I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The debut novelist on the mercurial desires of teenage girls, the musicality of language, and embracing the digressive quality of the human mind.
Emily Temple’s debut, The Lightness (William Morrow), reads like a spell cast to wrench its readers back to the moment of their rawest shame and desire. It’s narrated by Olivia, a woman in her thirties sifting through her memories of the summer she spent at the Levitation Center (or what she calls “Buddhist Boot Camp for Bad Girls”), entwined with three girls on a mission for transcendence that ended in tragedy. The novel is exquisitely attuned to the secret, lasting music of adolescence. You could read it for the beauty of the prose alone and be satisfied, but of course it’s much more: a moving and sometimes slyly funny upending of the trope of the seductive, dangerous teenage girl; a clever skewering of the American attraction to and commodification of Eastern philosophies; an evocative portrait of a woman looking for something she’s lost. When I finished reading it, I glanced up from the page to the room around me and had the funniest sensation—I felt as though I’d actually moved.
Julie Buntin How did The Lightness begin?
Emily Temple I started with the physical place. The main setting of the book, the Levitation Center, is based on a Shambhala meditation center in Barnet, Vermont, called Karmê Chöling. I was raised in a Buddhist household, and every summer, my family would go to Karmê Chöling for this ongoing series of talks by a Tibetan teacher named Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche. The adults would be in the shrine room all day, receiving the teachings and meditating, and so the staff had to come up with stuff for all their kids to do; this ranged from meditation instruction to ikebana to getting into a van and going swimming at the local lake. My friends at home called it “Buddhist Camp,” because the closest point of comparison they had was the JCC.
Karmê Chöling is not at all a penal program for teenage girls; I made that up. But it has lived in my mind as an exceptionally special place, beautiful and serene but also vibrating with intensity and possibility, both functional—one summer we learned to make our own bows and arrows with Swiss Army knives—and spiritual. So I started there, and then arguably destroyed its memory in fiction.
JB In an early scene, Olivia watches a group of monks build a mandala out of rocks. That shape feels suggestive of the novel’s movement, and of the way Olivia’s narration emphasizes the impermanence of any single truth. How did you think about the shape this story would take?
ET The structure of the book took a great deal of finessing. I wanted the plot to pull the reader through the narrative, but I was actually much more interested in emotional and thematic patterning, how to create meaning by juxtaposing two separate ideas of gestures, or by letting the narrator’s mind wander, make lists, or cut itself off repeatedly. The structure of the novel is circular in the same way that experience is—in a story or in a life, you repeatedly find yourself in the same place, slightly altered, constantly returning to images and phrases and ideas. I wanted to recreate that.
At some point, I figured out Olivia’s essential narrative stance: she is telling this story as an adult who has been thinking about this one summer for over a decade. She’s been researching it, reliving it, trying to figure out whether what she thinks she saw was even possible, and what it all means. The action of the book becomes all of that coming out as Olivia tells the story, and as she can’t help including everything she’s picked up along the way, interrupting herself, repeating herself, but trying to get it right. This is as much what the book is “about” as anything in the plot: how we remember our experiences—particularly our traumatic or confusing ones—how we think about them, and how we tell them.
JB Olivia revels in the sensory power of language. The shapes and sounds of words often seem to dictate what she will say next. She builds these almost synesthetic connections between the acoustics of specific words (“altitude” is described as “the perfect word for itself, all peaks and valleys and places to slip”) and their meaning, keying the reader in to a scene’s deeper subtext (as when, after a tense moment with Serena, Olivia breaks down the etymology of “thrall”). What’s your relationship to the music of language and how you develop character?
ET Olivia and I definitely have this interest in common. I often think about Gary Lutz’s “The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” in which he advocates letting the sounds of words advance and direct meaning—it definitely doesn’t work all of the time, and too much of it can be fatal, but reading is, after all, a sensory experience, and not attending to its sensory aspects at all is just as fatal. And boring! I will sometimes just let the sounds take me along for a while and see where I end up. I want paragraphs to build in sonic intensity too, and I always—maybe to a fault—want to end them on a downbeat, or an accented beat, a little add on. Da-dum-DUM. My ears (my eye-ears?) really need that juicy closer. I hate it when paragraphs fade out. I hate when songs do too.
JB To push deeper into this relationship between the sounds of words and the transcendence the girls are seeking, can you talk a little bit about ASMR, what the girls call “The Feeling”?
ET ASMR is the feeling that some people get—a spine-tingling sense of relaxation—when they hear certain sounds, or words spoken in a specific manner, like a whisper.
