Douglas Light’s newest book, Where Night Stops (2018, Rare Bird Books) has been called “a well executed thriller that combines genre staples with literary style,” by Foreward Reviews.
Light is the author of Girls in Trouble (2011, University of Massachusetts Press), which won the 2010 AWP Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction. The story collection was also lauded by Pulitzer-Prize winning author, Junot Diaz, as a “…wonderful collection about some rough-ass lives—this dude is the real deal.” Light also had the distinction of co-writing The Trouble with Bliss, the screen adaptation of his debut novel East Fifth Bliss (2007, Behler Publications), starring Brie Larson, Michael C. Hall and Peter Fonda.
Thoughtful Dog caught up with Douglas Light to talk about his newest book, the process of writing the screenplay to his book and whether the rumor that he begins writing at 4 am is true.
TD: Your book, Where Night Stops, starts with a young man from Windstop, Iowa who has experienced a tragedy and travels to Seattle where he lives in a homeless shelter. You had a similar experience, arriving in Seattle with $280 in your pocket from Indiana and actually living in the Lighthouse Shelter. I’m assuming some parts of this novel are autobiographical, at least the Lighthouse Shelter experience? If so, did it take some time, and distance, to be able to write about it?
DL: Portions of Where Night Stops are based on personal experience, the shelter section being one. The killings, the skullduggery, the double-crosses and the international intrigue—yeah, that’s all fiction.
As for my time in the shelter, I’m still sifting through the experience 25-plus years later. I’d like to think there is some grand lesson from it all. There’s not. At least not that I’ve found. I have a wealth of confusion and shame about that period of my life. Which makes it both amazing and painful fodder for writing.
A line from one of the characters best sums up my takeaway from being homeless: “You know what the problem with problems is? It’s not solving them. You’d think that’d be the hard part but it’s not. The hard part is living with the solution. It’s like you spend the first part of your life trying to figure it all out. Then you spend the second part just trying to forget all the stupid things you did to figure it all out.”
TD: Not to give away too much about the book, but it’s a bit of a well-paced action-thriller with many literary fiction elements to it. Talk a little about how you plotted this novel?
DL: I wanted to create a literary noir/thriller which blends fact with emotional truth. A direct A-to-B-to-C plot structure wouldn’t accomplish this, so I broke out the story lines, adding vignettes between chapters. As the reader makes her way through the novel, one stitch builds on the prior, revealing the story’s complete tapestry.
TD: I’m fascinated with how the main character is almost weightless. He has no home or family—no real connections. Along the way, he meets Ray-Ray; Sarah; Layla, the woman in Iceland; the girl in La Gomera; the gin drinking woman in Haven; Florida and Higgles, among others. The temporary places, deeds and people he meets along the journey seem to anchor him in the world. Is this a theme that you were exploring all along?
DL: Identity is a theme, for sure. I think we often find ourselves in jobs or places or in situations where we have to wonder “How the hell did I end up here? This isn’t who I am. This isn’t where I want to be.” Ultimately, it’s about how we define ourselves. Do others’ opinions form us? Do the things we own make us who we are? Or are we constructed of something more meaningful, more vital?
TD: There’s a great quote in the book. “We’re born with a finite number of opportunities. Attrition, bad choices, misspent goodwill, and fucked-up luck. The opportunities dwindle through a process called living. Our portfolio of prospects turns into a tattered novel of outcomes.” Even Ray-Ray makes a point of saying in the Lighthouse Shelter that there are misfortunate and unfortunate people and that they’re different. This is similar to a quote from you that said “I feel that we’re all fumbling and blustering our way through life as best we can. The successful people in life aren’t so much succeeding as merely failing less often than everyone else.” This seems like a common thread that ties some of your short fiction and this novel. Quotes to this effect appear many times in the book, (“Life is making the best of a bad trajectory” or “…bad breaks escalate. The world tastes blood.”) Can you talk a little about this?
DL: That all sounds a bit dark. But yeah, that’s where my thoughts go.
Moving into the shadows is important to me when writing. It’s discovering the things that stop the light from reaching us, and then working to understand what they are, how they impact, influence, and form us as an individual.
TD: I’ve read that you get up at 4 am to write before your day job. Is this still the case?
DL: When I complete a project, I think “Okay! Now I get it. Now I know how to write.” But then I try to apply my “learnings” to a new venture and it often doesn’t work. Right now, my writing schedule is not as strenuous, though I’m sure that’ll change the deeper I get into the project I’m working on.
TD: You write both short stories and novels. What is your writing process? Is it different?
DL: The process is different, though I’m hard pressed to state specifics.
I don’t think I’ve ever started a story only to discover I wanted to blow it out into a novel. There’ve been times, though, when I’ve gotten 120-150 pages into a novel only to realize the story didn’t have the strength to endure, to be a successful novel. So I look for a section—or even just a line—that really works, and then I build that into a short story. Typically, though, stories are examinations of a single situation or emotion. Novels are an exploration of something more.
TD: You’ve won the Grace Paley Prize and have seen one of your novels turned into a movie. These are accomplishments most writers never experience. Did you ever feel the urge to give up along the way? Have you achieved what you wanted?
DL: I’ve quit as a writer numerous times, though I’ve just never known where to send my letter of resignation. So I continue on.
I can’t say I’ve achieved what I want. I feel I can always do more, do better.
TD: What are you reading right now?
DL: I recently finished all of Joan Didion’s nonfiction and am currently reading James Salter’s collected magazine articles.
TD: What is next for you?
DL: I’m working on a collection of essays as well as a new novel.
TD: What advice would you give new writers?
DL: The delete key is your best friend.