“And what do we do when we experience something potentially impossible and/or beyond our ken? My instinct, at least, is to build a castle of information around that dark spot, worrying and embellishing until it either makes sense or is totally hidden from view.”
Non-exhaustive List of Art that informed The Lightness:
Maggie Nelson’s Bluets
Heathers and The Virgin Suicides
The photographs of Duane Michals
Broken Social Scene
I first encountered Emily Temple’s fiction when a story of hers was featured in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading. “Better Homes” is about a woman who enters a charming and strangely sinister annual contest, “the Sandcastle Experience.” The winner is determined not by who can construct the most grand or ornate sandcastle, but by whose structure can stand the longest. Trickery and sabotage abound; according to the rules, a Builder is permitted to wreck the castles of others, provided their Builders aren’t garrisoned inside. Of course, venturing out on a marauding spree leaves your castle at risk. But the protagonist has little to lose. She is estranged from her daughter, freshly divorced from an unfaithful husband who has left her for a “much older” paleontologist. The sentences are witty and sharp, the invented world wonderfully innovative. The Builder situated next to the woman informs her that “he’s a widower with two sons in the army and that he lives on a little plot of land in Atascadero with an old basset hound named Bongo and six chickens.” He creates egg-shaped castles, claiming, “It’s one of the strongest shapes around… That and the female body.” (“I don’t know about that,” the woman responds.) The story reads like Kobo Abe’s Woman in the Dunes meets the work of Kelly Link. Or perhaps it’s what it would be like if Kobo Abe staged some sort of competition for reality TV. I was utterly engrossed and certain that she was set to have an impressive career.
Thus, when she announced the news of a deal for her debut novel, I was tremendously excited. Finally, the day had arrived when I would be able to read more fiction by Emily Temple. The Lightness follows four teenage girls at a Buddhist retreat. Over the course of one intense and often toxically intimate summer, they engage in dangerous fasting and sneak out of their bunk beds at night to secretly practice various rituals that could lead them to possessing the coveted ability to levitate at will. The girls are all troubled, struggling with familial trauma or dysfunction. Their friendship offers both a salve for their need for companionship as well as the temptation to indulge in self-destructive impulses, which build to an astonishing climactic moment with the direst of consequences. Like “Better Homes,” the novel explores loneliness and longing for primal acceptance, as well as the immaterial, fleeting nature of structures, bodies, and relationships, in cool, controlled, exceptional prose. I read The Lightness in a single stretch one weekend, unable to put it down, as they say. Afterward, I reached out to Emily about an interview, and she kindly agreed. We exchanged emails in May while homebound due to the Coronavirus.
THE BELIEVER: Your novel has a very unique setting: the Levitation Center, a Buddhist retreat situated high in the mountains. During the summers, it hosts a special program for teenage girls, featuring yoga, meditation, and a daily rota of chores—or, as the protagonist, Olivia, puts it, the center becomes “a Buddhist Boot Camp for Bad Girls.” How did you decide on this particular setting?
EMILY TEMPLE: In my mind, the Levitation Center is a combination of two actual Shambhala meditation centers—Karmê Chöling, in Barnet, Vermont, and the Shambhala Mountain Center, in the Colorado Rockies. I was raised with Shambhala, and almost every summer while I was growing up, my parents took me with them to Karmê Chöling, where they attended a series of talks by a Tibetan teacher called Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche. The other participants were mostly my parents’ age, and so there were lots of kids in tow like I was, and the staff at Karmê Chöling set up a sort of makeshift camp experience for us. We’d go on hikes, get meditation instruction, go swimming at the local lake, sing the Shambhala anthem after meals. It was my favorite place in the world—it had this mythic quality to it, the sense that, as soon as you stepped onto the property, you were a little closer to the secrets of the universe. (Also it was Vermont in the summer, which you can’t beat.) My friends at home called it “Buddhist Camp” (the closest relation in their known universe being day camp at the JCC), which it really wasn’t, but I never explained it to them, because the fact that no one in my “real” life understood anything about Shambhala or where I was during the summers made me feel like I had the keys to this little pocket universe that was all my own. Which is only to say that in retrospect, it seems inevitable I would try to write about it. I started in graduate school with a short story set at Karmê Chöling, and then I just sort of . . . kept going. I invented the idea of it being a hot spot for levitation, and I turned it into a penal program for bad girls because, as an insufferable good girl, I am obsessed with the idea of bad girls.
