fiction

Author Interview: Jill Santopolo, The Light We Lost

The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo is one of the novels I was most looking forward to reading this year. It did not disappoint! Weeks after finishing, I am still thinking about the main characters, Gabe and Lucy, and the larger implications of “following your passion.”


The Light We Lost, by Jill SantopoloMe Before You
meets One Day in this devastatingly romantic debut novel about the enduring power of first love with a shocking, unforgettable ending. A Love Story for a new generation.

He was the first person to inspire her, to move her, to truly understand her. Was he meant to be the last?

Lucy is faced with a life-altering choice. But before she can make her decision, she must start her story—their story—at the very beginning.

I reached out to Jill and she so kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her novel and the writing life. What a thrill to have her here today!


JC: What was your starting point for The Light We Lost? Did you come to this story with the main character, Lucy, in mind? Was it one particular scene? How did you build from there?

JS: The starting point for The Light We Lost was actually an emotional one. I’d just gone through a terrible break-up—the sort that turns your entire life and your entire future upside down—and I was trying to figure out a way to handle all of those emotions. The way I ended up doing it was writing vignettes about another woman who was going through a different break-up than I was. Lucy’s story is not my story, but the emotions she experiences—the anger, the sorrow, the hurt, the betrayal, the love, the hope, the regret—all of those were feelings I was experiencing and that’s where this book started.

JC: Certainly one important theme of the book is light—from carrying a torch to illuminating secrets. For me, another important theme emerged—the choice between trailblazing one’s passion and following a more traditional path. Lucy and Gabe determine that it’s difficult to have two trailblazers in one relationship. They would sort of cancel each other out. Can you speak to this a bit? Was this your initial intention or did it develop while you were writing?

JS: I didn’t initially write the book with that point in mind, but I did know that I wanted Lucy’s career to be important to her, and I wanted her, in the end, not to compromise it for any of the men she was with. I think, especially living in New York City with so many ambitious, driven people, it’s easy to end up in a situation in which one person would have to compromise their career for the success of their partner’s, and I wanted to explore that—and what it means for women, particularly, to make these kinds of choices.

JC: I found Lucy’s emotions to be so rich—layered and complex. Sometimes she was managing conflicting emotions and trying to reconcile the gap between the two. This was made even more poignant because the story spans about fifteen years as we move from Lucy’s college days through marriage, parenthood, and career. Do you have any suggestions for writers about how to create a protagonist with this kind of far-reaching emotional depth? 

JS: Thank you for that! I’m so glad you felt connected to Lucy emotionally. I think the best way to write characters that feel emotionally deep and multi-layered is to create character who, themselves, seem three-dimensional and multi-layered on the page. I always say that when I know a character I’m writing well, I can predict what that character would do in any given situation—I know what makes that character tick, what motivates them, scares them, frustrates them, and what they need to be happy. Once you can do that, I think the emotions just fall into place.

JC: Expanding a bit on the question above, I loved how you were able to create well-rounded characters of the two important men in Lucy’s life—Gabe and Darren. Neither man is all or nothing. Both are supportive but also limiting for her in different ways. So many writers find it challenging to develop supporting characters with such nuance. Can you share how you developed these characters so they didn’t feel like cardboard cut-outs?

JS: I think in the same way that I got to know Lucy, I got to know both men, figuring out what was important to them and what motivated their decisions and actions. Once I did that, the characters started to feel real. And their relationships with Lucy started to feel real, too. I knew from the start that I didn’t want either of them to be perfect, and I wanted to leave room for readers to think about the complexities of love and relationships, not just in The Light We Lost, but in their own lives, too. In creating Darren and Gabe, I wanted to make sure that they each fulfilled a certain need that Lucy had, but that neither of them fulfilled all of her needs and desires.

JC: I’m always interested in learning how other writers protect their time. How do you carve out time to write with all of your other commitments?

JS: This is always the struggle, isn’t it. I’ve found two tricks that help me get writing done: One is literally scheduling writing time in my calendar like any other plan, and then not “canceling” it when something else comes along, and the other is giving myself word count targets each day or each week that I make myself hit, even if it means waking up early or staying up late or writing on the subway as I’m traveling somewhere else. I basically make myself accountable to myself and don’t want to let myself down.

