The Lydia Netzer Interview

Today I chat with the author of Shine, Shine Shine, a debut novel that's received passionately positive reviews for its blend of love story with sci-fi, as it follows the relationship of Sunny, a congenitally bald woman, and Maxon, a robotic space engineer, as they find their own version of normal both at home and up amongst the stars. The blend of folksy and futuristic is like a bacon muffin: shocking, yet somehow it all makes perfect sense. Lydia Netzer lives in Virginia, where she homeschools her kids, writes wonderfully about writing, and runs this Twitter account.

This is probably because I was recently pregnant myself, but one of the things I identify most with your book is the somewhat mystical/alien nature of pregnancy. What, to you, were some of the weirdest (for lack of a better word) parts of being pregnant?
Feeling the baby move for the first time was terrifying. The reality of having created a life form within myself which was separate from me and controlled by a brain other than mine really freaked me out. If I think about it too much now, I still get unsettled. I'm pretty sure the reason I was able to adjust to the idea during pregnancy must have been the pregnancy itself flooding my brain with soothing "Don't worry" hormones. I mean, imagine if you had a worm inside you that was going to grow by a factor of like a thousand, and then bust its way out the nearest available hole and go found a corporation. Sort of causes the jaw to drop a bit. Yet our reaction is supposed to be to coo and crochet a hat.

I'm listening to the audio version of your book and am charmed by the different voices the narrator employs. Are you a big "funny voices" person when it comes to reading to your kids? Which books bring it out of you the most?
I am not great at voices, actually. The Secret Garden, in particular, just defeated me. I can remember dreading bedtime and storytime when I knew I was going to have to wrestle around with that accent and all that phonetic dialect. My son (12), though, reading to my daughter (8), is absolutely wonderful with voices. He reads quite charmingly and has lots of strange amalgam accents -- like British/Mexican and Australian/French.

The following two questions will take you through some high highs and low lows. Your book has elicited some passionately positive reviews. What have been some of the best compliments people have paid to your book?
The best compliments I have received were supportive messages from parents of children with autism, or wives of men with Aspberger's Syndrome. I wrote my book including characters with these traits, but I did not not make it a central point of the book. I was concerned I would be seen by people who live with these disorders as having been dismissive, or trivializing the troubles they experience. That doesn't seem to be the case, and that's very rewarding to hear.

Now: what were some of the meanest critiques you received on your piece about a successful marriage? (It didn't seem terribly controversial to me, or maybe I am just capable of reading a piece like that without thinking "This woman thinks she knows what is best for me!")
I think the best one was the woman who was like, "Fifteen years? That's nothing! Try again when you get to thirty, like me!" And I mean, there's no response to that, except to say, yes, you're right. Thirty is certainly a larger number than fifteen. It doesn't really bother me -- in fact, I've had as much fun with the one star reviews of my book as the five star. I've gotten glowing critiques on Amazon that made me just cry with happiness, and then there's the person on Goodreads who trumpeted, "Shine Shine Shine? This book is crap crap crap!" which made me laugh til I cried. I mean, you have to laugh. You can't take anything so seriously.

So many depictions of marriage in pop culture paint it as a drag: what are some examples of marriages (either fictional or real) that seem sexy and fun?
I always really loved the Bartletts on the show The West Wing. They always had a twinkle in their eyes with each other, even when they fought. I like the Obamas too. I really love seeing couples that kid around with each other without crossing a certain line of respect. The difference between the marriage on Everybody Loves Raymond, which I found depressing, and the marriage on Roseanne, which I found fun, was that strangely Roseanne and Dan actually never really crossed that "teasing" line into insulting. Of course, I like April and Andy on Parks and Recreation. And I love Pam and Jim on The Office.

What are some of your favorite examples of books or movies that successfully combine sci-fi and romance?
I'm reading a book right now called The Infinite Tides by Christian Kiefer. While it's not really a romance, I think it really gorgeously combines sci fi elements with contemporary literary fiction, so it's a compelling statement about fatherhood, marriage, identity, and it still has astronauts and space walks and math and rockets. One movie I really love is Contact, which is about a straight-laced scientific-minded woman falling for a woo-woo theologian dude, all in the framework of alien contact and extraterrestrial machines.   