BLVR: That sounds so idyllic, a wonderful way to spend childhood summers. Your novel often references Buddhist practices, beliefs, and stories, which makes sense, considering the setting. Paging through it again, I noted that the girls also engage in Kyūdō, a form of meditative archery. The myth of Siddhartha’s enlightenment is explored as well, as is the concept of Anatta, the doctrine of No-Soul, the role of the Kumari, and much more. But the protagonist also riffs on transformations in Greek mythology, the neuroscience behind why we want to bite cute things, quantum mechanics, Marc Chagall and Ingmar Bergman, Houdini and David Copperfield and other illusionists, and, most notably, St. Teresa of Ávila, a figure I also find compelling. Could you comment on the function of the aside and the formal choice for Olivia to occasionally pause and reflect on all these disparate ideas?
ET: The asides were a major formal component from the beginning. I always knew that I wanted Olivia to be narrating the novel as an adult, looking back on this one summer that she has never been able to fully comprehend or explain to herself. And what do we do when we experience something potentially impossible and/or beyond our ken? My instinct, at least, is to build a castle of information around that dark spot, worrying and embellishing until it either makes sense or is totally hidden from view. By the time she’s telling us this story, Olivia has been turning it over in her mind for years, looking for answers, trying to corroborate her experiences—or explain them away—by collecting parallels in myth, science, religion, art, and magic. It’s inevitable that all that research and obsession would become entangled with her retelling—and maybe even with her memories themselves.
Even without anything traumatic or possibly magical to try to explain to ourselves, this is basically how consciousness works—experience doesn’t march forward in a linear fashion, following the plot from one activity to the next; we’re constantly awash in discursive thought, making connections between our senses and our memories and our half-remembered facts from AP Bio, etc. It’s one of the reasons meditation is so hard!
It also may not surprise you to hear that Maggie Nelson’s Bluets was a model for me on this front. When I showed a very early draft of The Lightness to my MFA advisor, she challenged me on the number of asides, wondering if they would be too alienating for the reader, and I immediately countered by bringing up Bluets, which has loads of facts and is the opposite of alienating. She laughed and said fine, go make this as passionate and emotionally involving as Bluets and you can keep your asides. (I’m not sure I quite succeeded, but it’s certainly closer now than it was then.)
Finally, at the risk of being unbearably corny, I write because I love language and what it can do—and I always feel a thrill when I come across these kinds of asides in other people’s novels. I just love them! I find them ecstatic, both in the normal sense and in the Greek sense of “removal to elsewhere.” So of course I wanted to stir up a little of that magic in my own work. What else are novels for?
BLVR: I love that—the building of a “castle of information around that dark spot” when confronted with something beyond one’s understanding. Your answer also segues into another, two-part question I had regarding the novel’s many absences. The “bad girls” Olivia falls in with at camp explore many methods in pursuit of physical levitation, but one of main ones involves extreme fasting, a physical hollowing out. These girls—Serena, Laurel, and Janet—come from broken homes with absent or abusive parents. Olivia, too, was drawn to the center in search of her father who has recently disappeared without explanation. Many smaller absences are also threaded throughout these pages: a kitten missing an eye, the socket “like an empty buttonhole,” a noted gap between two front teeth, the dirty imprints worn by feet into a pair of sandals outside a cabin. Could you comment on absence as a motif and how it relates to the primal woundedness of the girls?
In contrast with absence, there is desire hot within the girls. They share an intense attraction to young man, Luke, who lives and works in the garden at the center. And perhaps my favorite part of the book involves “The Fatties,” sculpted clay women who are large and almost grotesque in size and appearance, crafted by Olivia’s mother in their garage. Though the girls are trying to make themselves small and empty, the Fatties are unafraid to occupy as much space as possible. How do you see desire functioning in the novel?
ET: You are right to make this a two part question, because absence and desire are of course parallel motifs, two sides of the same coin. I’m sorry to be the person who keeps citing the Greek, especially because I’m no scholar of it (though I was president of the Latin club in high school—our motto was Semper Ubi Sub Ubi), but in her wonderful Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson tells us that eros denotes “want” and also “lack” and also “desire for that which is missing.” She writes, “The lover wants what he does not have. It is by definition impossible for him to have what he wants if, as soon as it is had, it is no longer wanting. All human desire is poised on an axis of paradox, absence and presence its poles, love and hate its motive energies.” Esther Perel says pretty much the same thing in her books about sex and marriage, you’ll notice. Desire is absence. Often, the reverse is also true: absence makes the heart grow fonder, etc.
