Lois Metzger is here today to talk about her latest novel A Trick of the Light. It’s an interesting book with a lot going on including a few surprises. The book’s official publication is today and I’m very excited to have Lois here to talk about this book.
Miss Print (MP): Can you tell us a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?
Lois Metzger (LM): I knew from the age of 14 that I wanted to be a writer. I loved J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories; I always hoped to write that tenth story. I started out by inventing characters’ diaries, which turned out to be good training—it let me understand them from the inside. Then, when I wrote a story about those characters, I’d learned enough about them to know what they would say, how they would react in any situation.
I had some short stories published in my twenties, and my first novel (Barry’s Sister) in my thirties; I wrote the sequel to that book (Ellen’s Case) a few years later, and a more autobiographical novel (Missing Girls) a few years after that. A Trick of the Light took me almost ten years, from original idea to published book.
MP: What was the inspiration for A Trick of the Light?
LM: In 2004 I came across an article in the New York Daily News. It was about a boy, Justin, who developed an eating disorder and almost died, and ended up in a hospital. This came as a shock because I really didn’t know that boys could get eating disorders; I thought it was something that only happened to girls when they dieted too much.
I emailed the reporter of the article, who put me in touch with the family; I interviewed the boy’s doctor, who gave me the names of patients and families in New York so I could meet them. Recently I took another look at that article, and saw how much of Justin’s story stayed with me and is still part of the final version of the book, even after substantial changes.
MP: This book is interesting because there is a very distinct narrator and main character. What was it like writing Mike’s story from this remove?
LM: Having this narrator wasn’t my first idea. Originally I had Mike tell his own story, but that became awkward because so many strange things were happening to him, and he was denying a lot of it, aware of some things, unaware of others. How can a character say, “I didn’t know it, but…”? Similar problems arose when I tried telling it from his friend Amber’s point of view; she got to know Mike pretty well, but she didn’t know his past. Also she has her own agenda. Mike’s friend Tamio knew Mike’s past, but Mike pushes Tamio away so quickly that Tamio couldn’t narrate the story, either. I also tried having Mike’s mom be the narrator, but she really didn’t know what was going on inside Mike’s head. Only one narrator knew that.
MP: In addition to a very separate narrator, this novel doesn’t have a very likeable narrator. What was it like writing a story with a narrator that is so negative (and dangerous even)?
LM: There were moments I definitely found creepy as I was writing them. Mike’s mom finds Mike lying on the floor, and she freaks out. The narrator thinks it’s no big deal, that Mike was “tired” and “took a nap.” It sounds so innocent and harmless. Later, Mike’s mom has to tell Mike, “You blacked out.” Another moment I found sad was when the narrator tells Mike to ignore his mom when she’s crying. I just felt bad for her.
Still—and I hope this doesn’t sound like a contradiction—I really enjoyed writing the narrator’s thoughts and opinions. Many actors and actresses say they love to play villains. I can see why.
MP: One of the fun things about Mike is his interest in stop-motion animation. Is that an interest you share? Did you always know this interest would be a part of Mike’s character?
LM: Yes, I’m a Ray Harryhausen fan, the stop-motion animation genius who learned his craft from Willis O’Brien, the man who created King Kong. I’m so sad to say that Mr. Harryhausen died only very recently, on May 7, at the age of 92. He knew about A Trick of the Light and I’m sorry he didn’t get a chance to see it; I’m sending a copy to his widow, Diana Harryhausen, and to Tony Dalton, the co-writer of his books on stop-motion animation.
My favorite Ray Harryhausen movie is “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.” The monsters he invented—or creatures, as he liked to call them—are wonderful and, as Ray Harryhausen used to say, you feel sorry when they die because they have “a mind and a soul.”
From the first draft, Mike had an interest in stop-motion animation, but it was only in relatively recent rewrites that Mike and his friend started making their own movie. The significance of the movie and the character they invent for it actually got much more fleshed out only after the book was accepted; now I see it as one of the most meaningful parts of the novel.
MP: A Trick of the Light is a pretty intense story. Was there any part that was harder to dive into as a writer? Is there any scene you’re particularly excited for readers to get to?
LM: The hospital scenes were hard, because Mike is sad a lot of the time, and I didn’t want to keep coming back to that. So the narrator convinces Mike “You are not really here. This is not your real life.” While he’s in the hospital, Mike listens/doesn’t listen to his therapist; he makes friends with a girl he can’t stand at first. A lot happens in a short time, and I wanted it all to be consistent and believable.
If I had to pick something I find exciting for readers, I’d have to say—the last chapter. Sneaky answer, right? You have to read the whole book to get there! But, for me, the ending really brings the thing full circle. You know where Mike has been, and you get a strong sense of where he’s going.
MP: I don’t want to reveal too much, but this book does involve eating disorders. How much research was involved in the writing process?
LM: I wanted everything to be realistic. A professional who specializes in eating disorders read the book before publication, and assured me that it’s accurate. I read fiction and nonfiction books on eating disorders, and interviewed the people I met after first contacting Justin’s family. It was fascinating research, though sometimes very painful.
MP: Building off the last question, are there any resources you’d suggest for readers who recognize the warning signs from A Trick of the Light and think they might know someone at risk or suffering from an eating disorder?
LM: Eating disorders have the highest death rate of any psychological illness, between five and 20 percent, so if you suspect a friend or family member has an eating disorder, follow up immediately. Please get in touch with:
The National Eating Disorders Association
For the helpline, call: 1-800-931-2237
MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project?
LM: I’m in the middle of writing/rewriting a book called Change Places With Me. It’s slightly science-fiction-ish, and it has to do with memory. The main character is a girl who had trauma in early childhood and she tries to come to terms with it head-on at age 15. It’s a little sad but funny, too—at least that’s the intention!
MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring writers?
LM: Read and write. I always liked reading Salinger because of his ear for dialogue. A writer may appeal to you because of how he or she describes things. For me, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has the perfect plot. Ebeneezer Scrooge, one of the best characters the world has known, has a complete change of personality in only one night, and it’s just beautifully done. Henry James does amazing things developing characters in Washington Square, especially the unlikeable ones.
Also, the more you write, the better your writing gets. And have I mentioned how much rewriting is involved? Humorist Peter De Vries said, “I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.” Try to enjoy the paperwork!