook against the steering wheel and settling into the plush driver’s seat (“It takes a long time to write a book, so you might as well have a comfortable place to sit”), the Maine-based author wrote the latest adventures of everyman poet Paul Chowder in parking lots by the beach and even Planet Fitness gym.
“Paul … happens to be like me in a lot of ways,” Baker says about the protagonist of “Traveling Sprinkler” and 2009’s “The Anthologist.” “He's fumbling through life and figuring out what it means to be an American living right now, and being in love and trying to figure out how to be a better person.”
Chowder – a blocked writer who also happens to drive a Kia Rio and works out at Planet Fitness – is also coming to Litquake as part of “The Paul Chowder Chronicles: An Evening with Nicholson Baker.” The nine-day literary festival includes appearances by authors such as French novelist Marc Levy and “Orange is the New Black” scribe Piper Kerman as well as offbeat presentations like “Taxidermy Gone Rogue!”
The 57-year-old author will discuss prose of all makes and models.
“I’ll talk about how to write novels,” Baker says, “and the difference between writing nonfiction and fiction, where you get to stretch things and do sneaky things that allow you to maybe, in a strange way, be more truthful.”
He’s also looking forward to checking out the other Litquake events.
“The problem is that books are voiceless. They are just words on a page,” he says. “I like to hear a writer's voice. I don't feel I know what he or she is really all about until I've heard the voice.”
Baker is intimately familiar with the Bay Area. He lived in Berkeley, his wife’s hometown, for several years in the 1990s. A Good Vibrations store in Berkeley, with staff including sex educator Susie Bright, provided some material for what Baker calls his “racy books,” including the sexually explicit 1992 best-seller “Vox.”
But he might be best-remembered locally for his outspoken criticism when the San Francisco Public Library quietly tossed out older books – more than 200,000, Baker says – in the late 1990s while renovating its main site on Larkin Street.
“They buy 20 copies of ‘Eat Pray Love,’ then people read it, and maybe they only need 10 copies of ‘Eat Pray Love,’ Baker says.. “But when they [throw away] really interesting books on the history of soil erosion or obscure philosophy books … it hurts when a library decides in secret to become a popular circulating library instead of a library with noble aspirations.”
Baker – who dedicated a sizable portion of his savings to rescuing more than 5,000 vintage and obscure newspapers from destruction – is passionate about print, and says San Franciscans are, too.
“The thing about San Francisco is that people are really literate,” he says. “They read books, they get excited about it, and they're forgiving of oddities and eccentricities.”
IF YOU GO
The Paul Chowder Chronicles: An Evening with Nicholson Baker
Presented by Litquake
Where: Z Space, 450 Florida St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Oct. 15
Contact: (415) 440-4177, www.litquake.org