Olivia’s quest, if we can call it that, is defined by the absence of her father. She goes from one place where he is not to another place where he is not. But in the latter place, she finds a kind of replacement: the trio of girls who seem to be on the same wavelength as her father, to know the same things he did. Her desire transfers easily. I’d actually never considered the small absences in the book as a purposeful motif, but I think you’re right to point them out—maybe it’s just that those who have been injured see injury all around them; trauma tends to imprint itself on the backs of our eyes, so to speak—so Olivia, frequently abandoned, might see a wound where someone else might see only a gap, or nothing at all.
In Tibetan Buddhism, it is said that those who cling too tightly to their attachments and desires may be reborn as a Hungry Ghost: a spirit with an enormous stomach but a tiny mouth and a neck the size of a needle, the embodiment of insatiable wanting—but this is also how it feels to be a teenager, at least in my experience. You can never get enough: love, food, drama, emotion, sensation, experience of all kinds. (Then you get older, and tired.) Our girls are trying not to want things, trying to deprive themselves—but only in the service of a bigger desire, a “higher” purpose. But turns out that doesn’t actually work so well. For Olivia, who has learned to venerate her (distant, dispassionate) father and fear her (desirous, seemingly enormous) mother, there is a terrifying release and immense pleasure when she does allow herself to want things, especially when that want is rooted in her body, which no amount of fasting will ever erase. In the novel, desire is a double-edged sword: yes, okay, maybe it’s the root of all suffering, but it’s also what animates our existence. It’s life.
(The Fatties, of course, do not try not to want things. They luxuriate in taking up space, in being their full, flabby selves all over the lawn. I hope that by the end of the book, you’ll know whose side I’m on.)
BLVR: I will always be on the side of The Fatties, myself! You mention Olivia’s trauma and the terrifying release of allowing herself to want. I’m also fascinated by how desire relates to power and acts of violence in the book. After her divorce, Olivia’s mother starts sporadically slapping her daughter. Eventually, Olivia locks her mother in a closet and takes her feelings out on the Fatties in revenge. When her mother finds out, she asks, “Why do you want to hurt me?” And Olivia thinks, “How can I possibly hurt you when you have all the power?”
ET: I thought a lot about power as I was writing this book—how much power these girls had, and how much they didn’t, and where it came from, and whether or not they knew where it began and ended. Olivia starts figuring out the contours of her own power in this book; I think Serena has known the shape of her own for a long time.
Thinking about the connection between desire and power: is there something about desire that forces us to give up a piece of our power? When you admit to wanting something, you open yourself up to being disappointed, or being hurt, or being taken advantage of—in addition to being open to all of the good things that can result from that desire. Serena squelches desire in herself, but inspires it in others (in various ways), which creates an imbalance that she uses to her advantage.
That moment you bring up between Olivia and her mother is particularly important, I think. As a child, you think of your parents as untouchable, in a way, because they have all of the functional power in the relationship. They can punish you if you do something wrong, or reward you if you do something well. They tell you what you are allowed and not allowed to do. For most of your young life, they have control over where you live, what you eat, even what you wear, etc. But at some point, you learn that that your parents are as human as you are. With that comes the realization that you have the power to hurt them, too. Here, Olivia is clearly acting against her mother, but she still doesn’t quite believe that she can really hurt her. She has always been this unstoppable force, something larger than just a human being with her own fears and faults and all the rest of it. It’s in this moment when she begins to really come against the unreality of this.
But there’s also something tragic in her mother’s question, too, because she is so consumed by her own rage and grief that she can’t see Olivia as a full person either. The obvious answer to “Why do you want to hurt me” in the context of their relationship is “Because you hurt me,” but Olivia’s mother doesn’t have enough self-awareness or empathy to expect that answer. (So many of us don’t, unfortunately.)
In general, I’m interested in the way female characters in art and pop culture perform their power. It’s so often by playing up their stereotypically “masculine” qualities, one of which, of course, is violence. Even feminist stories often fall into the trap of just showing us a woman who can be as much of a “badass” as a man, without making any attempt to re-frame more stereotypically “feminine” qualities as powerful in and of themselves. Like, negotiating a peaceful solution to a conflict is actually more difficult and impressive than just chopping someone’s head off, but we don’t think of it as the “power move” of the two. We are tricked by our culture (and maybe also by our history books) into believing that violence is the best and most direct way to power. Violence is not the only way Serena builds her power, of course, but she does offer it to Olivia directly as a way to enhance her power twice—and Olivia makes a different decision each time, with markedly different results.
