“This is the story of an astronaut who was lost in space, and the wife he left behind. . . . This is the story of the human race, who pushed one crazy little splinter of metal and a few pulsing cells up into the vast dark reaches of the universe, in the hope that the splinter would hit something and stick, and that the little pulsing cells could somehow survive.” ~ from Shine Shine Shine
Sometimes, it is in moments of distress that everything becomes clear. We see the truth in ourselves and in those around us. We risk showing that truth to others, and we find strange peace.
In Lydia Netzer’s debut novel, Shine Shine Shine, Maxon Mann is a scientist with Asberger’s, sitting on a rocket en route to the moon. His wife, Sunny, is a woman with alopecia, who hides herself behind several different wigs. When a meteor strikes Maxon’s rocket and threatens to send him and his fellow astronauts careening through space, Maxon and Sunny both search their pasts for bits and pieces that will save them. Maxon uncovers the core of his humanity; Sunny discovers that leaving her wigs behind relieves her of more than the physical weight of her long, blonde, fake hair. Throughout the novel, it is the simplicity of love between complicated individuals that yields the most power in the story. Here’s what Liesl Schillinger says about Shine Shine Shine:
[Netzer] slowly assembles a multitude of pinpoint insights that converge to form a glimmering constellation: the singularity of the miraculous machinery of the human organism.
I’m honored to host Lydia Netzer today, and thrilled to be giving away a copy of her novel. Leave your name in the comments (it’s that easy) to enter the giveaway. Random.org will choose the winner on Tuesday, October 16th, at noon.
And now, welcome Lydia!
CC: One scene in your novel that I particularly love is when Maxon realizes, moments before he proposes to Sunny, how deeply he has grown to know her and love her: “her movements, yes, and her physical shape. He recognized the tone of her voice and he noted persistent mannerisms and favorite vocabulary. . . . But what he realized, looking at her there splashing in the water, making a star with her body and then contracting down to do a somersault, was that he really recognized her, down inside. He knew that, if the planet was spun like a top, and stopped suddenly, and he was asked to point her out, that he could do it.” To drop in a quote here may not give the scene justice, but I couldn’t resist. I read that part several times over. Are you partial to a specific scene or chapter, one that stuck with you long after you finished the book?
LN: The scene that I feel the most happy about and also sad about is probably the scene where Sunny and Maxon are showing their signs to each other, when Maxon is in space and Sunny is watching him on a monitor at NASA. I wanted to give them a way to communicate that made sense to both of them, and would bring them closure, and resolve their discord. Probably if I tried to describe the scene to someone who hadn’t read the book, and said “They were looking at each other in web cams, and then they wrote notes to each other, and stuck them on their bodies,” it would sound a little bizarre… and like something that couldn’t be that emotional. It’s my hope that in opening them up throughout the book in different ways, I have brought you to a point, by the time that scene comes in, that you can understand what they’re saying to each other from the inside of their relationship.
The worst scene to write was when she takes her mother off life support.
The easiest to write was the scene at the neighborhood craft party, when Les Weathers makes an appearance.
CC: I do love that scene with the signs, and I think it’s perfect the way it unfolds.
Throughout the story, Maxon writes algorithms or explanations in computer speak that help him translate how he should interact with others and what he should say in certain circumstances. All those IF THEN statements and ending tags and brackets, I love it! We could all use such scripted lessons at times, and so much of Maxon’s character is revealed in this way. What inspired this idea, to give the reader that kind of visual insight in the workings of Maxon’s mind?
LN: Since I became a parent myself, I’ve become so aware of how many of our interactions are rituals — learned responses to a very small set of situations that occur in daily life. How are you? I am fine. How was your weekend? It was great. We might as *well* be robots, wheeling around, bumping into each other and powering up the appropriate green light so it can flash an answering sequence to the other robots’ green lights.
Teaching a child manners, learning the ins and outs of a new job, surviving a first date, going to church, working out, we respond to input with well-defined outputs, and in training a human to cope with these situations, you find it’s not that much different from programming a robot. The amount of time we spend actually generating some heartfelt interaction with new ways of saying things that we’re inventing on the spot? Probably close to zero percent, given the span of our lives.
It’s very hard for an autistic person to interpret intentions, to understand inflections. And it’s hard for autistic people to mimic nuanced language, and facial expressions. However, it’s possible for a high functioning autistic person, or someone with Asperger’s Syndrome or Hyperlexia, to learn enough “cheat codes” that they can pass in most situations. It’s not always necessary to understand someone, if you appear to understand them. It’s not always necessary to love someone, if you can appear to love them. Thinking about these questions really led me to evaluate how children are socialized, how adults behave, and what is the real difference between a human brain and sophisticated AI?
CC: In this Q&A on Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s blog, Writerhead, you say, “When I pack for a writing retreat, I need certain smells: Crabtree & Evelyn ‘West Indian Lime,’ Viktor & Rolf ‘Flowerbomb,’ Thierry Mugler ‘Angel.’ Also Vick’s Vapor Rub, grapefruit shampoo, and rosemary. When I was writing Shine, Shine, Shine, the smell of…bergamot helped me think about Sunny and Maxon’s burgeoning love affair.” Do scents still play a part in your writing ritual?
LN: Absolutely. I’m currently writing a story in which one of the mother characters uses lavender scent to mask the smell of alcohol, so that her whole house and everything connected to her is constantly reeking of lavender. Her daughter, in contrast, is lemons.
CC: What are you reading these days?
LN: Right now I’m reading Gods without Men by Hari Kunzru, Zombie by J.R. Angelella, Gilgamesh the King by Robert Silverberg. I’m reading Flatscreen by Adam Wilson and Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman to prepare for our panel at Nashville’s Southern Festival of the Book. And I’m reading a couple more things: Patriots by David Frum and Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen by Susan Gregg Gilmore. I like to have as many books going at once as I can. I’m too hungry a reader to only have one thing on my plate.
CC: What advice can you offer writers on the rise?
LN: Never give up and never quit. Find the story that’s most important in the world for you to tell, and then grab onto it and don’t give up on it ever. When it seems like telling it has gotten too hard, know that you’re doing it right. It’s worth it.
Don’t push your difficult material away by putting your best scenes in summary, in flashbacks, in distant characters’ lives, or locked inside the brains of dead people or children. Don’t smooth over ugliness, don’t skirt around violence or close the curtains on sex. Your difficult material is your best material. Stuff that’s easy to read and write doesn’t matter much. Tear off as many layers as you can between your reader and what really matters, give them all the information you can give them as honestly as you can give it to them, and as soon.
Push every button on the control panel. Don’t hold back. If there’s a way to do it harder, do it. If there’s a choice that’s going to push it farther, make it. This means uncomfortable, personal, honest introspection and a willingness to reach into your own brain, or heart, or soul if you have one, and pull out your secrets.
I’m Lydia Netzer, and my first novel, Shine Shine Shine, is a People Magazine “People Pick,” an IndieBound Next Pick, the Amazon Spotlight Book for July, and is available now! I’m a nerd, a mom, an electric guitar player, and I want to make you lunch.
Don’t forget to leave your name in the comments for a chance to win a copy of Shine Shine Shine.