An Interview with Lydia Netzer
Lydia Netzer, author of the award-winning novel, Shine Shine Shine, just published her second novel, How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky. Her latest book, an intelligent and imaginative love story, framed by science, turns the notion of destiny upside down. George Dermont, a free-spirited cosmologist, and Irene Sparks, a no-nonsense scientist meet and immediately fall in love at a banquet held at the Toledo Institute of Astronomy, where they both work. George and Irene's attraction is sudden and strong, but they soon learn that it was not fate that brought them together. Their mothers, who at one time had been best friends and astrologers, planned their coordinated conceptions and births. The two children were raised together as babies, before the two mothers intentionally separated them -- in the hopes that they would reunite later in life as soul mates. Netzer's latest novel is thought-provoking and complex, conjuring up questions about fate, destiny, and love.
One of the most interesting components of this book is its storyline -- it is unusual, and somewhat "out there." In your author's note, you briefly explain how you got the idea for the mapping out of George and Irene's lives. It's a notion that has probably crossed many a mother's mind as her child played with a best friend's child: "Wouldn't it be so great if our children could get married someday and we could be grandparents together?" However, the premise of How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky goes far beyond that. How were you inspired to take this common thought, and turn it into such an amazingly uncommon plot for your book?
Ideas bounce off our heads all day. The world is so interesting and strange, and constantly presents moments and scenes that beg to be included in novels. But even a good idea has to be tortured and tormented a bit in order to make it complex enough to carry the weight of a book. I have a few "tricks" or techniques for taking an idea and spiraling it into something more.
The first is to constantly ask why, and burrow relentlessly into the characters motivations and backstories. Taking my innocent idea about the mothers wanting to be grandparents together, I had to ask why these women would want to do this. And why the children would resent it or embrace it. What kind of person actually does this to her kid, and what secret does this person have that would explain this motivation? Asking why, and being open to odd answers, can take you down under lots of promising ideas: a floating village, a dog with one leg, a broken gate. Why, why, why?
The second thing I do with an idea is to push it to an extreme in different directions, and see what happens. What if instead of just believing in fate, the mothers were astrologers? What if instead of not believing in astrology, their children were actually astronomers? By taking the central conflict, belief versus science, and pushing the characters away from the middle, I got to some interesting settings, like the crystal labyrinth in the swamp, or the Toledo Institute of Astronomy.
The other thing I do, when I'm finding an idea's shape, is to deliberately reverse things and turn things inside out, just to see what will happen. Sometimes I switch dialogue tags on a conversation, or I make an action scene have a counter-intuitive outcome, just to try it on. In the case of this book, I took the expected trope of "girl is a dreamer, boy is a pragmatist" and turned it around so my female character is the skeptic, the realist, the eye-roller, and my male lead is a romantic, a believer, who easily falls in love.
I am pleased that you mention interesting settings because your writing takes your readers to some unique places, and I had made note of that when I was reading. It seems that the Toledo Institute of Astronomy is fictional, am I correct? What made you decide to set this book in Toledo, of all places -- and I'm from Ohio, so I can ask that! If fictionalized, did you visit another institute of astronomy that inspired you?
Also, I want to discuss the crematorium. The details in the scene when George and Irene break in to steal her mother's ashes are quite vivid. You must have visited a crematorium to gather material, yes? What was that like? There are particulars that would have never occurred to someone who hadn't been to such a place. I was surprised (pleasantly) to read about the cleanliness of the interior of the oven, described earnestly, and a bit creepily, as being "...very clean, a brick tube with a trench in the far end to collect the ashes. There were no bits of tooth and bone, no piles of dust in the corner. It all looked very sanitary."
I spent my college years in Bowling Green, Ohio, so Toledo was always "the big city" for us. I was interested in the place as a convergence of I-80 and I-75, and also the Great Black Swamp (now drained) and Lake Erie. I somehow got this idea in my head that the swamp was some kind of modern Mesopotamia, and that Toledo was built on the ruins of ancient Babylon (so I foisted that insanity off onto a character, of course) and was just in general interested in the city. Again: Why? Why do people live there? I remember standing in a club, listening to a band, and the lead singer encouraged us to "Give it up, Toledo!" The pathos of this stuck with me. Like what, exactly, do we have here that you'd like us to give up?
Toledo is a city everyone has heard of, yet it is mysterious enough that you can wonder whether there might actually be a Toledo Institute of Astronomy, a cultural prism, a mecca of learning and light for the world. There is no such place, nor is there (as far as I know) a corresponding concentration of psychics and witches in the surrounding woods. But the odd history of the place -- the canals and the Ohio-Michigan border disputes and the swamp -- worked well for my fictional purposes.
Regarding the crematorium, I have had the experience of having two close family members cremated, so I did my research for this years ago. I've always had a fear of burning up in a fire (no, that doesn't come through in my novels a bit!) and crematoriums have been much on my mind throughout my life. I wanted that button, "If you are alive and being wrongfully cremated, press here!" to come in a portable version, so I could always have one in my pocket. Crematoriums are not gothic or interesting or picturesque. Still when I die, I do hope to be cremated. It scares me, but the alternatives seem worse.
Your first two novels combine science with love and romance. What seems like an unlikely coupling, really isn't -- romance has a lot to do with chemicals and biology. But certainly not everyone can strongly write about both the systematic studies of science and the emotional mysteries of romance in the same novel with such flair. What inspires you to combine these two elements and how to you manage to do so successfully?
I'm a Gemini. What can I say?
