Tuesday, May 9, 2017
An epic love story that begins on 9/11, the meaning of love and how it changes, writing and more. Jill Santopolo talks about THE LIGHT WE LOST
Lucy and Gabe meet on the morning of 9/11, and through the years, come together and apart in a moving, insightful epic love story, which is also a debut, The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo.
Jill 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 three children’s and young-adult series 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.
I'm ridiculously thrilled to have you here, Jill. Thank you so much1
What was the backstory for The Light We Lost? I always think authors are somehow haunted into writing their books. And what is it like for you to be a debut author?
I love the idea of writers being haunted into putting their stories on paper. I don’t know if I was quite haunted into writing The Light We Lost as much as I cried my way into it. This book exists because of a horrible break-up, which is a bit of a sad backstory for a novel. I’d been writing books for children up until that point, but what I was experiencing couldn’t really be explored in children’s literature, so I started writing vignettes for an adult audience, about a woman who has her heart broken and what happens afterward. Those vignettes eventually became a novel. (And I eventually stopped crying.)
But while that was the spark that ignited The Light We Lost, it took me four years to write this story, and it morphed and changed along the way. While I’m not Lucy and my story’s not hers, the things she thinks about: love, loss, ambition, regret, desire—those are all things I was wondering about in the years during which I wrote this book.
And as far as being a debut author—it’s been incredible! The Light We Lost is actually my fifteenth book (I’ve written fourteen books for young readers), but this is my debut for an adult audience, and I feel like I’ve entered a different world. The Light We Lost is being translated into more than thirty languages, it’s gotten incredible advanced praise (thank you for your blurb!), and one review has come in so far, and it was starred. This all has been making me think that perhaps I should’ve been writing for adults all along.
So much of The Light We Lost is about first love--the power of it, how we never forget who we were when we had that love. But do we stay the same in that love?
That’s such an interesting question. I have cousins who first met and fell in love in junior high school and then married and stayed together for decades. In observing them, my guess is that the love grows and matures as people do, and hopefully as people who are in a relationship change, they grow together and not apart.
In The Light We Lost I think that there are things about Lucy and Gabe and the way they interact with each other that do stay the same in the thirteen years that they know each other. But at the same time, they change as people, they both grow up a bit, and that maturity informs how they act toward each other and the choices they make.
9/11 also figures in the book, changing your characters. How were you yourself changed by the force of that event?
Just like Lucy and Gabe, I was in my last year of college in New York City when the towers fell. And I think it made me realize in a deep, powerful way how a life can change—or end—in the blink of an eye. That none of us know how long we have on Earth, and that we should strive to live the lives we want and be the people we want to be, because there may not be a later.
What kind of writer are you? Do you map things out? Have rituals?
I do map things out. A friend had told me about the computer program Scrivener just as I decided to try to turn those vignettes into a novel, and I think that program is part of what made the writing of The Light We Lost possible. I could use the outlining function to synopsize every vignette that I knew I wanted to write, and then could move them around if they ended up feeling like they were in the wrong place.
I don’t have rituals, but I do give myself deadlines—word count deadlines—that I have to hit each week. Because writing isn’t my only job, I try to be very disciplined about my writing time and my productivity.
What's obsessing you now and why?
The concept of “alternative facts” and the way that the truth no longer seems unassailable. I keep trying to puzzle through how we can find a common ground as a country, but if we can’t even agree that facts are facts, I’m just not sure how we do it.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
Hm. I think you asked all the best ones. The only other one I can think of that people have asked and I’ve found interesting to answer is what I’ve learned from the writing and publication of this book, and I think the answer to that is how universal love is. When we fall in love or have our hearts broken, those experiences feel so personal, but now that people have read early copies of The Light We Lost, so many readers have been telling me that they dated someone just like Gabe, or married someone just like Darren, or felt the same way about their children that Lucy feels about hers. Maybe that’s actually the answer to what I’m obsessing about right now—to somehow use the universal feelings we all have about the people we love to connect in a larger way. Perhaps love does make the world go ‘round?