Erika Swyler - The Interview
Nedda Papas’s story begins in space, but with the sounds of Earth around her. It then goes down to the hood of a car, beneath the stars, she and her dad staring up at all those lights.
In Light From Other Stars Erika Swyler takes you out and away from the Earth, onboard a space station where life is cramped and difficult. She also shows us Nedda’s hometown of Easter, Florida, which becomes just as cramped and as difficult as any space station.
The dream of space travel is braided through this story, carrying along all the thrills and dangers, “what-ifs” becoming “what nows?”, a tale of science, with familiar faces. You’ll hear and see people you know, or knew, and think about what that difference means.
Ms. Swyler chatted with me via e-mail about the dedication of her book; themes throughout the story; her writing and editing process; and also examined some of her characters’ psyches/decisions a little. There is one question which I put behind a spoiler link, so you can only read it by clicking through. I suggest reading the book first.
This book quickly hit my favorite reads of the year list. I’m positive I’ll revisit it at some point. The clock is ticking down until I do.
Ledger: The book’s dedication is to both Hubble Space Telescope, and teachers who weren’t the kindest. While not officially part of the narrative, there's a big connection between the dedication and the story itself, which showcases how educators influence our lives. What teachers had an impact on your writing in general, and this book in particular (including but not limited to the mean teachers)?
Erika Swyler: I don’t see those teachers as having been particularly unkind, just boxed in. The incident the dedication refers to was my first real encounter with sexism and the gendering of interest, so it’s stuck with me and has influenced me in ways even I don’t fully realize. As a kid, I had no idea that interest in the sciences was something that wasn’t coded as female. Those teachers likely didn’t realize they were acting from a place of sexism, internalized or otherwise. We think of sexism as being this overt thing, but often it’s subtle and it takes time and space to realize when it’s at work. That was much of the driving force behind writing Light From Other Stars. I wanted to pick that gendering apart. Oddly enough, two of my theater professors had and still have enormous influence over how I approach writing. My self-scripting professor, Rosemary Quinn, helped me realize that my perspective was unique and valuable. She really taught me how to put raw ideas on the page, and what my authorial voice sounded like. Steve Wangh, who I took a scene study class with, taught emotions in a way I haven’t seen talked about in discussions about craft. I remember him saying, “Laughter is just a thin layer of ice over a lake of tears.” Every time I write I think about that, and how no emotion is ever pure and no action exists in isolation. Theater school taught me to think and write about character and plot in layers.
Ledger: My privileges essentially handed me any interest I could choose, obviously other than the “female” ones, which would have been socially unacceptable in the late 80s and all through the 90s. I lucked into having a mom who made it obvious I could enjoy anything I chose (she taught me to knit), and it really is a massive deal to find that out early in life.
I enjoyed how you introduced Betheen, and loved the narrative showing her as a baker, then finding out she’s a brilliant freaking scientist, and happens to also bake (using science). It reminded me of Ursula K Le Guin speaking about not mentioning an aspect of a character until later, when readers are further into the story (New Yorker). Not that I think that was your explicit goal, but the “standard” gender roles of scientist and baker being subverted didn’t go unnoticed.
Erika Swyler: I’m so glad that came through. I’m always afraid of being too subtle or hitting people over the head with an idea so hard that it turns them off. What I wanted to play with was the sad truth that whenever women adopt something, society devalues whatever that thing may be, be it the chemistry involved in baking, or the act of parenting. There are even divides within the sciences. Think of what we call "hard" sciences and "soft" sciences and which genders we think of as participating in each.
Ledger: Your pacing utilizes chapter breaks, but also very character-centric moments for plot revelations. What was your editing process like to refine that pacing? How many drafts were there?
Erika Swyler: I’m a non-linear writer, so there were a ton of drafts, but most were only partial. I want to say there were about six complete drafts before the final product, but that’s not counting all the times I’d write and rewrite hundred-page chunks. Those aren’t drafts; they’re just work, you know? I’d like to work straight through on a book, but I don’t think that’s in the cards. I tend to write endings before figuring out the middle. As for pacing, I dislike the word “vignette,” but parts of this book needed to be that to show what was happening with time in the larger world. The ugly truth about pacing a novel is that it’s totally tied to structure. They might as well be the same thing. Figuring out pacing was figuring out how much a reader could tolerate being pulled around, when they’d need a break from being in 1986, when would make sense to pull back and look at the town. Some of it is math. If it’s been ten-thousand words since a setting change, I feel like I’ve spent too long in a place and I need to switch to keep the story fresh. Obviously, there’s art to it too; I think about pacing like music, a long passage is sometimes best complemented with a short burst of something different. The same thing goes for how much time I spend sitting on a character’s shoulder and reading their thoughts, versus pulling back and writing a full panning overhead of movement in a town. Pacing is often less about the timing of plot events than it is about controlling the reader’s distance from the text.
