WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Emily! I am very excited to interview you. I really loved your novel, The Lightness, which I encourage everyone to buy many copies of. Before we talk about the book, do you mind talking about yourself as a writer? When did you first begin writing fiction, and what were your first pieces—long, short, anything—like? What helped propel you forward in the literary world?
Emily Temple: I am very happy to be discussing the book with you! And thank you so much for your support of The Lightness.
Like many writers, I started out as a reader—my parents are big readers, so our house was always full of books, and they encouraged me to read and write from an early age. I wrote little stories in the way that lots of kids do—I remember rewriting Aladdinat a very young age, deciding that Princess Jasmine should just run away from both her father and her suitor and go live in the woods with her tiger and live happily ever after. Which in retrospect is pretty on brand.
I started writing fiction a little bit in high school, but I never wanted to call myself a “writer”—I put writers on such a pedestal that it seemed impossible to include myself in that group. Even in college, as I began to take more creative writing classes and workshops, I wouldn’t call myself a writer. I might say “I write stories sometimes,” but that was about it. It wasn’t until I had a job writing for the internet that I had to admit I was technically a professional writer—and it wasn’t until I actually got into grad school that I began to admit I might be a fiction writer too.
Actually, the best thing about getting an MFA for me was that everyone just treats you like a writer for a couple of years; by the end, I was more or less convinced.
MT: Can you tell us about The Lightness? For those not aware, it’s this wonderful novel I’ve decided to describe as Megan Abbott meets Donna Tartt with a heavy dose of Sara Gran’s world building, and written in a language invented by Aimee Bender and Vladimir Nabokov.
ET: The Lightness takes place at a meditation center in the mountains—it’s nicknamed “the Levitation Center” because rumor has it, it’s the only place left in the world where levitation is possible. The narrator, Olivia, is there following her father, who abandoned her a year previous, and while she doesn’t find him there, she does fall in with a group of girls who are determined to make good on the promise of all those rumors and figure out how to levitate.
However, since plot descriptions alone rarely give a real sense of a work of fiction, I’ll also say this: it’s told in a discursive, referential way, pulling in facts, fairy tales, Buddhist traditions, television shows, and Broken Social Scene lyrics, among other things. I wanted the narration to reflect the fact that this is something Olivia has been going over in her mind, again and again, for many years: this was my solution.
MT: What authors were really important during your formative years and which helped shaped you most? I know you love Nabokov—and please elaborate on how you began loving him, if you’d like, as we’d love to hear. I read Despair once to impress a boy, and weirdly (the book, not the boy) reminded me of your novel in ways. What living writers inspire you most, and do you feel there are any authors or books that don’t get enough attention or recognition?
ET: I love Despair. And yes, I love Nabokov in general—I discovered Lolita as a teenager, and I remember being so enchanted by what it was possible to do with language. He’s a writer who you can tell has perfectly calibrated every single sentence, and the result is really astonishing. There’s no laziness. There’s just this thrumming intelligence underneath everything. I remember reading a list of Geoff Dyer’s writing advice long ago, and one of his tips was “Don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov.” Unfortunately, I do not follow that tip.
As far as my formative years—well, it depends how formative you’re talking. I was raised on Maurice Sendak and then later I became obsessed with Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons series, in which Princess Cimorene runs away from her palace to become a dragon’s princess, and absolutely will not allow herself to be rescued. But once I started reading books for adults, I’d definitely say that besides Nabokov, Italo Calvino held the most sway.
The list of living writers who inspire me is miles long and ever-updating, but certainly includes Maggie Nelson, Steven Millhauser, Helen DeWitt, Anne Carson, Renata Adler, N.K. Jemisin, Aimee Bender, Akwaeke Emezi, Diane Cook, Kelly Link, Helen Oyeyemi, Kathryn Davis, Carmen Maria Machado, Amelia Gray, Susan Choi, Jenny Offill, and Raven Leilani, whose forthcoming debut Luster is probably the best book of the year. I could go on. And of course there are so many books and writers who don’t get enough recognition—for instance, why wasn’t everyone climbing all over each other to celebrate Adam Ehrlich Sachs’ The Organs of Sense last year? It was so good, y’all. Why aren’t Susan Steinberg and Renee Gladman and Kathryn Davis and Fleur Jaeggy and Andrés Barba and Mary Robison and Marie Redonnet household names? I mean, I know why, considering who the household names actually are these days, but I still would like to register my complaints.
MT: What is your writing process like? You have a very busy day job, so I can’t imagine you making time for writing, and yet there’s The Lightness. Are you a morning, noon, evening writer? Do you have any particular quirks, or are there things which might ruin an environment or how well your writing is flowing?
ET: I usually write in the morning, in bed if I can get it (if my husband is still asleep, I make do with the couch). I started this book in graduate school, with plenty of free time and open mornings, but I finished it while working at Lit Hub, which meant waking up at 6am every morning to write before going into the office. It has to be quiet; I can’t write to music or television or construction (bird noises are ok). I also wake up on some days and don’t want to write, and I have decided over the years that this is fine. I almost never get anywhere by forcing myself to work. I write on the days when writing feels possible, and when it doesn’t, I let myself off the hook and spend some extra time reading something good.
MT: I remember watching Sabrina the Teenage Witch as a kid, and seeing her levitate in bed as the first sign of her powers. Similarly, in the horror film The Witch (we were just discussing the main actress, I believe), she finally ascends (literally) as a witch at the end of the film (SPOILER, SORRY). What do you think levitation means to women, excluding obvious metaphors? How do you think it plays into where women stand in society today, and what it represents for women in and outside of literature?
ET: I find levitation as a trope really fascinating, because it’s used so often in popular culture, but it’s almost always as a signifier—it’s used as shorthand, primarily for three things: power, control, and ecstasy (sexual, emotional, or otherwise). There aren’t any stories that really revolve around levitation, and it’s almost never used as a plot point—even in The Lightness, the girls are uncomfortably aware of the fact that levitation really shouldn’t be an end in itself. But it is this pervasive sign of something bigger. It’s a kind of visual and emotional shorthand for all of the things that women most want, and have been long prevented from owning.
MT: There’s a great twist at the ending. I won’t spoil that, but when writing the novel, did the twist come first or the novel? Was there a lot of research involved to build up to this twist? It really stunned me (and on my third or fourth reread, in a car with my mom on audio, my mother as well). I’d like to note that as a crime writer, it’s really hard to surprise me, and this novel did that many times over.
ET: Good! And if you’re asking about what I think you’re asking about—it didn’t come until about half way through the process. In early drafts, the book ended in a much different way—a much more expected way. But that was boring, and (hopefully) I fixed it.
MT: There’s a lot of religion and philosophy featured in the novel, and I’m wondering what your connection might be to these things—forms of things, philosophy, etc? If I’d had to write your book (which I couldn’t), I feel this would be one of the hardest parts for me to incorporate, and yet you do so amazingly.
ET: What you’re looking at is a series of connected, hours-long, internet rabbit holes. I feel like I’ve been doing the research for this book my entire life, by simply being curious about the nature of the world, and the nature of our perceptions and our consciousness. As I wrote, I gave myself license to stop anytime I lit on something interesting, or something that I thought might have more to it, and just start looking into it. That took me to quite a number of places, only a few of which are actually in the book at this point.
MT: Did any parts of the book feel personal for you, or did you ever think “I’m totally disconnected from these characters and this story” only to see yourself in the book later? What was the hardest part of the book for you to write?
ET: Here’s the flippant answer: All my high school friends keep asking me who the girls in this novel are based on—everyone wants to be in a novel, I guess—and I keep having to disappoint them, because . . . they’re all me. Or at least they’re all aspects of me. Sorry, guys.
The less flippant answer is this: One of the emotional centers of the novel is that of a girl grappling with religion, but most importantly belief—everyone around her seems so sure (whether in their belief or in their nonbelief), and she never is, and never has been. That’s a very personal thing for me, someone who grew up with Buddhism but was never sure to what degree it would be important in my life. I’m still figuring that out, and writing this book has certainly helped me get closer to the answer. So that was hard to write, and to get right.
