"I like to pick sides. I like a book to bleed a little. Even if everything is meaningless, I still want it to hurt." -- Lydia Netzer"Of course working in a porn store taught me about creating nuanced characters, and effective pacing over multiple timelines."-- Lydia Netzer
"Writing is our defense against the abyss. I picture the shelves of a library like fortifications, protecting us and defining us from darkness, swinging clubs and grunts and dullness."-- Lydia Netzer
Okay, now stop reading Lydia Netzer quotes.
Read the Q and A below. Read her debut novel -- SHINE SHINE SHINE.
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Research. We all have to do it. Sometimes it’s delicious, sometimes brutal. Tell us a tale from the research trenches.
Here’s one that seems much weirder in retrospect than it did at the time. I knew that I wanted my main character, Sunny, to be born during a total solar eclipse, and I knew that I wanted her to be nearing the age of thirty at the time of the novel. So I started looking at different eclipses that would have occurred around 30 years ago, and settled on Saros 145, an eclipse in 1981, during which the totality would have been visible from Burma (now Myanmar.) In a way I settled on this setting arbitrarily, but in a way it was geographically dictated by science. Arbitrarily or not, I decided Sunny was born in Burma in 1981 during this eclipse, and after that I had to figure out why her parents were there, how to get them back to the US, and what could happen to them that would cause her father’s mysterious death.
What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?
I am adopted, and was raised in a very non-traditional family. My adopted mother was 62 when I was born. I was privileged with horses and music lessons and travel, but I was always fascinated with “normal” families and would fill notebooks with very boring descriptions of the mundane lives of characters who had mother-and-father families with sister-and-brother problems. The character I wrote most about was named “Liz” and her darkest frustrations involved taming her unruly hair. She had a barn full of horses, and I think once she tripped and landed in a pile of horse manure just as a hot guy was walking by. And that was a major event. The extent to which I would elaborate the boring details of her family’s life is a little psychotic in hindsight. But it genuinely took me a long time, in college, to realize that writing was about igniting conflict, not creating pretty fantasies. Getting to the point where I could write about dark things in my own brain -- that took even longer.
People always talk about the writers they aspired to emulate. I’d love to know the writers you most hated as you were coming up and how those tastes shaped you.
I love a goofy comedy. In fact P.G. Wodehouse is one of my favorite authors, as is Patrick McManus. However I’ve really never liked that sort of bloodless, detached “funny” book full of social criticism that comes across as empty, to me, despite being stylistically maximalist. When I was a kid I tried to read The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and couldn’t get through it. Not because I wasn’t intellectually sophisticated enough -- but because the snide detachment of it upset me. There are three books in my life that I’ve actually thrown into the trash, and that was one of them. I know people love it, and I respect that! But I don’t see the point of watching a game where both teams suck, or looking at politics and saying “They’re all crooks” or writing books where everything is meaningless or symbolic of something meaningless and the point of it all is to illustrate pointlessness. I like to pick sides. I like a book to bleed a little. Even if everything is meaningless, I still want it to hurt.
I’ve been a manure-slinger, a burrito-stuffer, a teacher, a porno video store clerk, a receptionist, a web designer, an advice columnist, and a book doctor. Being a book doctor really shaped me as a writer. I learned something useful from every manuscript I worked on, and seeing the flaws and potential in other people’s novels helped me to look at mine more objectively. It also helped me to trust other people to see my novels better than I do, and to take their advice seriously. Of course working in a porn store taught me about creating nuanced characters, and effective pacing over multiple timelines.
Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who great impact on your writing life?
Well I always like to remember the one guy who told me “Just go out and TRY to get something like this published, and see what happens.” He meant it like “You idiot, you think your nonsensical garbage could ever be marketable? Enjoy your inevitable despair.” But I always found it very motivating.
One of my teachers in graduate school that I am very fond of is Cris Mazza. She used to say to me that reading my fiction was like climbing up the face of a cliff, and that some of my paragraphs felt like falling backward off that cliff. Of course, these were usually my favorite paragraphs. I have learned, though, that pushing my reader backwards off a cliff is not something that I should be doing. I’ve learned to temper those departures, ground them, make them more accessible.
There’s one paragraph in the book that starts like “It is dark inside the body. The things that go on there cannot be seen.” This was definitely a falling backwards off a cliff paragraph, and it’s actually one of the only bits that survived the very first draft. It’s the oldest piece of writing in the book, but it’s been edited and contextualized until now I hope that if you’re still falling backward, at least you feel you have a parachute.
Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.
Writing is our defense against the abyss. I picture the shelves of a library like fortifications, protecting us and defining us from darkness, swinging clubs and grunts and dullness. Or from some swirling vortex of lack. We all need to keep filling those shelves with the best books we can possibly write.
Writing is the ultimate populist activity. Known and unknown, writers are scribbling furiously all up and down the human timeline, trying to figure out history, and document it and describe it in fiction, our best way of communicating. We all have the same bodies, from Homer down to Thomas Hardy, to Hilary Mantel. We all have access to the same vocabulary. The chance to participate in this is monumental effort, and create this wall of culture, where my book has the same dimensions and physicality as Ishiguro’s, the same parts of speech as Desai’s, is staggering. You and I are writing from right now, here today, and I want our corner of the library shelf to be strong.
Lydia Netzer is the author of Shine Shine Shine, an IndieNext Pick and Amazon's Spotlight Book for Best Books of July. She lives in Virginia, homeschools her two children, and enjoys tearing out invasive vines, playing the electric guitar, and reading books.
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