What's one of the biggest differences, so far, between Shine Shine Shine and its follow-up?
The new book has no robots. Which is sad, but... if I put robots in every book, people would start to think I had an unnatural affection for them. Which I totally don't. Really.

What did you learn from writing and publishing Shine Shine Shine that has helped you in approaching the second book?
Readers have responded so positively to the elements in Shine Shine Shine that I thought would be the most strange and inaccessible: the meditations on A.I., the weird death/hallucination/memory scene, the spacewalk encounter, etc. I really feel, after having people connect with and love those elements, that I have permission to let myself write what I really want to write, and not edit my imagination to the things I think will be palatable for a wide audience. I think the wide audience has more willingness to engage in strangeness than I had given them credit for.

You've addressed this in a blog post, but what about writing and publishing a first novel proves to be a hindrance in working on a second book?
Everything nice that some says about the first book, my brain can tear into pieces and reconstruct as a cut on the second book. Sunny and Maxon have such a wonderful love story, too bad George and Irene just aren't as wonderful. Emma Butcher is such an odd, interesting mother character, too bad Sally Dermont is such an unmitigated hag. So, that's something I should probably figure out a way to STOP doing, as it does impede my progress somewhat.

When it comes to receiving feedback from friends and editors, how do you know the difference between a good but tough suggestion versus one that's just not right for you?
The book won't do anything it's not supposed to do. So if someone gives you a note and you try to implement it, you can either experience the gorgeous sensation of "Ah, that's it! That's what it needed!" or you can experience the excruciating drudgery of trying, trying, trying and failing to make it work. And if you sense that something isn't working, you have to stop. Some things that my editor suggested did not work. Some did. I think it's fair to try everything, but it's also fair to say, if you can't do it well, that you can't force it.

You give lots of helpful writing advice online: whose writing advice has helped you?
You know, what has really helped me, online, more than advice has been the opportunity to race myself, and pressure to produce. I often use Write or Die, which is writing software that begins to blink, beep, flash, and shout at you if you stop writing for more than three seconds. I also am addicted to National Novel Writing Month, which encourages mad drafting, no editing, and buckets of output in a short time.

As a writer, my best work is done far away from people, after at least 24 hours of loneliness, in a state of total immersion. As a homeschooling mom, whose husband has a full time job and also a serious sport, I do not get very much "loneliness" and "immersion" and "away from people." So I have to force my brain into that tunnel state. Serious literary types may sneer at things like Nanowrimo and "Write or Die." I am a working mother, and I don't have have much time for sneering either.

You're making the book club circuit: for those new to that world, how would you advise authors on how to best prepare for these appearances?
Engage as a member of the club as much as possible, and as The Visiting Professional Author Lady as little as possible. Be a friend, be a nice person, be a good addition to the group. Listen.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions of homeschooling you encounter, either regarding the parents or the kids?
That homeschoolers are isolated. I mean there are stereotypes about homeschoolers being religious nutburgers or hippies or anarchists... but those are pretty much dissipating nowadays as homeschooling becomes more mainstream. What people still really don't understand is how much interaction these kids get -- karate school, horse barns, violin academy, homeschool co-op, church -- and that's not even counting the intentional socializing that homeschoolers do at park days, dances, playdates, field trips, etc. If there's one misconception that I wish I could explode, it would be that homeschooling is lonely. We actually have to work to *limit* the kids' social calendar, so it doesn't start taking over our lives.

Who are some of your favorite famous baldies?
I loved Natalie Portman bald. She's my very favorite. Also Sigourney Weaver bald. I'd love to see Claire Danes bald! Demi Moore and Britney Spears, not so much. In terms of boys, Bruce Willis, definitely. Dostoevsky, obvs.

How does it feel to be the 324th person interviewed for
It's a dream come true. Thank you so much for having me! You're a peach, and all my love for your new baby!