Because I'm a book critic, I get a lot of galleys. I try to read at least a little bit of everything, and my test is whether I become obsessed. When I got Shine Shine Shine, I missed my subway stop. I read on the street. I wanted to corner people and urge them to get this book. It's coming July 17th, but if I were you, I'd preorder it NOW. About love, robots, the moon, and the ways our differences define us, this is one of my favorite books of the year. I immediately tracked down Lydia Netzer, the author, to get her to come on my blog. I'm thrilled to have her here. Thank you, Lydia. Now hurry and write another book so I can read it.
What was the spark that started this book?
When I started this novel I had just gotten pregnant with my first child. I was paralyzed with fear that I was too weird, too self-absorbed, too unskilled to have a child, and that whatever baby had the bad luck to be born of my uterus would be permanently scarred by my failings. To put it simply, I didn't think I was good enough to be a mother. I know now that I'm not the only person who ever had thoughts like this, but at the time it seemed like all my contemporaries were gliding along, knowing how to perfectly cook fish, organizing gardens, making sound parenting decisions, folding diapers into origami. I remember a friend with daughters explaining how she'd told her misbehaving girls, "This is not how little ladies of the realm comport themselves!" Looking back, it's a cute thing to say, but not so shatteringly brilliant -- just using a princess metaphor to explain to girls how to be polite. But at the time it struck me as impossibly wise and insightful, something that I could never attain. I imagined myself trying to talk to a child, and it coming out like "TAKE NAPKIN. NOT CROSS STREET. WIRE DANGEROUS" or whatever. I wanted to write about this sickening self doubt that I felt, looking at myself in this completely new way, through the lens of motherhood, and finding everything that I'd previously liked about myself was now a potential danger to my child.
I started the book to explore these transitions that women make, from single girl to married person, married person to mom, to grandmother, etc. That was the spark. My first child is now 12, and the book has been through many drafts.
Were you always a writer?
I have always been writing, since I was a little girl. I used to fill up notebooks with very dull stories about perfect families with stables full of horses. I spent a lot of time elaborating details of their daily lives, with the only conflict being these tiny mishaps like a spilled manure bucket or a torn dress. I was born in unusual circumstances and ended up legally adopted by my maternal grandmother, who became my mother. I think these stories were sort of fantasies for me. The most mundane of conversations between a regular mom and dad was a real frontier in my brain, or the most trivial of sibling interactions was a highly experimental topic for me, and endlessly fascinating. I would be really embarrassed to look back on any of that writing now!
What's your writing process like?
I'm a binge writer. I am a homeschooling mom, so I don't have much time without the children. Creating the mental space that it takes to write requires a level of compartmentalizing that I'm sometimes unable to achieve for weeks at a time. I tend to "stew pot" my book a lot -- thinking about it in the car, before sleeping, while reading other books or waiting at karate class or whatever. I think and wrestle and juxtapose and wrangle. Then I will draft thousands of words at a time, and lose a few days to my novel. Sometimes I have gone away from the children entirely, taking to the mountains or beach with Joshilyn Jackson for a real writing binge. Sometimes I just mentally retreat, like during Nanowrimo, when I allow myself to bring the novel around to the front of my brain, and let the children eat more takeout, and run a bit wild. It's a struggle, like it is for all moms who write, and in a way I wish I had more freedom. However, the children are wonderful and the way they involve me in the community and drag me out into the light and force me to engage with people -- this is a good thing. I have no idea what I will do when the children are gone and I'm allowed to be a weirdo writer full time. I will probably go completely insane. I'll need to foster baby deer or something.
Do you outline at all? Did you know what was going to happen at the end or did it surprise you?
The book surprised me a few times, during the course of the long process of writing it. Originally there were three sisters instead of just Sunny and three husbands instead of just Maxon. Maxon's name was Murray and Sunny's name was Kate. Originally, she was not bald and the mother lived in Virginia in a luxurious brownstone and did not die. I do not use an outline. My process seems to be to write a draft, throw it out, despair, write another draft, salvage something from it, get hopeful, write more, give up, throw it all out, start over, etc. It takes forever but fortunately I've got a few books cooking like this, so it won't take another dozen years before I'm able to produce something else. I hope.
I found the book so incredibly magical--and moving, especially in its core idea of what constitutes normal, how do we belong to a society or to each other, or even to ourselves, and why we should celebrate the differences. Can you speak a bit about that, please?
I love weirdos. And deep down, we're all weirdos. There are those who are more skilled at social camouflage, and our concept of "normal" I think arises from a landscape created by these socially skilled creatures. The rest of us try with varying levels of commitment and success to fit into that. But even the ones who are so normal that they almost seem to disappear into the concept they've created -- they've got secrets, they've got dark places, they've got lunacies. I have always sought out friends who are outside the norm -- maybe crazy, maybe brilliant -- just rogues in some way. I married a man who is very eccentric. My best friends are all, on some level, nuts. When I became a mother, and surveyed that serene landscape of "motherhood," populated as it was by silver minivans, women in twinsets, church bumper stickers, it seemed intimidatingly perfect and therefore sort of uninteresting. How could I succeed as a mother when I was so odd and everyone else was so normal, and did I even want to? The answer, of course, was to question my premises. From a distance, that homogeneous landscape was impossibly normal. From close up, however, the normalcy dissolves into specifics, and those specific people are all fascinating, all unusual, all satisfyingly crazy. Mark Twain said: "When we remember that we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life is explained." What a relief! We are all mad ! Rip your wig off!
Can you talk about your next book at all?
My next book is also a love story with elements of science. No robots this time! Black holes instead. I'm writing now what is essentially the third draft of this book, the first draft of it in its current shape. I started it in 2003, so these "new" characters, George and Irene, have been with me almost as long as Sunny and Maxon have. As I write their story while writing *about* Sunny and Maxon's story, there's sort of a battle for supremacy going on in my head! Of course, I love them all.
What's obsessing you now--and why?
Book-wise, it's Robert Goolrick and Ron Rash. Music-wise, it's Missy Higgins and I Blame Coco. Brain-wise, the philosophy of astrology in general, and the ancient Babylonian concept of symmetry specifically. Body-wise, it's gardening. I think I like gardening so much right now because it's giving me this illusion of control and accomplishment. Launching a book is scary, and there are so many elements that I can't do anything about. I can, however, pull up all the weeds, transplant a fern, prune a rosebush. The irony is that I've chosen gardening to represent the thing I can absolutely control -- when I can actually do nothing about the weather, the surprising contents of soil, the mysterious blights, the birds and squirrels, and a million other variables.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
I think you could ask if Maxon is going to be okay. I know what my answer would be, even though it might be a lie. I love Maxon like I may never love another character I find to write about. I need to believe, for myself, that Maxon will be fine, and do great, and find absolute happiness, and never have another trouble. But when I think about his future, and what I imagine it to be, it all becomes a little gauzy and unrealistic. And I question whether I'm being absolutely fair, or honest with myself. That makes me worry about him. Of course, in Maxon's case, I'm the writer, and I can make it be whatever I want. So if you ask me, what's going to happen to Maxon? Is Maxon okay? I will definitely answer: Maxon is fine. He is fine, fine, fine. But I do think it's a question that needs to be asked. I just may not be the best person to answer it.