Lydia NetzerAn astronaut lost in space, his pregnant wife who has been bald since birth, their autistic son and a street of seemingly perfect neighbors.

Author Lydia Netzer has peopled her debut novel — Shine Shine Shine — with a cast of offbeat characters whose differences illuminate the universal need to connect with others while remaining true to one’s self. Netzer uses math creatively to explain relationships and she sets part of her story in space, but Shine Shine Shine is not science fiction. It is a tale of love, motherhood and what it means to be human.

Shine Shine Shine was a New York Times Notable Book for 2012 and an Amazon Spotlight Book of the Month. It was shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Fiction. Netzer will participate in JRW Annual Conference in October 2013 and was interviewed in April 2013 by Kathleen Sams Flippen, a design blogger who can be found at A Flippen Life.

QUESTION 1: You have stated in other interviews that you conceived the idea for Shine Shine Shine when you were pregnant with your first child and worried that you were too “weird” to be a mother. You wanted to explore the idea of transitioning from woman to wife and wife to mother and the need many people feel to hide their oddities and present themselves as “normal.” Was there any specific incident that made you realize none of us is perfect and it’s okay to stop pretending and “rip your wig off”, as your character Sunny does?

I definitely survived many moments of trying to cram the wig on my head although it didn’t properly fit! The casseroles I tried to make from scratch because that’s what the “good” wife does; the lunch party I tried to host using all my mother’s china for the other moms on the block who showed up in capris and t-shirts wondering why they were drinking soda out of crystal; the many outfits I have tried to put together where my shoes and my sweater have a working relationship; the quilts I tried to make. It was a little scary there for a while.

Honestly my kids were the reason I stopped pretending. Children don’t care about pretense, they don’t understand social pressures and expectations, and they love you even if your pants aren’t cut right. While they’re little, they behave in a completely unexamined and authentic manner, if it means pooping behind a bush at the park or trying to bite some kid at gymnastics or throwing a fit because they can’t climb the front of the post office — they’ll behave exactly how they are. And since it’s almost impossible for a mother of a toddler to maintain her facade of dignity throughout the experience, I decided to just shed mine gleefully.

QUESTION 2: You wrote a popular blog post entitled “15 Ways to Stay Married for 15 Years.” You also have written and published a book while homeschooling two children. Many mothers are conflicted by the need to find a creative outlet while nurturing their children. When Maxon of Shine Shine Shine tells his wife Sunny that “it’s all about priorities”, she becomes furious and claims he doesn’t understand that she is a mother 24/7. Do you have any words of wisdom for mothers who write and/or the spouses who love them?

That conversation between Sunny and Maxon was directly lifted from a conversation I had with my husband years ago. I vividly remember how mad I was and how self-righteous I felt in thinking “It is all about priorities, and the children are my priority!” It literally took years (and putting it in a book) for me to revisit that statement and understand it.

The truth is that if you want to be a writer, you must take time for your work. No one will give you that time because nobody really cares except you. They may care in an abstract way, but no one cares in their arteries and veins, in their breath, in their nerves, like you care. So you have to stand up for it, if you want it.

In terms of advice I would say two things. First, some people need to wait until their kids are a little older before they can undertake the amount of compartmentalizing that is needed to truly immerse in a novel. You must be able to separate yourself from your children and carve out a space in your brain where you can think dark thoughts, consider that the world might not be a place of sweetness and safety, and write bad things. If you need to wait until your kids are a bit older, then just wait. You’ll get there.

Secondly, I recommend getting away from the children twice a year, possibly even to another state, for at least three days at a time. Prepare for the fact that it might take you 24 hours to detach enough to write, and give yourself that time on top of the time it takes you to write a chunk of novel. Find childcare, lean on your spouse, your friends. It won’t be comfortable, and inevitably little junior will barf on the neighbor just as you’re pulling out of the driveway, or someone will have to rearrange something in a way that’s not ideal for them, and that is OKAY. You’ve been rearranging your life in a way that’s not ideal for you for a long time. You can take the time you need to make your work a priority for a limited time, and then go back to being a mom 24/7 with a refreshed mind and a big piece of novel in your laptop.

