The embarrassing story at the heart of The Moment of Everything

A lot of people ask me what inspired the story of The Moment of Everything. The answer isn’t easy. It’s a lot of different things, but I think if I had to pinpoint one thing, it’d have to be my obsession with finding things in old books. And that’s kind of an embarrassing story.


I was visiting some friends in Montana with my mom, and we went to a used bookstore. I had not seen a lot of bookstores at that point in my life. I was fifteen years old, and I grew up in a small town in South Carolina. We didn’t have a bookstore. I got all my books from the library, the drugstore, and the Weekly Reader we’d get in school. So this store was fascinating to me. I spent a lot of time there trying to figure out what I was going to buy. I didn’t have a lot of money, so I was being quite selective.

One of the books I picked up was Selected Letters of Ernest Hemingway. I’m not even sure why I picked this up. I didn’t know much about Hemingway at that point in my life other than he was an important writer. But for some reason I picked it up. On the inside flap was a letter written in the book. It was from a father who was traveling in Africa to his son. And it blew my mind that someone would write a letter in a book because I’d been told my whole life that you don’t write inside of books.

I didn’t buy the book. I was fifteen and I didn’t have a lot of money and there were other things that I wanted. But for days this book haunted me. Finally I told my mom about it and she took me back to the store to get the book. But it was gone.

After that, I became fascinated by finding things in old books. So whenever I came across a used bookstore, I’d always go in and I’d look and look trying to find something that was left behind in an old book. To me that was the best thing in the whole world.

Now comes the embarrassing part. Fast forward to when I’m 32. I’m visiting Seattle, and I’m in this great used bookstore called Twice Sold Tales. And there I find Selected Letters of Ernest Hemingway. I thought about that book back in Montana, so I opened it up and there…is…a…letter. My knees went out from under me. I couldn’t believe I was looking at the same letter.

Only now, I a 32-year-old with an English degree who has read a lot of Hemingway. Looking at the letter, I realize I’ve made a huge mistake when I was 15. This is not a letter that someone wrote inside the book. It’s a reproduction of a letter Hemingway wrote his son that’s been printed on the inside flap as decoration. The date is 1937. If you’ll notice on the title of the book, it includes letters up to 1961. And i know a lot more about Hemingway’s life now. I know he traveled to Africa, and that he was called Papa. The letter is signed Papa. I put the book down, and went across the street to have a stiff drink.

But I’m grateful for that mistake because it started a fascination with things written and left behind in books. And that’s what led me to The Moment of Everything where everything gets turned upside down by love notes written in the margins of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

So there you have it, the embarrassing story that inspired my novel.

 

GIVEAWAY: Comment on this post by Noon (EST) on Friday, October 10 to enter to win a signed copy (or an ebook from the iBook store!) of THE MOMENT OF EVERYTHING (US only). Follow The Debutante Ball on Facebook and Twitter for extra entries—just mention that you did so in your comments. We’ll choose and contact the winner on Friday. Good luck!

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Shelly is the author of THE MOMENT OF EVERYTHING, story of love and books in Silicon Valley. She lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains with her husband, two big dogs, and a disapproving cat.

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This article has 16 Comments

  1. Love the video! I want to hug your through the screen. What a fantastic story! Our passions come to life in the oddest ways. But important question, have you ever bought the Hemingway book?

    1. Oh goodness! I thought about that when I was making this video. Why the hell do I still not have a copy of this book!? Honestly, I think it’s out of spite now:-) But I’ll have to hit Logo Books here in Santa Cruz and see if they have a copy. I think after all this, I can be friends with this book.

  2. Well, at least your embarrassing mistake led you to something that’s actually true — people do write in books.

    When I was growing up, my first two school teachers were women with names that ended in “baum.” So, I thought all teachers were women, and they had names that ended in “baum.” Case solved.

    This left me very confused when my next teacher was Mr. Heineman. 🙂

  3. I love everything about this story — the understandable mistake (and my own gullible reaction when I thought you really DID find THE SAME BOOK), but also the fire it sparked in you to write about books with stories of their own. My first instincts when reading about your book a few weeks back were 1) “I have to read it” and 2) I have to hit up all those used bookstores that have escaped me my entire life (and look for the one in Payson that you mentioned, since I live in AZ. It was Payson, right?). I adore the story concept and can’t wait to read. Thanks for the opportunity to win a copy. And here’s to finding more stories and mementos inside those future book treasures.

    1. Hi Melissa! You mean the video I did about The Luck of Roaring Camp? Yes, that’s in Payson, AZ. My parents lived in Pine (until last weekend when we moved them in with us). So I used to go there a lot. Lovely little shop with all kinds of things. Yes, go to used bookstores and tell them you want books with writing in them. Too many bookshop owners tell me they don’t take those books anymore because people want them as new as possible. It’s such a shame!

  4. Hi Shelly, congratulations on your book. I’m so happy for you! You never told me that story, guess you were too embarrassed 🙂 Here is an embarassing story along similar lines but more gullible on my part. When I was in my early 20s I saw a program late at night on the TV about how the hover boards in the second Back To The Future were actually real but couldn’t be sold because they were too dangerous. I thought that this was awesome and proceeded to tell everyone at work about it. It wasn’t until years later that I finally realized it was likely just a promotional show for the movie. I felt embarrassed that I told everyone at work about it. Now too bad that didn’t inspire me to go on to create gravitational vehicles 🙂 Great story and I am in the middle of reading your book. Hope you are able to continuing publishing!

    1. Hey Chris! You know, I didn’t even really remember it until people started asking me about how I got interested in things written in books then it came back to me. It’s such a great story that I actually like telling it. That’s funny about the hover boards! I would love for them to be a real thing!

  5. Shelly,

    I was in B&N the other day and saw your book on the shelf. What a treat to see you published. We’ve known each other since the late 80’s and I always knew you were destined to accomplish your goal of being a writer. I am twenty pages into your book and hooked. My family and I are headed to Edisto Beach this week and I hope to sit and finish it. Since you are originally from SC, please contact Malaprop’s Book Store in Asheville, NC and have them stock it under their regional literature. They are an independent book store with an amazing regional southern collection.

    As for your post, I bet the prose of Hemingway’s letter to his son was nothing like the clean, crisp, short sentences in his book so why wouldn’t you think it was written by someone else? He was probably in a bar in Key West or Cuba when he wrote that note to his son!

    Write On Woman,
    Take Care,

    Gaylord

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