Ha! George and Irene's mothers are both astrologists, yet as we touched on earlier, they themselves made a plan to familiarize their children with each other as babies in the hopes that that connection would bring them together later in life. And when George and Irene saw each other again after all those years, they felt a connection, a powerful one. Have you ever met someone who felt so familiar to you that you wondered if you had connected with that person in another time?
Absolutely. I knew when I saw my husband for the first time that I was going to marry him. He was standing on the sidewalk outside my Chicago apartment, and I was standing in the doorway, and I can't even describe what that moment was like without sounding like an unendurable cheeseball. Something inside me just said: He's here. We've been married for seventeen years and I can't imagine life without him. Writing the scene where George and Irene see each other as adults for the first time was really fun. Partly because the cherubs in the carpet move, and partly because someone gets punched in the nose, but also because I gave myself permission to just check my cynicism, roll with the "love at first sight" thing, and see where it went.
Aside from your husband, you have two kids -- and according to your bio, they are homeschooled. Meanwhile, How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky has just been published. You also just published Everybody's Baby, an e-novella, about a couple who turn to Kickstarter to pay for their fertility treatment. How do you make time to write productively with everything going on at home? Do you have any special rituals to get into that necessary creative writing place? And, the big question, how do you shift your mind from thinking about the sometimes mundane tasks associated with family life over to the completely different mindset that goes into writing a sex scene?
Well, to return to your other question, which I answered like a smartass, there's a duality in everyone that we all accept to varying degrees. The least interesting way to frame this is good and evil; I like chaos and order better, or faith and science, town and wilderness, sea captain and whale, etc. I have always been great at compartmentalizing my town and my wilderness -- it's been my m.o. throughout my life. This is what lets me knit booties at a park playdate and then come home and write something horrifying or sexual. These are just compartments, and we all do this. Moms do it, everyone does it.
When the kids were little, it was more difficult. I had to get away from them, like into another state, to write anything sexual. Shine Shine Shine was written with chaste parentheses around the sex scenes, and then I went back and wrote in all of them during a weekend retreat in the mountains in Georgia with my friend Joshilyn Jackson. I got away from my kids, two states away, and within 48 hours those parentheses broke open and it all came roaring out. How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky has more sex in it. This was mostly drafted while away from the kids, but as they get older it's easier for my compartments to be adjacent to each other, if not communicate. Oddly it's the children that mostly bring town and wilderness together, when they ask me questions, for example, after attending our Episcopal church in the morning and then watching Cosmos that night.
There have been times in my life I've thought I should synthesize, and times I pushed for separation. I don't know what the ultimate goal is, but I guess I'm going for "the shark well-governed," Melville-style.
There is an odd stigma surrounding authors who are mothers who write sex scenes -- I am also a mother, and find the same thing to be true as a reader. My biggest complaint about The Night Circus was the blatant sex skip-over. I think the most risqué that book got was a kiss on the neck, yet the two characters were, supposedly, passionately in love. When I stated this at book club, people looked at me like I was a whore. Yet, these are the same people who read Fifty Shades. But, anyway, it is rare to find a well-written contemporary novel that also writes sex well, and I do think that you excel at this. Whatever the ultimate goal is, you have found a good symbiosis.
Yeah, I don't know which is worse -- admitting that you want to read a sex scene in your literary novel, or admitting that you want a romantic storyline in your literary novel. Probably both equally bad, and we should be ashamed of ourselves. I'm kind of finding my way by writing what I would want to read, in the hopes that there are others out there like me.
Abruptly switching topics here -- I do want to touch on Everybody's Baby, and the e-novella concept. What inspired you to publish an e-novella? Do you think it's a format that you will pursue again in the future?
The novella came about because last fall I had this idea for a novel about a couple who funds their fertility treatment on Kickstarter, and then has to pay up on extreme donor perks like naming the baby, cutting the cord, etc. I wrote about 20K words of it and showed it to my agent, and we pitched it with a synopsis to my editor at St. Martin's. She liked the idea and we started discussing this as a possible third novel, to come out in hardback after How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky. It had a love story, mother issues, technology -- seemed right in my wheelhouse. But we were all bothered by the timeline, because that would put publication somewhere in 2016, and who knows what might happen with crowd-sourcing, Kickstarter, and the internet in general, in two years? The whole plot was very right-this-very-moment and it felt right to have it come out this year, when Kickstarter is booming and crowd-sourcing is in the news. So we decided it would be shorter (50K words) and to speed things up that it would come out only in e-book form.
The whole thing was an experiment for me. Writing a book in this compressed time frame, writing a book in first person and present tense, writing a book with this straightforward chronological timeline. It was also really fun writing very current references, knowing that people would be reading the book when these references were still fresh. So I put in Robin Roberts from Good Morning America, and the web site Get Off My Internets, and Jezebel, and referenced Anne Rice raging on the Amazon Kindle boards. It was fun to write something very current, and know that it would be read immediately.
I know that this is the question that authors usually hate to be asked, especially after just having birthed How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky. But, you seem like you are enjoying a prolific time, I can't resist. Do you already have ideas for a future novel? Can we expect to see another published in 2016?
I have four more novels in various stages of production. This is how the Toledo novel came about -- I went and looked in the brain oven and reported on which projects seemed likely as a follow-up to Shine, Shine, Shine and close to being done, and then my agent helped me choose one to pull out and finish. So we've now gazed into the smoky depths of the brain oven again and picked another candidate that seems lined up with the current trajectory, and I'm working on it. I have more to say, more characters to torment, more juxtapositions to explore, and I'm looking forward to this new book a whole lot. It's helping me deal with the anxieties of book launch and promotion -- descending into the new story and looking forward to the day when it too will get a cover, a title, and launch into the world.