QUESTION 3: Maxon and Sunny have an autistic son named Bubber, and Asperger’s and autism affect the families of Maxon’s NASA colleagues. Maxon, who uses mathematical formulas to guide his social behavior, proposes the idea that math-brained humans are evolving for a different type of society–one that relies more on technology, such as a moon colony populated by robots. Do you believe that the increasing rate of autism in children may be an evolutionary change rather than some medical “fluke” or “problem” caused by older parents, chemicals in our environment, or any of the other suspects being debated at this time?

I do believe it is an evolutionary change. However, I could be wrong. I don’t think anyone knows, and we might not know for 500 years. All we can do is help our kids get through this life with as much joy as possible, retaining as much of themselves as it’s possible for them to retain and still participate in the world.

QUESTION 4: I thought it was interesting that the robots Maxon has created to populate the moon are called Heras since Hera was the Greek goddess of women and marriage. Also, one of Hera’s symbols was the poppy, and you have said that the sight of poppies growing randomly in fields of grain in France helped explain the relationship between Sunny and Maxon. Do you spend a lot of time conducting research for your writing, or do ideas tend to come to you more serendipitously?

I named Hera on purpose. And there used to be rather a large section in the book where Maxon identifies with Hephaestus, the first robot-maker. That part got cut at some point, probably justly so–it was a little tenuous.

The poppy thing came about so miraculously. I was driving with my husband and kids through the Loire Valley. Our rented cottage was in a rural village and everywhere we drove we were passing these fields of grain, and they were shot through with rogue poppies. Everyone knows what this looks like–even if you haven’t traveled in France, you’ve seen it in art and maybe watching the Tour de France on TV. It’s iconic. I was trying to finish my novel at the time, just trying to get through my draft. And I looked out at those poppies growing all crazy through the very regimented, ordered rows of wheat, and I was almost knocked breathless with the understanding that this is how Maxon sees himself and Sunny–as poppies in the wheat. And I imagined him cycling through France and writing this poem to Sunny– this completely ridiculous “poem” that is just a simple declarative sentence: “We are poppies in the wheat.”

Don’t think I’m woo-woo crazy, but I made my husband pull over, and I took about 500 pictures of these poppies, and I actually cried, right there on the side of the road, because it was suddenly so easy to understand.

That was serendipity. However, there were things that research turned up–like the lava pipe that Maxon finds on the moon that reverberates with the well his brothers sent him down and the birth canal and the rocket’s shape. It’s the most fun thing about writing–when sparks start flying between different sections of your work, and you begin to see connections you didn’t intend.

QUESTION 5:  You spent 10 years writing Shine Shine Shine because you are a self-described “binge writer” and you are homeschooling two children. Despite the length of time it took to write your first book, you were able to find an agent and editor rather quickly through your network of writer friends and without facing the rejection that many first-time writers encounter. I know that you have written a blog post stressing the importance of networking with other writers, but I think your advice would be invaluable to members of James River Writers and any aspiring writer. Would you mind sharing your thoughts about networking here?

The most important thing is to remember that success does not strike like lightning. Instead, it happens in clusters. It is very damaging to look around you at other writers and think, “Of all these people, I hope I get picked! Oh, gods of literature, choose me!” That’s just not how it works. Helping other writers, making genuine connections with people you admire, and nurturing lasting friendships with other writers–these efforts pay you back one hundredfold.

What you learn after publication is that, while championing your own book feels awkward and pushy, championing other people’s books is fun. It’s a wonderful feeling to find a book you love and shout about it from the rooftops. You miss out on a lot when you look at other writers as competition instead of comrades. We’re all in this together, and there is room for many books on the bookshelf!

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