Ledger: I’m also not a fan of “vignette” as a word. I think novels - or any kind of written narrative - which showcases multiple people all experiencing the same story gets that word hung on it too often. Hopping around in Light From Other Stars, seeing from multiple perspectives helped to populate the town with more than just names.
And I appreciate you talking about writing and re-writing hundred-page chunks. I think it’s not discussed often enough how totally wild and random it can feel to put together a longer narrative.
Erika Swyler: It’s such a sloppy nonsensical process! And writing never feels done. I was chatting with a friend the other day about how a book you’ve written never feels like an actual book because it’s impossible to separate the story from the work you’ve put in. Even when I’m holding the hardback in my hand I think, “What a weird collection of scenes I should probably still edit.”
Ledger: The biggest theme, I believe, is the act of missing something, both a sense of longing, and the lack of knowledge. I’d rather not be too specific here for spoilers' sake, but how much of those thematic plot points existed as you began - either as an outline or even a beat sheet - and how much had to be added in after a draft was complete? Also relevant here, do you see that theme in the story?
Erika Swyler: Theme doesn’t come about for me until I’m a good way into a book. I don’t know what’s eating at me as a writer until I see the kind of world I’m building and what problems it’s picking at. Themes really take shape during revision and editing. I guess by draft three I might be able to explain the book to someone. With Light From Other Stars, I knew I wanted to write about people reaching for each other and missing, but that was it. When I figured out that I’d be writing from the perspective of a young girl, it opened the door to different types of longing. Kids and adults approach yearning from wildly different places—that’s worth a book in and of itself. So, it started to grow into a story about people trying to “fix” longing. But most of that doesn’t come out until I have one draft in front of me and I have an idea of what I’m working with. I started this by thinking I was going to write about fathers and daughters, science, and how we each experience time. That was it. Those were the beats.
Ledger: Betheen and Nedda’s relationship is central to the story, though perhaps not more so than Theo and Nedda. Your 2015 NYT essay Walking Home details your strong connection to your mother, so I can only imagine portions of this novel were very emotional to write. You even explore the science behind Postpartum Depression at one point. A handful of pages later, this line comes along:
“You did science when you were scared because the more you understood something, the less afraid of it you’d be. You did things you were afraid of when it was for a good reason.”
Do you think Betheen would have said she was scared of motherhood?
Erika Swyler: I don’t think Betheen was frightened of motherhood until faced with it, which is common. For her the fear may at first have been having sacrificed her career for a chance at motherhood that might not even happen. That’s a common experience. What American culture pumps out about the ideal of motherhood is by and large a lie. For so many people, motherhood can’t happen, and though that isn’t a failure, women are made to feel as though it is one. And motherhood itself is horribly misrepresented. No first-time parent, no matter how much they’ve read or how many other parents they know, is ever prepared for the reality of suddenly having an entire other person to keep alive, a person who is dependent upon you for everything. It’s shocking for people who’ve been told that this is the pinnacle of what their lives are supposed to be. It’s also common to not fall instantly in love with a child the second it’s born. But you’d never know that from every piece of media we’ve ever seen about motherhood. I think for Betheen the most frightening thing about motherhood was how different it was from everything she’d read or been told. This too is a form of sexism, by the way. By saying that there is a single ideal experience of motherhood, any woman who does not experience it that way can’t help but view herself as somehow broken. That’s terrifying.
Ledger: Related to that last question: The book showcases science being done amidst crushing defeats, and even the knowledge of certain death, or at least the great risk of death. Did you get to speak with anyone at NASA or Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for your research? If so, did they speak with you about this aspect of their or their colleagues’ work?
Also, what kind of scientist does it take to agree not only to a dedicated life of learning, of pushing past perceived limitations in the sciences - but in the case of space travel, the quite high probability of dying prematurely?
Erika Swyler: NASA and JPL are extraordinary in that they’re incredibly open and accessible. I started going to Comic-Con in San Diego a few years back and was stunned to realized that astronauts and scientists from JPL were there giving panels every year. They’d talk about the Mars project, theories they were working on, what daily life on the space station is actually like. Kjell Lindgren spoke a lot about practicalities that made it all feel very approachable, like wrapping food in tortillas. All of that was enormously helpful to research. No one spoke specifically about the great risk of death, but it’s something that’s sort of lingering in the background. I think the best example of that sense of risk, legacy, and noble pursuit is in Leland Melvin’s story “A Moment of Silence,” and Michael Massimo’s more humorous “A View of the Earth,” on TheMoth.org. They’re deeply inspiring. Along those lines, the kind of person who pursues science that requires extreme personal sacrifice, even death, is an extraordinarily hopeful person. They’re hopeful in the sense that they’re thinking about how to lead a life of meaning, and hopeful in the sense that they believe that their work is impactful.
