Q: Tell us what Light Years is about—in one sentence.
A: It’s about the ability of love, grief, art, technology, and human emotion to transform us and change the world.
Q: You’ve worked as a film producer for many years. Why did you decide to write a novel? What similarities and differences have you found in creating films and writing books?
A: I have always wanted to tell the story of losing my father as a teenager, but it took me a long time to find the right medium and the right lens—I didn’t want to be wed to what literally happened. After many years of developing and producing other people’s projects, I finally found the courage to focus on my own. Film requires a lot of people to say yes to you. It is pretty close to impossible to make a finished film without anyone else’s permission at multiple points along the way. That took a toll on me over time and the frustration pushed me to write. I knew when I started that no matter what, at the end, my book, my work of art, would exist in the world whether anyone said ‘yes’ to me or not. That was so satisfying and kept me going through a lot of hard work and challenge. That said, I don’t think a good book happens in isolation. I had so much generous input and support from so many people, starting with Carey Albertine and Saira Rao of In This Together Media who helped develop the book from the start. It was a really collaborative process and I think my life in film taught me how to ask for help, how to make the most of relationships I’ve built over many years, and how to hear the feedback I was getting and use it to keep improving.
Q: Light Years was inspired by two experiences you had with loss and grief. What can you tell us about them?
A: When I was nearly fourteen, my father died of AIDS after a five-year battle. It was 1992 and AIDS was still something many people feared. Being gay, which my father was, was still stigmatized. I hid his illness from my peers at school and I really never talked about what was happening, or my feelings about it. I can recognize this now as a survival mechanism, but the result was that I become very disconnected from my own emotions. I was high functioning and superficially normal, but the trauma left me with a lot of work to do in adulthood. Then, just a few years ago, my business partner and mentor Philip Seymour Hoffman also died. By this point, I had developed a much deeper relationship to death, to the possibilities of what might exist beyond this lifetime for each of us, and a better ability to be present with my feelings and experiences. Oddly, I think Phil’s death represented in some ways the completion of mourning my father because I could see a bigger picture. While the loss was heartbreaking, I had developed a connection to and an understanding of forces bigger than myself, and that gave me a strength that wasn’t built on avoidance, but acceptance.
Q: Luisa Ochoa-Jones is not your typical teenage girl, to say the least. She has a brilliant mind and a rare condition: whenever her emotions run high, her physical senses kick into overload, with waves of color, sound, taste, and touch flooding her body. Is this a real thing? How did you research it?
A: In early drafts, Luisa had synesthesia, which is a real condition that causes people’s senses to overlap. So they will see color when they hear sound, things like that. This was certainly a dynamic attribute, but it wasn’t fully serving the bigger goals of the narrative, one of which was to make a statement about the transformative power of emotion and empathy. A good friend actually gave me the note that it might be stronger for her condition to be connected to her emotional state. That was the biggest ah-ha moment for me. It was the moment of seeing the forest through the trees and made the whole book fall into place. While I did a lot of research into synesthesia (Kanye West and Van Gogh are two notable synesthetes!), once I decided to shift her condition in this way, I stopped. I decided to let her condition be what I wanted it to be from that point, rather than be restricted by what might be someone else’s actual experience.
Q: Without giving anything away, where did the idea for the viral epidemic in the story come from?
A: I’m very interested in the way culture affects us. And I’m also interested in the intersection between mind and body. I’ve engaged a lot with the work of a doctor named John Sarno who wrote numerous books on healing back pain. The nature of the virus is inspired by his thinking about how the brain and body intersect. I think western culture prefers to disavow this connection. We tend to compartmentalize the different parts of ourselves. And we tend to look outside ourselves for solutions. So I wanted to talk about that. And also, my experience living through the early days of AIDS when it was killing so many incredibly creative people in the arts, that also was something I was thinking a lot about.
Q: Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died so tragically a few years ago, was your friend, mentor and producing partner. What did you learn from him?