BLVR: This is a book that is extremely interested in language, in the derivations of words and in constructing smart sentences that feel effortless, though I know writing sentences as good as yours must have taken a lot of work. It comes as no surprise that you said earlier that you write because you love language. How did you find the right voice for Olivia? And what’s your process like on the level of the line?
ET: The line is really where I live. I’ve always preferred it to plot, both in reading and in writing. I blame my parents for exposing me to too much poetry. In graduate school, I read this essay by Gary Lutz—from reading your work, I suspect you know it—and I have thought about it at least once a week since. Lutz talks about the words in a sentence forming “a community of sound and shape,” and argues that sound can lead meaning, not always the other way around (i.e., Christine Schutt’s “tall and tallowy”). Which is, frankly, thrilling. I try to make space for that kind of sentence-forward movement when I draft, though sometimes you do just have to get a character from point a to point b and be done with it.
Olivia’s voice came to me pretty naturally. She first appeared in a short story in 2014, and from the beginning she thought too hard and too much, and held herself up against Serena—who was then named Daisy, if you can believe it—as a method of self-comprehension. Like me, she is interested in language and in the meanings of things, only her voice is more obsessive, hungrier, and a little more anxious than my natural one. Similar to the intrusions, I wanted all of her sentences to reflect all the years that she’d been mulling, obsessing, turning over this single summer, and the fact that she’d come to a boiling point, everything coming out hot and sharp.
As far as concrete process goes: for me, it’s a matter of going through every draft and marking any sentence or paragraph that is boring to read, or where I can see that I’m being lazy. Then I have to rewrite those sections. And still, more seem to crop up in every draft! Call it whack-a-bland-description. It doesn’t mean every sentence has to be complicated by the end—just that they all have to sing to me somehow.
BLVR: “Whack-a-bland-description.” That’s amazing. I do the same, sometimes while I’m drafting, in terms of highlighting or bolding sentences that aren’t good enough and will need to be reworked. And I consider that Gary Lutz essay to be essential reading.
I’m interested in the other artistic influences on you and on this novel. You’ve mentioned Maggie Nelson’s Bluets already, and the novel has been compared to the work of Emma Cline, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Jenny Offill. I can see those influences here, but I also thought of The Virgin Suicides while reading as well as Picnic at Hanging Rock. In addition, you’re a Senior Editor at Lit Hub, and I’m a big fan of your lists, recommendations, and essays. How has your editorial work shaped your writing?
ET: Oh yes, you’re dead on about The Virgin Suicides and Picnic at Hanging Rock. Both are particular favorites. (Two years ago, I wrote about revisiting The Virgin Suicides as an adult—and good news, it mostly holds up.) I’d also highlight Helen Oyeyemi, Kelly Link, and W.G. Sebald as favorites, and inevitable influences, though I suppose their effects aren’t quite as obvious as some others. Also Heathers, obviously, a perfect film that should not be rebooted or touched in any way. The photographs of Duane Michals. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Broken Social Scene! So much goes into a novel, and to a writer’s self-conception.
I definitely think my editorial work has influenced my fiction—I’ve been writing about books for the internet for over a decade, so how could it not? Certainly my job has made it necessary for me to read many books, and perhaps to read more widely than I would have otherwise. All things considered, that alone has probably influenced my writing life more than anything else.
But I’ll also say this: I have written so many lists of books for the internet. Lists get mocked and derided, and I’m fine with that, because for every Disgruntled Literary Man on Twitter complaining that book lists have killed criticism, there are two people writing to me to tell me that they discovered a new book that they love because they found it on a list. (Also, humans love lists. It’s a fact. Ask Umberto Eco. Or hell, Joyce.) And without really thinking about it, I have also adopted lists as a formal tool in my fiction. The Lightness is full of lists—of girls, of rumors, of ways to seek enlightenment; I think my mind just works that way now.
Finally: there’s nothing like creating content for the endless, insatiable maw of the internet to train yourself to just sit down and write. Before Lit Hub, I was an editor at Flavorwire, where I sometimes churned out three or four pieces a day, and the muscles I created for just getting. it. down. have been invaluable, especially in a world that seems to demand the fracturing of our attention more and more every day. It’s sort of the opposite skill from the “whack-a-bland-description”, but personally, I have needed both to get to the finish line.