By Leslie Lindsay
Shivers of wonder, a coming-of-age tale of science-fiction, that is at once introspective and speculative, LIGHT FROM OTHER STARS will transform and mesmerize.
From the bestselling author of THE BOOK OF SPECULATION (2015), I was intrigued to dive into Erika Swyler’s second book, LIGHT FROM OTHER STARS (May 7 2019). Delightfully imaginative, and not quite like anything I’ve read before, this is the story of Nedda Pappas, her love of science, space, her father, and so much more.
Set in dual-time periods, 1986 and some not-so-distant future, LIGHT FROM OTHER STARS is a literary slant on science fiction. Nedda is 11 years old in 1986, when the Challenger erupts and her beloved astronaut hero, Judy Resick becomes carbon, atoms, dust…she can barely go on. What happened to those astronauts? Are they still ‘out there,’ have they become light and energy and warmth? Nedda loves her father, a laid-off NASA scientist fiercely. But her father is struggling with his own demons, a secret he and Nedda’s mother chose to keep from Nedda.
Nedda has a best friend, Denny, a mother whom she doesn’t entirely connect with, and a dream to be an astronaut. Yet, she has so many questions and worries and concerns. Why is her father so intent on keeping her young? And what is this secret? Nedda eventually becomes the astronaut she always wanted to be–and a good piece of LIGHT FROM OTHER STARS is set in the future, on a space shuttle, on an unnamed planet.
“Grand in scope and graceful in execution, Swyler’s latest is at once a wistfully nostalgic coming-of-age tale and a profound work of horror-tinged science fiction.”
The writing is poetic, insightful, and reflective, bringing up big issues about transformation, space-time travel, childhood, parent-child relationships, even environmentalism. There’s truly something for everyone in this incredibly ambitious and well-researched, deliciously written novel.
Please join me in welcoming Erika Swyler back to the author interview series.
Erika, I am so taken with the departure of sorts you’ve made from your first book, THE BOOK OF SPECULATION to this one, LIGHT FROM OTHER STARS. Both are gorgeously written, but your first is more ‘ancient,’ that is, it deals with an old book, a traveling circus, the ocean, a librarian, a family curse…and LIGHT FROM OTHER STARS is about space, astronauts, orange groves, but there’s also family. One we create and one we are given. Can you talk about your inspiration for LIGHT FROM OTHER STARS?
I think most of my writing is focused on figuring out where we’ve come from and where we’re going. To me, this book doesn’t feel like a departure, but I understand readers might find the shape it takes to be wildly different. Still, both books hinge on the idea that people often do terrible things out of love. I also see science and the arts as being inextricably intertwined, so again, I think it’s approaching the same concepts from a different side. This time I wanted to play with how we each experience time, how for children it drags, but for parents watching children grow up it moves too quickly. The most important relationships in our lives start out at odds over something we have no control over: how time passes.
So this is a pretty science-heavy novel. In fact, I like science and found some of it over my head. Nedda is a bright 11-year old and I love that about her. How about you—and your interest in science? What was your research like?
I grew up around science and art, so I never found either intimidating. My father worked at a national lab and my mother was an artist, and both pushed the idea that I could and should try everything. Science and the art asks a lot of the same questions, “What is this and how does it work?” Science is rooted in curiosity about the world, and you can’t be a writer and not be curious. I think we let ourselves get intimidated too easily. When you read a book and come across a passage that’s in another language, you can do one of two things; you can skip the passage and know that it’s not meant for you, or you can look it up and try to make sense of it. Both options are valid. Approaching science in fiction isn’t any different.
The research was fun! We tend to fetishize novelists’ research, but I promise I didn’t get a doctorate in chemistry or astrophysics. I wrote what I needed something to do, then went back and looked for the science that either did that thing or could serve as a jumping off point. NASA is extraordinarily accessible. If you want to find the second-by-second breakdown of what happens during a shuttle launch, there are talks on it all over the web. The research on location was far more hands on. I visited Kennedy Space Center to refresh my sense of the size of things, and to see kids actively loving space. I spent time along the Space Coast to develop my sense of place and culture. Everything else was just reverse engineering.