The Light We Lost is available through Amazon, B&NIndieBound or your favorite bookstore near you!


Jill SantopoloJill Santopolo received a BA in English literature from Columbia University and an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s the author of The Light We Lost, an epic love story that will be published in 29 languages in more than a hundred countries across the globe, as well as three children’s and young-adult series–The Sparkle Spa, The Alec Flint Mysteries, and the Follow Your Heart books–and works as the editorial director of Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers group. An adjunct professor in The New School’s MFA program, Jill travels the world to speak about writing and storytelling. She lives in New York City. You can visit her online at www.jillsantopolo.com or follow her on Twitter @jillsantopolo. 


BEFORE YOU GO

  1. If you’ve ever wanted to take an online writing course but weren’t sure which cThe Loft Literary Centerourse was right for you, check out the Summer Sampler at The Loft Literary Center.

Over four weeks, you will get a taste of several online classes, hosted by different teachers (including yours truly!) in different genres. I’ll be teaching a three-day session on descriptive writing. The cost is only $80 (a steal, really), and the program starts June 5. Registration is open now. 

2. Some big changes are going to be happening around these parts, including a new look and more online writing courses. What is scariest for me is moving to a new URL. I’ll be packing up my WordPress.COM bags and heading over to WordPress.ORG. I’ve been here for over seven years! But it’s time to take the plunge. I want to keep you informed when the time comes, so I’ve started a newsletter. I’ll be sharing writing tips, discounts on future class offerings and updates on how the new site is going. I’d love it if you’d sign up. As a thank-you, I’m offering my short editing checklistThis is one of the checklists I use when editing fiction writing. Thanks so much for your support! 

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Great New Books

I think the vast majority of books I’ve read in the past few years have come to my attention through personal recommendations. I rely on their honest opinions to help me select my next read. There are too many great new books to waste time reading bad books.

One site that I have been following since its inception five years ago is Great New Books. This site is a collective of 10 bloggers who take turns recommending a new book every Wednesday. They only review books they love, and, in turn, I have been introduced to many authors and books that otherwise would have escaped my notice. They have lengthened my TBR list considerably.

Today I have the distinct pleasure of offering my recommendation over at Great New Books. This summer novel will whisk you away to an island paradise with a family whose vacation turns out to be something short of bliss. Please join me there for my recommendation and a full archive of other Great New Books!

Why We Read: To Travel

Oh, the places you’ll go. ~Dr. Seuss

My absolute favorite books—fiction or nonfiction—are ones that transport me to another place. James Herriot’s Yorkshire. Ignatius J. Reilly’s New Orleans. Twain’s Mississippi. The authors brought these places to life and we remember them. It’s not only because these stories are classics. I’d venture to say that they are classics partly because they evoke the setting in a captivating way.

Setting is the Goldilocks element of any good story. It should find a nice balance between not too much, not too little, settling on just right. Selecting the right details pulls me into the characters’ world. Most readers want to find common emotional ground with the main character, and that is an important first step. But if I can imagine myself there—hiking the PCT alongside Cheryl Strayed or onboard the Wilhelm Gustloff as it sinks, I will remember specifics about that story for a long time to come.

The location informs the characters. People are not the same everywhere. The weather, landscape, architecture, foods, flora, and fauna all serve to inform the culture. It’s why you might feel comfortable in Amsterdam but not Alaska, Santa Fe, New Mexico but not Santa Fe, Argentina.

Come along as we travel at the invitation of three authors. First, Ann Patchett takes us to the Amazon in State of Wonder. 

9118135At dusk the insects came down in a storm, the hard-shelled and soft-sided, the biting and stinging, the chirping and buzzing and droning, every last one unfolded its paper wings and flew with unimaginable velocity into the eyes and mouths and noses of the only three humans they could find. Easter [the name of a character] slipped back inside his shirt while Dr. Swenson and Marina wrapped their heads like Bedouins in a storm. When it was fully dark only the misguided insects pelted themselves into the people on board while the rest chose to end their lives against the two bright, hot lights on either side of the boat. The night was filled with the relentless ping of their bodies hitting the glass.

 

Next, we stop at a tenement apartment in Brooklyn with eleven-year-old Kim and her mother, freshly arrived from China.

7362158A thick layer of dust covered the small kitchen table and wide sink, which was white and pitted. As I walked, I tried to avoid the brittle bodies of the dead roaches scattered here and there. They were huge, the thick legs delineated by the harsh shadows…

The walls were cracked, bulging in places as if they had swallowed something, and in some spots, the paint layer had flaked off altogether, exposing the bare plaster like flesh under the skin.

Despite its bareness, this room stank of old sweat. In the corner, a double mattress lay on the floor. It had blue and green stripes and was stained. There was also a low coffee table with one leg that didn’t match, on which I would later do my homework, and a dresser that was shedding its lime paint like dandruff. That was all.

I hugged myself with my arms. “Ma, I want to go home,” I said.

Lastly let’s go to Versailles with Alain Baraton, master gardener there for forty years, as he deals with the aftermath of a terrible storm.

18339812Two young beech trees I had recently planted had been among the first to go. They were now smothered under the mass of a fallen cherry tree. My trees, once so orderly and upright, were now tangled and piled up on one another in painful chaos. They lay in agony, their roots naked and suffering, exposed to the air in a position I couldn’t help but find shocking. The laws of nature, which usually seemed so clement and productive, had been swept away in a climactic upheaval that had lasted only a few hours. Another revolution had struck the subjects of Versailles, and those “subjects” (as we often refer to individual trees in French) were going to die. They had been taken away in the space of a night and there was nothing  I could do about it. Deprived of the garden’s protection, the palace itself suddenly seemed fragile.

Heart racing, I headed to Versailles’s botanical treasure chest, the Queen’s Hamlet. The surroundings had changed so dramatically that I had trouble finding my way. Nothing familiar had survived. The trees that once guided visitors through the garden were unrecognizable. Some of them lay on the ground; others had been displaced or crushed by their neighbors. Even the road was gone. In its place lay a field of mud where my boots sank to the calf.

 

Have books brought you to any memorable places recently?

Writers: I will be teaching an online seminar on setting and description this fall. More details to come soon. 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

 

Why We Read: To Have Fun

Sometimes I don’t want a deep, thought-provoking read. Sometimes I don’t want to be challenged or need to research historical background. I just want to open the cover and enjoy.

Also, the onset of warmer weather encourages me to pick lighter subject matter. Sweeping epics like All the Light We Cannot See and Station Eleven feel stout, like a hearty bowl of stew. Good for curling up under a blanket on a winter’s day when the sun sets at 4:30. In the summer, I tend to gravitate toward the literary equivalent of flip-flops.

I recently read two books that were just plain fun. Just because these novels are entertaining doesn’t mean they don’t have well-rounded characters and an engaging plot. These books won’t ask a lot of you. They probably won’t change your worldview or evoke sympathy for others’ plights. You might not think about the characters long after you close the cover, but they will put a smile on your face.

16071745Someday, Someday, Maybe, by Lauren Graham

If you want to get yourself geared up for The Gilmore Girls episodes later this year, this will do the trick. Someday, Someday, Maybe feels like Bridget Jones meets The Gilmore Girls. It’s a new adult story of young Franny trying to land her first real gig as an actress in 1995 NYC. (A thinly veiled autobiography of Lauren Graham’s experience?) There’s plenty of witty banter, clever lines, and twenty-something angst.

We know how things are going to turn out for Franny, and in that respect, there isn’t much surprising about the story itself. There are no twists, turns or dark dealings. It’s a straight-forward tale about a time in our lives when we’re unsure of what is supposed to happen next, when all of life feels like a secret and we don’t know quite which way is up.  I listened to this as an audio book, which was the right call. Lauren Graham reads the story, and she’s perfect of course.

13538873Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

Let me say that I have an unnatural attachment to novels about bookstores and libraries. I enjoyed The Storied Life of AJ Fikry and The Little Paris Bookshop. So I had a feeling I would like Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, but I didn’t know how much!

