Douglas Light’s new novel, Where Night Stops, draws its striking power from the well of impurity. It’s a swift crime novel stropped to a lethal gleam by lyricism and imbued with Franz Kafka’s beetle-shaped shadows. It’s a brilliantly structured mystery that takes its form from musical composition. It’s a neo-noir thriller. It’s a taut, muscular literary novel. It’s an unsettling exploration of authenticity in our era of shifting identities. By brilliantly blending genres and styles and emotional shades, Light has produced a timely and original work that is unlike anything I’ve read.
Light’s debut novel, East Fifth Bliss, was made into the feature film The Trouble with Bliss starring Michael C. Hall and Academy Award-winners Brie Larson and Peter Fonda, and his story collection Girls in Trouble received the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction.
The Millions: I’m going to start lowbrow by asking about the genesis of Where Night Stops. Where did the novel come from? In particular, where did the crime thriller approach come from? Did you sit down and say, “I want to write a crime thriller?”
Douglas Light: This novel came out of my failure to sell my second novel. I had sold East Fifth Bliss, my first novel, and I had written the second novel. Which I could not sell. Too literary, I believe. So I decided to try to write something that was both literary and commercial. That is where the impetus for this writing came from.
TM: Is that it? Is that all you knew?
DL: I knew I needed to create something with a larger appeal. But I’m not a straight-up thriller/crime fiction writer. I come from the literary magazine and university press world. So I wanted to craft a thriller that placed emphasis on language and sentence structure.
TM: So where did the actual story come from?
DL: I started at the end. I had the last chapter, the last line in fact, in mind before I sat down to write. I knew how I wanted the reader to feel when the finished the book, and I wanted that feeling to stay with them, to linger. So I worked backwards from that. Much like a math equation. I knew what was on the right side of the equal sign. I just had to construct the elements on the left.
TM: Okay, last voyeuristic peek past the authorial curtain: the homeless shelter, it was very real to me. I’m curious as to how you were able render that realism in such detail.
DL: That was based off a real-life experience. 1991 to 1992, Seattle. I was homeless, found myself in the shelter. I’ve always wanted to come back to that experience and explore it in my writing, but I have had difficulty addressing it. Still to this day, there’s a lot of confusion around that period for me. I wanted—still want— some grand lesson. But there’s no epiphany to be found.
TM: The event around which the story centers is this accident. The narrator is orphaned. His parents die, and his best friend dies. The accident is the story’s trigger. It makes emotional sense regarding what happens later and who he becomes, and it makes logistical sense of what he ends up doing. At what point in the writing process did that event come into the story?
DL: There’s a moment in everyone’s life when they realize that their parents are fallible, that they’re not gods. And that realization is a bit destructive. It rattles you. I was trying to incorporate that idea into the novel, and then remove the parents from the story altogether. That eliminated the question “Why doesn’t the main character just contact them when he becomes homeless?” He no longer had a safety net, a home, or family.
TM: One of the things that sets this book apart is the way it blends things that aren’t normally blended. Style and subject, even structure. The structure is striking in how smart and musical it is. I think of the book, like any good book, as a piece of music—it only makes sense at the end. Then, you look back and see the whole thing and say, “Wow, that’s beautiful. Look at how it comes together.” That is your book, for me. I am in awe. I can take a few pointers from that. Tell me, from the perspective of the writer, how the novel’s structure came about?
DL: I was simply trying to connect the dots of the story, make sense of it all. But I knew that taking a straight A-to-B-to-C plot structure wasn’t going to create the tension I wanted, or make the novel as engaging as I needed it to be. I also had these facts and tidbits that I wanted to incorporate into the novel that weren’t big enough to sustain an entire chapter. So I created these one line and one paragraph sections to break up the rhythm of the book. I like what you said about music, the rhythm of the language. I was very conscious of that in the structure of the book. I wanted to create a rhythm and texture that propelled the reader along. So it became a puzzle for me. I’d shift the chapters around, trying to find the right sound, the right rhythm, the right music. To slowly reveal without pissing off the reader.
TM: That’s a very difficult balancing act.
DL: Yeah. You can make the mistake of either revealing too much too soon and pissing off the reader. Or you can end up at the other end and be too opaque in how you reveal, which may be even worse.
TM: That is one of the other things that struck me, the how and when information was revealed. I thought it was masterful in your novel. There’s a first person present tense in Florida, in Charms Bar. Then there’s a storyline of the accident and the narrator losing his family. Then there’s the storyline of the crime and the globe trotting, escalating danger. The thriller aspect. These don’t move in a linear fashion whatsoever. Yet it builds like music, like a good piece of music. I think that is one of the most remarkable things about this novel, as well as your understanding that the music is not just in the sentences or even in the pacing of the chapters. It’s in the overall architecture. Building off that, I think it’s interesting to consider how the writing sounds as well as looks on the page. Which pushes the novel toward poetry. Line breaks. Internal rhyme. What role does poetry play in your fiction?
DL: Poetry— the sound and look of language—definitely played a role in my writing of this novel. Novelists are failed poets, as they say. A good turn of phrase, a beautiful description, and lyricism, I feel, are central to any good writing. Form and content aren’t separate.
