NEWBURYPORT — Erik Hoel was a precocious child. Some of his first memories involve learning to read while sitting on the floor of his mother’s bookstore.
When he was 5 years old, she read the entire “Lord of the Rings” trilogy aloud to him. By the time he was in middle school, he was thinking about literary theory.
One night he said to his mother, “The writer and the reader are as close as two minds can be.”
“And he was right,” Sue Little says now, beaming.
On Saturday, July 3, Little will celebrate the publication of her son’s first novel, “The Revelations,” at Jabberwocky, the bookstore she has operated here for nearly a half-century. The book release party will be the store’s first in more than a year, since the start of the pandemic. It will also mark the store’s 49th anniversary.
Since those early days creating imaginary worlds in the bookstore, crawling around with a plastic sword in his hand, Erik Hoel has been thinking about what it means to be conscious. In fact, he has challenged some of the prevailing theories about it.
Hoel earned his Ph.D. in neuroscience at the University of Madison-Wisconsin. Named to Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list in 2018 for his research on consciousness, he’s now an assistant professor at Tufts University.
Yet despite all his achievements in the field, his first love remains literature.
“There’s nothing more natural to a writer than describing consciousness,” Hoel says. “And that’s the one thing science struggles to explain.”
He’s sitting across from his mother in the cozy communal corridor of the Tannery Marketplace, a repurposed mill building where, in 1986, Jabberwocky became the first retail tenant in 1986. Prior to that, the shop occupied smaller storefronts in downtown Newburyport.
“There was nothing here,” Little recalls, gesturing. “There was water dripping onto a cement floor.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hoel’s debut novel inhabits the world of scientific research. But it’s also a murder mystery.
His main character, Kierk, is a rising star of neuroscience who feels constrained by the field’s authority figures. Kierk is a bit of an alter-ego for the author, but he’s arrogant in a way that Hoel is not.
“When you’re young and in academia, and you really want to tackle big questions, it can be very hard to find space for that. That can be frustrating,” says Hoel, who is 33. “I certainly wouldn’t defend Kierk for his flaws, but I am sympathetic. There’s a deep sense in which this book was a little bit of an exorcism for me.”
Both Hoel and his mother say they always knew he would become a writer. (In 2017, he earned a fellowship from the prestigious Center for Fiction in New York City.) Studying neuroscience was in part a conscious decision to ground himself in a field that could provide some material – just as Norman Mailer served in the army, he says, or the young Joan Didion immersed herself in the counterculture.
Hoel and his wife, Julia Buntaine Hoel, met while both were teacher’s aides at Hampshire College. She, too, teaches at the college level. She’s also the founder of the SciArt Initiative, a Boston- and New York-based organization that hosts events to stimulate conversation between the arts and sciences. The couple recently moved to Cape Cod after living in Medford.
In the Tannery, a woman approaches the table where mother and son are sitting.
“I just finished your book,” she says to Hoel. “What a wild ride!”
The woman is Fontaine Dubus, who is married to the writer Andre Dubus III. When Hoel was 13 or so, Dubus tutored him in writing. He’s been a big supporter of “The Revelations.”
Jabberwocky has been a hub of community for Newburyport since its earliest days in the 1970s, when many of the neighboring storefronts were still boarded up, before the coastal city’s notable preservation efforts. But Little says she wasn’t thinking in terms of creating a sense of community, not at first.
She just thought running a bookshop would be a good way to earn a living, she says. As a young single mother – she has a daughter, Morgan, who is eight years older than Erik – she’d been tending bar.
Little, who is 71, recently gave her daughter and son-in-law the historic farm, in nearby Newbury, that has been in her family since 1630. When she was a child, it was still a dairy farm.
“I delivered eggs to all the fancy houses in Newburyport,” she recalls.
A decade or so ago, she contracted a bad case of Lyme disease. The lingering effects sometimes gave her a brain fog that she compares to what she’s heard about the “long haul” effects of Covid. But she chose to hide her symptoms as best she could from her son.
If he knew the extent of her difficulties, he says, “I probably would have left college and come home.”
Although she’s technically in remission, Little says she’s calling it a cure. Now she has a new grandchild to enjoy. In May, the Hoels welcomed their firstborn, a boy named Roman. The new father says he read “The Hobbit” to his baby while they were still in the hospital.
“Oh, did you!” Little exclaims.
She didn’t have a TV at home when her son was growing up, she says.
“I believed in reading. Something happens when you read a story to a child. The child imagines it in their brain.”
A year ago, Little thought she may have to close the bookshop. After news of the virus began to spread, sales dropped about $1,000 a day, she says.
“I couldn’t believe I might have to close right before Erik’s book came out,” she says. “I was heartbroken.”
But the local community rallied, raising more than $60,000 in a fundraiser. Now she’s mulling the possibility of looking for a buyer after she reaches the 50-year milestone, so she can retire.
Her son, who worked at Jabberwocky as a young man, says the publication of his book feels like a culmination of sorts.
“This is the most special place in the world for me,” he says. “But I do feel a sense of an ending. For both of us, really.”
His next work of fiction, he says, will be set at Burning Man, the unique art and social-experiment festival held each year in the Nevada desert. Its core theme?
Looking for an answer to the meaning of life.
Erik Hoel and Sue Little celebrate the publication of “The Revelations” at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, July 3. For more information: www.jabberwockybookshop.com
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.