A: I learned too many things from Phil to count about what an artist is, what an artist needs and does and wants. But if I had to choose, the most important thing it would be that all creative work must be personal. That does not mean it must be literal, but it must come from a deeply personal place, a personal desire to inquire of the self and to share the self. I watched him do that every day, often with the fear and resistance that made him human, but always in the end with complete authenticity and conviction. I try to emulate that now.
Q: What do you feel this book has to offer teenagers who are confronting loss in their own lives?
A: I hope it says to them that experiencing pain is part of life, that it’s necessary for life to be as rich and beautiful as it ultimately is, and that while pain or loss can define everything that comes afterward, it doesn’t have to define it in a negative way. It can be its own kind of gift. It makes us who we become. So I hope the book says, you’re stronger than you think you are, it’s going to be OK, and just be patient with the loss because it will eventually give way to magic you can’t currently imagine.
Q: What was your creative process like for getting into the minds of teenagers in order to write this book?
A: I think that because my dad died when I was a teenager, a part of me is forever frozen at that age. There’s a way in which your life stops there, a part of your soul just stops and never gets to grow up. So I’m an adult woman, I’m a mother and a wife and a professional and I live the life of a grown-up in all these ways, but a part of me is still 14, 15, 16. I don’t know if that voice that I carry will resonate with teenagers in 2017. To write authentically and from my heart, I couldn’t concern myself with that. That would have been me trying to pander to them and teenagers are way too smart for that. What I know of myself at that age is that I felt very able to engage with the world, I had sophisticated thoughts about things and people. I was not a child. So I wanted Luisa to embody that too, to be someone to be reckoned with, but without putting her on a pedestal. I see her as extraordinary, and my conception about where she goes and what she becomes after the final pages of Light Years might make her seem like one in a trillion, but I believe that to be true of all of us. I think every teenager, every young girl has the kind of potential to change the world that Luisa does. I hope this book inspires that idea in people.
Q: Today teen readers have so many options for entertainment, from video games to social media interactions. What’s your advice for parents and teachers to get young people excited about reading?
A: I think it’s important not to make one medium more “worthy” or important than another. I think film, games, even social media (I’m obsessed with gifs right now as a new form of language—I feel like gifs are a revolutionary mode of communication that has really complex implications), all that stuff is as valuable to our cultural and individual evolution as the written word on the page. That said, the space for activating the imagination that reading provides is critical and unique. My parents were not big readers and reading was not a part of how we spent time together. I hope that with my own kids that will be different. But I think it has to be intentional. We can’t tell our kids to go read a book when we are sitting on the couch with our cell phone or laptop. I have fantasies about doing family book clubs with my kids when they are older. This would help me catch up on the big black holes in English literature that I’m missing!
Q: Who are your favorite writers, what are your favorite books?
A; George Saunders, Jennifer Niven, Meghan O’Rourke, Madeleine L’Engle, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Dana Spiotta, Neil Gaiman.
Q: What’s next for Emily Ziff Griffin?
A: I’m currently in production on a beautiful little film I’m producing called 18 TO PARTY, which is about a group of teenagers in 1984. And I’m writing a top-secret interactive project that I’m not allowed to say anything about. And then, there’s my next book, which takes place at a summer camp and will hopefully write itself until I find more time in my schedule.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Emily Ziff Griffin lives in Los Angeles where she writes, produces, teaches, daydreams, and mothers two young kids. When she was 25, she co-founded Cooper’s Town Productions with Philip Seymour Hoffman and produced the Academy Award-winning film, Capote, along with Hoffman’s directorial debut Jack Goes Boating and John Slattery’s God’s Pocket.
She's run three marathons, slowly, and hold a degree from Brown University in art-semiotics, the study of how images make meaning. She believes children are way more sophisticated than adults typically give them credit for and writes for the teenager who is ready to claim their own worldview and be grounded in their own power. For more information, visit emilyziffgriffin.com.