People have pointed out that this is the first time they’ve seen ASMR in fiction, and I can’t remember a time I’ve seen it named in a novel either, but I recently re-read Mrs. Dalloway, and I marked this passage:
K … R …” said the nursemaid, and Septimus heard her say “Kay Arr” close to his ear, deeply, softly, like a mellow organ, but with a roughness in her voice like a grasshopper’s, which rasped his spine deliciously and sent running up into his brain waves of sound which, concussing, broke. A marvelous discovery indeed—that the human voice in certain atmospheric conditions (for one must be scientific, above all scientific) can quicken trees into life!
Which … really feels like Woolf describing ASMR, even if she doesn’t have the name for it.
JB For me, the novel’s most concrete physical locations are the Levitation Center and its grounds—we don’t get any real indication outside of flashes (a bathtub, a bar) of where and when Olivia is as she tells this story. Why did you leave so much up to the imagination?
ET For Olivia, the summer she remembers is both brief and endless; she can’t get it in order, and how could she? Summer is no place for time markers. Plus, in my experience, time is the very first thing to get eroded by memory—so many summers of my life have been reduced to series of images, or even to single days. The summer before I turned fourteen, I beat every single boy at Karmê Chöling in a Magic: the Gathering tournament, and then, later, I was casually leaning against a boulder eating my yogurt when a soccer ball some older kids were playing with bounced toward me, and I stopped it nonchalantly with my foot and felt extremely cool. I remember nothing else about the summer. That was it: one day that defined three months in my memory and self-conception.
JB At one point, Olivia calls herself “a person of binges.” What’s Olivia’s relationship to desire?
ET There’s that annoying but ubiquitous bit of writing advice, usually attributed to Kurt Vonnegut: that you should always make your characters want something, even if it’s only a glass of water. It’s not annoying because it’s untrue; it’s just not that simple, usually.
But yes—this book is pinned to desire in so many ways, from the basic setup (Olivia wants to find and be with her father) to the structure (Olivia wants to understand what happened to her) to the events that ultimately unfold, and I did think a lot about the girls’ evolving desires at every juncture. Want is mercurial that way; you have to keep checking up on it. Especially when you’re dealing with teenage girls.
The biggest difference between Olivia’s desire and Serena’s is that Olivia doesn’t know what she wants and Serena does, or thinks she does. That doesn’t make Olivia’s desire any less potent—it might even make it more potent, or at least more dangerous, because she can point it in any direction at any time and without warning: at her father, at Buddhism, at Luke, at Serena, at addiction, at sex. As a teenager, I too wanted the world and everything in it, without a clear idea of what that meant. I was intensely jealous of girls who seemed to have direction, and like Olivia, I would have followed them (almost) anywhere.
JB The girls at the center of the story often wrestle with questions of power. Can you talk about the interplay between power and desire in the story?
ET Power, desire, and belief: those were my three touchstone topics. It’s summer 2020, and this novel is totally not relevant to what’s going on in the world in any way, except that it asks questions about power—who has power and how did they get it, and what do they do with that power? That question is especially relevant and urgent for any group who has been traditionally divested of their power, in this case young women. So I was thinking about it at every step. Does Serena have as much power as she thinks she has? And when she has to do something with her power, what does she do? I thought a lot about how power is constructed, particularly in the context of female adolescence. How much of it is manufactured by just informing other people that you have it? Saying you have power gives you power. It’s much more complicated when you’re talking about the sexuality and desires of teenage girls though.
What makes teenagers so interesting to me is their hybridity, their in-betweenness, which leads to a kind of furious unbelonging; they are technically, but not exactly, children. Not a girl, not yet a woman, as Britney would say. When I was sixteen, I wrote a note to my future self on the bottom slat of one of my bureau drawers that said: “Teenage girls know more than you think, they know what they’re doing, and they’re doing it on purpose.” Thinking about that now, I struggle not to dismiss it, but that was exactly my point.
JB The girls experiment with witchcraft, which has long been a way that women who are denied power have tried to access it. Is that something you were ever interested in? I’m thinking of the menstrual blood scene…
ET I remember writing that part with glee, knowing that my older, white, male professor (who is lovely and decent in every way) was going to have to sit in a room with me and talk about this scene. He took it in stride, but I did step over the line on purpose there. Another exploration of power, maybe.