TM: That non-binary view, I believe, is one of the ways this book succeeds. And then there’s the blending of genres. You have the subject matter, which is a crime thriller, and then you have the style, which is unabashedly lyrical. The first few pages I thought, wow, I love this writing. That’s what hooked me. What always hooks me—great writing.
DL: Yeah, it’s the same for me with a book. If I’m not in love with language of the opening sentence or sentences, I doubt I’ll continue reading.
TM: You’re not the only writer out there now, blending genres, literary and whatever, and it seems in fact that the literary novel is more porous than it used to be and it seems okay now to bring in action in a way that would have been frowned upon 20 years ago. What do you think of that turn of events in literary fiction? Every year or so, someone pronounces the death of the novel. Would you say opening up the literary novel to influences it used to be sealed off from is keeping the literary novel alive, or undermining it?
DL: I think it’s the evolution of the literary novel. Back in the day, people used to have these 700-page novels. That was the only entertainment, passing the evening reading in front of the fire. Now people have so many forms of distraction tugging at them. People don’t have the time to sit down with a door-stopper of a novel.
TM: For me, there’s a powerful Kafkaesque feel to this book. The main character is unmoored. He is oddly disconnected from cause and effect. There’s a strong sense of a character adrift in a world that is alien to him. He passes these packages back and forth as part of some crime scheme, but it’s never quite clear what is being passed, which, by the way, I think was a wonderful decision on your part—it is one of the things, like the writing, that keeps the book in the realm of literary fiction versus crime fiction. But back to Kafka: Kafka was writing during the industrial revolution. The world was alien. Machines were seen as threatening the soul of human society. Why do you think that existential view is applicable now?
DL: The main character, who remains unnamed throughout the novel, doesn’t have a family, a home, or even friends. He doesn’t have those people judging or supporting his decisions. He is anybody and nobody. I see characters like him in our society now, in our unprecedented ability to reinvent ourselves by moving to a new place or via the Internet. Back in the day, you grew up in the village and never left. Everyone knew everything about you and that was something you couldn’t escape.
TM: Building on that Kafkaesque aspect, you’ve succeeded in manifesting the unmoored emotional truth of our Internet society. I haven’t seen this before in writing. We all do our shameless self promotion on social media. (Myself included, by the way.) Constructing identities for ourselves. Was that in your mind when you’re writing this novel—the role of social media in our world and our identities?
DL: That certainly was an aspect of the writing—the personas we project to the outside world. Internally, we’re often in conflict with that projected image, with what we say we are. I feel that the process of becoming an adult entails putting away the concept of authenticity.
TM: So authenticity is a false concept?
DL: Well, what is authenticity? It isn’t necessarily the “real you,” because oftentimes the “real you” isn’t someone you like; it’s someone who lives in the shadows. You can either come to terms with that reality or not.
TM: There’s a chapter in this book that jumped out at me. I wanted to pause in this chapter, linger, it felt good to be there. I didn’t feel the amorphous threat that permeates everything else in the book. This chapter is set on La Gomera, an island where the main character meets a young woman and they galavant through the rain forest and lava fields. It’s almost like you could take that chapter out and the story would flow just as well, but it would lose something. There’s a touchstone effect in that chapter. It holds up a way of life against the chaos of the main character’s existence. And the truth of that chapter seems to be that nowhere feels natural. What’s your take?
DL: I’d say that chapter bookends the reality of what’s happening to us in society. The main character is on one extreme end, while the young woman’s on the other. And you’re correct—I don’t answer the question of which one is better. Because, as a writer, once you say ‘This is how things should be,’ you become a moralist. You’re writing propaganda.
TM: And the boot comes down on the art.
DL: Exactly. It’s stops becoming art and become something else. Writing for me is an exploration of a question and an expression of the emotion that the question evokes.
TM: To me this “exploration of the question” is one of the most powerful, and positive, aspects of literary fiction. When I step out of your book, I’m not left with the main character’s face. I’m not left with a message. The novel’s power rests in the world that has been created. In the sense of vague, ever present threat. This is how I experience being alive, you are saying. With this reader, that sense of threat lingers.
Let me ask you about the ending. You said you started with the ending. It’s very sad, the ending, but at the same time it conjures a sense of mystery, and to me, mystery is the refuge of hope. So much of this book is hard boiled, which fits that neo-noir genre. Except for the end. In the ending scene the mother makes predictions as to what will befall each member of her family. It’s a scene that rises out of the gritty earth-shackled neo-noir world. It’s like a plot twist at the end of a crime novel, say, that makes you look at the entire book again in a whole new light. It made me appreciate the novel on a level that wasn’t about crime fiction or even lyrical literary writing. It was something else. Was that your intention?
DL: Absolutely. The ending cracks open that metaphysical door, at the same time that, I hope, it connects back to the whole concept of identity.
TM: The main character is a flawed character. He hurts people, he steals, he cannot summon the courage to admit that he loves a woman, and yet he’s our hero. What is your take on the likability or unlikeability of the main character? Of the preponderance of shadows that comprise the world and the character.
DL: I think to create any art, you have to move into the shadows, get to the edge of darkness to see what’s really happening. What is it that’s blocking the light? And then you need to be able to turn around and communicate that shape, that feeling, that essence in a manner that other people can connect with.