There is a secret society, high-tech whiz kids, special fonts (yes, I said fonts), and a budding romance. The story is always moving forward, weaving an interesting group of twenty-somethings that circulate around the main character, Clay. I think it’s safe to say that Clay has a lot of “just right” connections—far more than I had at his age—which all fall into place perfectly. He knows how to get his friends on board to help him solve the curious situation he finds himself in since he started working at Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore.

Robin Sloan did a nice job of describing these disparate worlds—the high tech Google cohort and the secret society members who surround themselves in ancient texts clad in flowing black robes. If you pick up a “carbon-based copy” (as Alice in A Window Opens calls paper books), you’re in for a fun treat: the cover glows in the dark!


I’d like to recommend one more read centering around twenty-somethings, though maybe not as light-hearted as the books mentioned above. It’s a short story by yours truly, published this week at The Cortland Review. “A Seductive Shortcut” is a modern retelling of an Aaron Copland composition. It takes place at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, and, yes, an Elvis tribute artist makes an appearance. I hope you enjoy it!

It was two a.m. They’d been up for nearly twenty-four hours. Married for four. Yet they stood at the edge of the lake, unable to tear themselves away and go into the hotel where one of those fancy high roller-rooms was waiting for them. Brian had booked it a few days ago when he’d had an inkling of this plan.

Can you recommend any fun reads?

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Authorial Intrusion: Pantser vs. Plotter

Plotter |ˈplätər| noun: 1. Someone who makes plans; a writer who maps out her story before she begins. 2. A sensible, logical person.

Pantser |pants*er| noun: 1. A person who works by the seat of her pants, esp. a writer. 2. Said person who writes dozens, maybe hundreds, of pages only to delete them. 3. Someone who will, in the wee small hours of the morning, weep into her computer keyboard because she realizes this %^&@ story is boring, the characters have no purpose, and the plot is going nowhere.

 

I confess. I am a pantser. I know. I can hear all you plotters out there. Life is easier when you’re a plotter. If you’re a plotter, the story would have a road map, a rough outline. You can avoid writing your characters into a metaphorical corner, where the only way out is to dump hundreds (yes, hundreds) of pages. When you’re stuck, you can go back to your outline and get unstuck. You know What Happens Next. I know all this. It’s exactly what I tell my writing students.

Yet something kept me from writing an outline. In the first flush of excitement for a new story, I don’t want to pull momentum away from development.  I like having the spark of an idea and exploring, seeing what the story is about, who the characters are. It unfolds for me as it appears on the page. There’s something magical in that.

Plotting uses a different part of the brain. It’s like fitting puzzle pieces together or playing a game of Tetris. It requires focus and planning. Plotting feels like someone asking me what I want for dinner next Tuesday.

Some authors are devoted plotters. John Grisham: “I’ve learned that the more time I spend on the outline, the easier the book is to write.”   Katherine Anne Porter: “If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last line, my last paragraph, my last page first.” And this is what J.K. Rowling calls her “basic plot outline.” I’m starting to get hives.

jk-rowlings-phoenix-plot-outline

J.K. Rowling’s outline for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, chapters 13-24

But I understand that you can’t write a series of books as complex as Harry Potter without keeping track of the subplots and characters’ relationships to each other, and I also get that suspense/thrillers like the ones Grisham writes need to have a certain plot progression. Outlines help with both of those things.

A few months ago, I gave it a shot. I had come to a point in my novel in progress that I needed to know how the main conflict was going to play out so I could start leading my characters there. I went old school and did the whole Roman numeral style thing with little indentations and everything. It was a long, tedious mess. If the characters could come to life from the page, even they would complain how bored they were.

Fast forward to last week. I had to write a novel synopsis for a workshop I’ll be attending this summer. I wrote a paragraph and a (muse/bolt of lightning/demi-god) gave me some inspiration to keep writing. Before I knew it, I was writing an outline. But it didn’t look like an outline, it was a stream-of-consciousness, free-form paragraph that went on for a page.

It needs some tinkering and a change of focus, but now I have a much better idea of where the story is going and how to get my characters from point A to point B. Dare I say it, I am now officially a plotter.

Let me know if you outline. I’d love some suggestions. 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

The Loft A little plug: I’ll be teaching my popular creative writing class this summer through The Loft Literary Center, beginning June 15. It’s eight weeks, all online.