MT: I’ve been discussing place in fiction a lot lately, and here we have this phenomenal setting, but outside of the plot, how do you think it plays into the novel? Feel free, if you’d like, to let readers know what the setting is like, and I’d love to know if you think this novel could have happened anywhere else, this story exist in any other place?
ET: Everything in this novel sprang from the setting, which is basically a distorted, elevated version of Karmê Chöling, a meditation center in Vermont that I visited with my family every year for a decade while I was growing up. It was my favorite place in the world, a place that felt filled with magic and possibility and the barest danger; when I started thinking about what kind of novel I would write, I started there.
MT: There’s a lot of blood in this book (don’t worry, I’m not heading down the traditional association with periods and coming of age). The protagonist has a complicated relationship with her parents (blood) and also how the protagonist and her friends use blood to get what they desire. Do you think violence is necessary for a bildungsroman involving young women? I think of The Member of the Wedding, Bastard Out of Carolina,Girls on Fire (by Robin Wasserman), and if you consider her a young woman, definitely Tess of the d’Urbervilles. What are your thoughts on blood (and any sort of violence) in coming of age stories?
Do you think blood, like fire, can be cleansing?
ET: All change is a kind of violence. You have to destroy, or at least maim, what you were before. I’d never make the claim that anything is necessary for any kind of book, but in this book, which is rooting around in magic and desire and old ways, it felt natural. Plus, it can make for a pretty dramatic moment in a story. (Or: “Blood is life, lackbrain,” as Spike would say. “Why do you think we eat it?”)
MT: Your sentences are Nabokov perfection, beautifully written and packing so much into half a line on a page. What’s the importance of a well planned out, perfected sentence? I’ve read the print copy of your book several times, and also the audio, and I think part of the brilliance of your novel is basking in each wonderfully crafted line.
ET: It’s all about the sentences for me. It’s the way I read, so it’s also, naturally, the way I write. I would rather read a novel about nothing in which every sentence made me stop and stare than a novel that made me turn the pages like mad. Once I’ve found out what happens, I never think about the books in that latter category ever again. The books that slay me with language, though—those I think about all the time. I don’t really even like plot. I recognize its uses but I don’t care about it. I’d rather luxuriate in the lines.
MT: What was your favorite part in writing this novel?
ET: Finding connective tissue in places I didn’t expect it.
MT: What do you ultimately hope—even now, especially now—readers will take away from The Lightness? It’s a brilliant book, and there’s a lot to learn from it in so many ways, but what do you truly hope to leave your readers with?
ET: I don’t think about this book—or any books, really—in terms of lessons, or in terms of neat takeaways. I’m sure people will take things away from this book, but when I read, I read for the moment to moment experience, not for the memory. So all I really want is for my readers to experience what I experience when I read my favorite books: tiny, ecstatic thrills of recognition or realization or pleasure as they come across sentences or scenes or moments that speak to them.
MT: Do you have a work in progress? I know you are just releasing The Lightness, but I am already ready for more. Feel free to share anything, if you do have a work in progress, as I’d love to hear more about it.
ET: I’m about halfway through a first draft of a new novel, but I don’t want to say too much! It may or may not be about a woman going blind at the end of the world. We shall see.
MT: Toni Morrison is often credited with saying something along the lines of how we should write the book we have always wanted to read but never found. Do you think The Lightnessfits this description, or is that book still to come?
ET: I think about that idea all the time—and yes, The Lightness fits that description for me, but so does my next project. I hope it will be true for all of my books.
MT: Emily, thank you so much for allowing me to interview you. It’s such a joy to be able to pick your brain. I really hope you’ll let me interview you again in the future, and I cannot wait to read whatever you put out in the world next. If you have any comments, lingering thoughts, or other ideas you want to leave us with, feel free to. Thank you so much again. Everyone, go out and buy The Lightnessnow.
ET: Thank you so much Matthew!