When Mathematicians Go Missing 

A murdered student's journal sheds new light in Michelle Richmond's new novel.

Say you died suddenly, today, without a chance to cover your tracks or hide any secrets. What wouldn't you want your loved ones to learn afterwards? In Michelle Richmond's new novel No One You Know, professional coffee-taster Ellie receives — from a man she encounters seemingly out of the blue in Nicaragua — the journal that her Stanford-star-math-student sister Lila was keeping before her murder, twenty years before. Therein lies a tautly drawn tale, haunting in more ways than one, of how layers of lives peel back, onion-style, revealing things never meant for open-air exposure.

Richmond — whose 2007 novel The Year of Fog was a New York Times bestseller — has a knack for creating accessible, grippingly authentic characters. "When I sit down to write a book," says the Alabama native, who now lives in San Francisco and will be at Rakestraw Books (409 Railroad Ave., Danville) on Thursday, July 17, "the questions foremost in my mind are, 'How would it feel to be in this situation? How would this particular character react, and why?' I believe writing begins with compassion for one's characters and curiosity about the world." Researching this book was challenging, she says, yet not all work and no play. "The most enjoyable part ... involved coffee, including some very enlightening time spent with the folks at Mountanos Brothers Coffee in South City. This book came about during a year-long writing frenzy, during which I supported my manic pace by shamelessly indulging my coffee addiction. I hung out at many local coffee shops — Bluebottle, Bittersweet, Simple Pleasures, and Bazaar Cafe in the Richmond," she says, then adds more: "Ritual, Java Beach, Caffe Trieste." But crafting a believable mathematician was no picnic: "As I've never been comfortable with math, writing this book was a case of tackling my demons. I read biographies of groundbreaking mathematicians and studied up on famous unproved conjectures. I was interested in using mathematical concepts as metaphors to echo the themes of the book: the search for absolute proof, the ability of a person or thing to undergo change while remaining essentially the same."

Richmond's previous novel, The Year of Fog, was about a woman searching for a child who vanished suddenly at San Francisco's Ocean Beach. Newmarket Films — best known for Memento and Donnie Darko — has acquired the rights. Richmond hopes the resulting film "captures ... the intensity of my affection for the Bay Area. ... I can't wait to see how the book translates to the big screen." These days, she's working on a new novel, also set in San Francisco. "Let's just say it involves California politics, and the germ of the idea began with an experience I had in Argentina five years ago." 7 p.m. RakestrawBooksinDanville.com

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