Ledger: This year is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the moon. Recently Jill Lepore reviewed several books about the mission, and spoke on the NYT Book Review podcast. Although it’s an era looked back on in fondness for many, Lepore spoke of the political and social aspects of the Apollo missions. Is the space travel we see in Light From Other Stars a result of politics? Do you think space travel will always be politicized?
Erika Swyler: There’s no form of human exploration, movement, or migration, that isn’t somehow political. That’s been true in the past and it will continue to be in the future. We tend to think of political as meaning “bad,” and politicization often is objectively harmful, but it doesn’t have to be. Any viable project for human exploration of other planets will be a multi-national effort. That’s a given because of the scale of the science, funding, and physical logistics involved. Multiple governments and different cultural ideals at work on a common goal has the potential to be of great global benefit. That’s political. I’m concerned about how we approach eventual inevitable colonization, though. As a species, we don’t have a great history with it. But again, I don’t view that as a political problem so much as I view it as something that’s inherent in our species.
Ledger: There’s undoubtedly a hopeful tone to the novel, despite the book prominently featuring multiple disasters, some very well-known. There is the Challenger explosion in 1986, along with the space station named after Kalpana Chawla, who was aboard the Discovery when it disintegrated re-entering Earth’s atmosphere in 1997. Do you think Theo, Betheen, or Nedda would consider science the search for knowledge at any cost?
Erika Swyler: All three have certainly weighed the value of science and learning against personal loss. I don’t think they view it as the pursuit of knowledge at any cost, no. It’s more that they’re people who are willing to accept a higher amount of personal sacrifice than maybe others would. For them, the potential for hope that the act of discovery allows outweighs their loss. It gets trickier when their choices involve much larger consequences than just the personal. I think Betheen and Nedda both have a good handle on the size and scale of their scientific pursuits as compared to potential fallout. Theo doesn’t have as firm a grasp on the interconnectedness of his work and its actual reach, and that’s where problems arise.
**Unless you’ve read the novel, or don’t care about spoilers, don’t click HERE** You can continue reading otherwise.
Ledger: Do you consider this book science-fiction? Its presentation seems to contradict that classification, but only because of industry “standards” and “trends” when it comes to genre, the cover the most prominent example. Is the publishing industry beholden to genre because readers are, or is it a marketing tool with some positive aspects? Both? Neither?
Erika Swyler: It's definitely science fiction, but it’s definitely literary fiction. It’s also definitely magical realism. And definitely a family saga. Genre designation is entirely a marketing tool that, to be brutally honest, is harmful to the publishing industry as a whole, readers, and booksellers. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could just let books be the weird things that they want to be? We’d get a much more interesting body of literature. Genre designation works nicely for algorithms but it narrows the variety of books that readers access, which ends up stunting culture. People have been denying themselves the pleasure of books because they’ve been told they don’t like, or shouldn’t like certain genres. It’s a disservice done in the name of increasing sales. Genre is a handy tool for sales and shelving that has little to do with what went into the writing. Covers are also a way of dictating without words who should and shouldn’t pick up a book, which is again, ridiculous. My only request is usually that a cover not feature a headless woman, because I find that pretty insulting to women readers. Sometimes that request happens, sometimes it doesn’t. I think the goal for the design of this book was to walk the line between genre categories so as to invite in as wide a range of readers as possible. My thought is that it’s for literary fiction readers who don’t yet know they love science fiction, and it’s for science fiction readers who don’t yet know they love literary fiction. And it is those things. Those readers are out there and they’ve been fenced in by false categories for too many years.
Ledger: And finally, because I love finding new stories, what are some of your recent favorite books, short stories, movies...?
Erika Swyler: I really enjoyed The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow, which is coming out in September. I’m currently reading Jess Kidd’s upcoming novel, Things In Jars, which is macabre and also hilarious—an unusual mix I wish more novelists played with. Jesse Ball’s Census was so good that I think it made me start writing a book, which is a feat. The last movie I saw was Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Though it didn’t have quite the joy of the Toho movies I loved growing up (CGI Godzilla can never be better than rubber suit Godzilla), it was still fun and Godzilla and Mothra are relationship goals for the rest of us.
Thank you to Erika Swyler for chatting via email and answering questions for Ledger. Please read her work if any of this sounds like you may enjoy it. She’s on Twitter @ErikaSwyler and her personal website is here. Never be afraid to let me know what you thought of the interview at @LedgerBooks or @austinRwilson on Twitter, or the About page up there at the top of this site.