When I was in the eighth grade, one of my best friends and I got into magic. We cast a spell on a girl who had apparently started an “I Hate Emily Club.” It was a spell to make her go away—we put her yearbook picture in a bottle with some herbs and dropped it into a moving body of water—at the end of the school year, miraculously, she moved. Which in retrospect was obviously a coincidence, or maybe had something to do with the fact that she was unhappy enough to be starting clubs about how much she hated her classmates, but at the time it gave us this intoxicating feeling, the idea that maybe we did have some power, some control over the elements.
At that age, you’re just starting to become aware of all the world’s possibilities, and you think there must be a way for you to influence it. Especially if you’re the kind of teenager who likes to read. Every character that I encountered had some way to affect the world around them. I loved Edward Eager’s books; there was one called Half Magic, in which these kids find a coin that grants their wishes, but only halfway. I felt so sure that any day I could pick up something off the street and it would be magical. But it never happened. I just touched a lot of junk. (No pun intended.)
JB This reminds me of when Olivia says, “You should not, under any circumstances, expect me to be the hero of this story.” Olivia’s story isn’t about having agency, knowing what she wants; more often, it’s about the opposite. So how do you do evoke that while creating a story that satisfies the reader’s desire for action and a conclusion of some kind?
ET One of the first rules of storytelling is that a character without agency isn’t interesting. And I struggled with that, because as you say, it didn’t feel true to the story to give Olivia too much control over what happens. I mean, Olivia’s not totally without agency; there are a few moments where she exerts herself, with lasting ramifications. In the end I had to make my peace with it, rules or no, because that’s what it’s like to be a teenage girl. Especially when you’re not the leader, especially when you have all that unfocused desire, you’re going to latch on to people whose desires are clear. In fact, it’s Olivia’s uncertainty that makes her interesting to me.
JB It feels connected to Olivia’s uncertainty that you wound a ton of little questioning offshoots into the narrative. Buddhists kōans, fairy tales (usually the bloody originals), facts about levitation. Did you have a method for how you worked in these references?
ET I wish that this novel could have been one hundred percent digressions, zero percent plot. But at every stage, early readers told me to cut back on them. While drafting, I let myself go down any rabbit hole that opened itself up to me—I did a ton of research, but almost none of it was focused or even premeditated. I would be writing, and then I would land on something I liked—a word, an image, even a grammatical gesture—and start Googling it. Sometimes I wound up with an etymology, or a legend, or some obscure fact. Sometimes I wound up with nothing. Of course, I looked up everything I could about levitation, or so I thought—I keep coming across new stuff now that I wish I could put in. But this digressive quality, jumping from rabbit hole to rabbit hole—it’s kind of how our brains work. So I wanted the book to feel that way too.
JB Olivia repeatedly uses the phrase “that old slog” as a kind of shorthand when she’s referring to bad behaviors by men—familiar abuses of power. Is this story a reaction to that old slog?
ET Look, stories of men taking advantage of their power are so ubiquitous as to be truly boring. So are many of the enduring tropes about teenage girls, honestly, and our weird collective fascination with them—though I admit this novel does make use of some of those tropes (while hopefully also undercutting them). I found myself at these junctures where I was going to have to write a boring, obvious phrase, some fact or move that the reader would see coming. So instead I started replacing those moments with “that old slog.” It’s a shorthand, a wink, a little communion with the reader.
It was pointed out to me during the copyediting process that “that old slog” is not a real idiom. But I think it makes emotional sense. You can’t help but understand.
JB How does working at Lit Hub and being so close to the industry impact you as a writer with a new book out?
ET It has been…extremely weird to publish a book while being an editor at Lit Hub—especially as the editor who writes and curates most of the listicles and monthly roundup content. For context, we are having this conversation just before my book is due to come out, but after I put together all of Lit Hub’s most anticipated summer reading lists and before I have to decide whether or not to shamelessly include my own book cover on our list of the best book covers of June. (Spoiler: I’m probably going to. Shame is for people without books to sell.) Obviously, I recognize that these are good problems to have, and I do love my job—I write about books all day! But there’s no denying that it’s been a little complicated and embarrassing to navigate.
I also know how the sausage gets made, because I have my own little sausage factory. I see so many galleys go across my desk, and no one has time to read everything! But I do try to read as much and as widely as I can, because there’s so much good stuff out there, and lots of it doesn’t get talked about enough.
JB What upcoming books do you recommend?
ET You should absolutely run out (or log on quickly) to buy Raven Leilani’s Luster and Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness. Both are brilliant, captivating first novels, though if you’re smart you’ll also buy Cook’s collection, Man V. Nature. Also, after waiting a full decade since her wonderful Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, I am excited to get my hands on Danielle Evans’s new collection The Office of Historical Corrections.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee