Thank you for joining me today, David. I appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions.
My pleasure! Thanks so much for having me.
The Luminist is your first novel. How daunting was it for you to take on this subject matter in a first novel?
Daunting is a good way to put it! When I first began to consider what I’d taken on in terms of overarching story and setting, I found myself drawn, overly so, to the elements that I’d seen before in novels and films dealing with India in that time period. Only, I am not the person to render, intuitively and comprehensively, things like India’s caste system, or the intricacies of politics at the East India Company, or the precise mechanics of early photographic devices. Then I realized two things. First, the Ceylon of this story no longer exists – I could travel to what is now Sri Lanka and I would not find it. I had to imagine life into the characters’ Ceylon to make the novel work.
Second, those elements (which have been so critical to other stories) were not what brought this story to me. “The Luminist” at its heart is about the moment before those photographs ever existed in the world. It’s about what it felt like to see the first image come, and how the quest for that moment changes Catherine and Eligius.
Once I had a good feel for the general events of the period – and an even better feel for how I was going to fictionalize them into being in this novel – my research focused on the day to day experiences of the people themselves. I wanted to bring the setting into being from the perspectives of someone who’d never been there (Catherine) and someone who sees the only place he’s ever known in a new light (Eligius).
I guess you could say that I lived Anne Enright's amazing admonishment in the writing of this novel: "All description is an opinion about the world."
What about Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs inspired you to write your book?
From the first glimpse of them, the juxtaposition of contemporary and antiquated really struck me. After all, those faces had been gone for over a hundred years by the time I found them on the walls of the Getty Museum. A quote of Ms. Cameron's - "I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me" - together with those images conjured the notion of a woman at war with time, with memory, with loss, even with her own faith, as she fought to hold a moment of life still.
Did you discover anything particularly interesting about colonial Ceylon? What for you was the attraction of the time period?
I could relate to the cultural melting pot that was colonial Ceylon, living as I do in Los Angeles (perhaps one of the most diverse, and generally successful, melting pots in the world). The friction between worlds, the tentative steps taken by the bravest on either side towards the other - all very evocative themes to depict.
In your bio on redroom.com, you list John Irving, Chang Rae Lee, Andrew Sean Greer, and Don DeLillo as some of your influences. Which works by these authors would you recommend to my readers? I also have an affection for John Irving. Which of his books is your favorite?
I'm partial to Irving's "A Prayer For Owen Meany." One of the most emotionally generous novels I have ever read and a huge influence on me. Chang Rae Lee's "A Gesture Life" is also very important to me, as is Andrew Sean Greer's "Confessions of Max Tivoli." DeLillo's "Falling Man" may be one of the most economical, acutely observed and shattering books I've read.
When you write, do you have a set plan, or do you write "by the seat of your pants", so to speak? Any advice for aspiring authors?
Both! I tend to muck about with outline after outline, wading into moments both overarching and tightly tied to the moment, and then I discard it all and just dive in. I think the only advice I would presume to give aspiring writers is to write, and read. A lot. Make friends with those feelings of stumbling in the dark, being unsure of yourself, because they'll always be with you.
What are you working on now? Anything else in brainstorming stage for the future?
I've begun a new novel that actually started from research I did for The Luminist. Tentatively called "The Daylight Language," it's about an Abyssinian (now Ethiopia) boy who is taken from his country in the late nineteenth century after England invades, and is brought back to London to be a ward of Queen Victoria's court. It's still very early in the writing - I'm interested to see what it becomes!
David, thanks again for speaking with me today. I wish you much success with The Luminist and your future books.
Many thanks for having me. I hope your readers enjoy The Luminist, and see in it what it was that made me write it.
The Luminist by David Rocklin
Photography comprises the bright, tensile thread in the sweep of The Luminist, drawing tight a narrative that shifts between the prejudices and passions of Victorian England and those of colonial Ceylon. It binds the destinies of Catherine Colebrook, the proper wife of a fading diplomat, who rebels against every convention to chase the romance of science through her lens, and Eligius, an Indian teenager thrust into servitude after his father is killed demanding native rights.
The Luminist is a weave of legend and history, science and art, politics and domesticity that are symphonic themes in the main title, the story of an enduring and forbidden friendship. Catherine and Eligius must each struggle with internal forces that inspire them and societal pressures that command them. Rocklin’s is a bold landscape, against which an intimate drama is poignantly played out. Just in this way, our minds recall in every detail the photo snapped at the moment of pain, while all the lovely scenes seem to run together. (Goodreads)
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