I completely recall the Challenger disaster of 1986. It seems like the 1980s was a big time for space…people wearing reflective running shoes, neon and eating astronaut meals from silver pouches, do you remember that? The Challenger acts as a sort of springboard to many of the themes within LIGHT FROM OTHER STARS. Can you talk about that, please?
Space was everywhere in the 1980s. The orbiter vehicles made it reachable, and NASA’s astronaut classes were becoming more inclusive. It started to feel like space travel could be for all of us. I was in first grade when the Challenger disaster happened, and I watched it in class. My memory of it is hazy, so I viewed archival footage, read transcripts, and hunted down stories from people who remembered more clearly what that moment of watching was like. For many kids it was the first real exposure they had to death and it was a televised group experience. People had grown accustomed to the idea that shuttles were safe, so it was a breaking of trust and an end to a kind of innocence. There is a faulty idea that childhood must be a safe, protected thing. In reality it’s a series of breaks in trust, both small and large—with our parents, our schooling, with society, with our bodies—and it has to be, or we’d never grow into functional adults. I wanted to start with a moment where we all experienced a break in trust, one that affected some people profoundly, and others not at all.
Also, Florida. Many of us have ill-conceived ideas of the state. We often think of it as a ‘vacation place,’ but not much more. And sometimes, you hear of some pretty bird-brained things happening there. But there’s also NASA and Space School (oh how I wanted to win a trip to space school–from my time on Double-Dare, of course!) Can you talk about these misconceptions?
I lived in Florida for a time in my twenties, and I love it passionately. It entertains us and scares us because it’s a microcosm of the whole country. Some of our most brilliant minds live right alongside people who call the police because their drive-thru order wasn’t right. There’s weird wildlife. It’s impossible to describe succinctly because each section of the state has its own art and culture. It’s not a place the rest of the country thinks of as having a ton of history, and yet there’s St. Augustine. But there’s incredible intellectualism in Florida. Some of our best writers, past and present, have called Florida home. Lauren Groff, Hemingway, and Zora Neale Hurston come to mind. It’s tempting to focus on Florida’s weirdness, which does exist, but it’s more interesting to ask why does all this art, science, and weird news come out of this place? I think it’s got everything to do with the physical environment. The weather is perfect for space science and the climate is fodder for the imagination.
Finally, there’s a good bit of environmentalism in LIGHT FROM OTHER STARS. The sky is different. The crops aren’t getting the water and sunlight they need. There are junkyards…was this intentional on your part? Or, maybe that was just my read?
I think you can’t make honest work in contemporary fiction without confronting the climate crisis. Every relationship is impacted by it. Even my last book dealt with erosion in shore communities. To write from place is to understand how ecosystems change over time and affect who and what lives there. That’s food supply, water, shelter, everything that makes daily living. The environment determines whether characters move quickly or slowly due to weather, what they eat, and how they make their livings. Even writing about people who don’t believe there is a climate crisis is writing about the crisis and its impact. Denial in the face of overwhelming evidence is a character trait. If you’re avoiding it as a writer, you’re missing a good part of the modern psyche. In the US, we’re a few generations into raising kids with the idea that environmentalism is important. It’s a writer’s job to engage with that.
Erika, this has been delightful. Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have?
Oh! What’s my favorite planet other than Earth? It’s Pluto! It comes up a bit in the book. There’s pink snow on Pluto, which is kind of perfect and feels like possibility.
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of A LIGHT FROM OTHER STARS, please see:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Erika Swyler’s first novel, The Book of Speculation, was one of BuzzFeed’s 24 Best Fiction Books of 2015, one of Amazon’s Best Novels of 2015, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her writing has appeared in Catapult Story, VIDA, The New York Times, and elsewhere. She lives on Long Island, NY, with her husband and a mischievous rabbit.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Bloomsbury and used with permission. Artistic photo of book cover arranged and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this].