An Interview with Stephen Emond, author of Bright Lights, Dark Nights

Stephen Emond

As with his previous novels Happyface and Winter Town, Bright Lights, Dark Nights, Stephen Emond’s latest engaging blend of novel and art is a perfect book for reluctant readers and guy audiences (among others). We couldn’t recommend it more, and were glad to have the chance to talk with Emond.

GR: Each of your novels has a very different approach to how the art compliments the novel. What was your process for this one?

SE: Using art in my books has become kind of a ‘signature’ for me, though at first I was opposed to it. My career started with graphic novels and comic strips, and as a kid I always assumed my future was in art. The storytelling came much later. When I was developing my first YA book, Happyface, my editor had suggested the idea of using art to tell part of the story, something I slowly came around to as I started thinking of all the ways I could creatively show emotions and subtleties outside of the prose. By the time I did Winter Town, I felt the need to show I could write a full novel without falling back on art as any kind of crutch. So my use of art in that book was mostly in mood-setting and relegated to between chapters or ‘off to the sides.’ For Bright Lights, Dark Nights, I wanted to again show the mood and tone with art, this time inspired by urban sketching, which I’d gotten really into. It helped provide a messy urban vibe that complimented the text. Some of the art is menacing and foreboding while some of it is very beautiful and inviting, depending on where the story was headed. Moving forward I’m excited to incorporate art in more creative and challenging ways, so that the book can’t be told the same way without it. It’s something not every author can do, so I feel I should use it to my best advantage.

GR: How the internet has changed expression-and often times aggression-is such a central theme in BLDN. What was the initial spark that inspired you to take on this beast of a complex topic?

SE: I spent full mornings perusing the internet on race-related topics and nearly drowned in internet hostility and vitriol. It wasn’t so much an “ah ha!” moment as it just went hand-in-hand with this kind of story. There was a lot of internal debate on just how viral the story should go, ultimately I decided to keep it a more local story than blowing it into a worldwide headline, though I hinted at that world by having feed-aggregate sites posting the story to show how it might feel having completely random voices far from context giving their opinions. I still have some regret in not making the storyline bigger and the reach and consequences bigger, but it was already getting to be a lengthy YA novel and I find my strengths are in characters and voice. I was challenging myself with the broader strokes of the story, and I do question whether I should have pushed further, and certainly it could have doubled it’s length diving into the complexities of internet culture and viral news, but I’m happy with the story as it is.

GR: One of the things we think is particularly awesome is BLDN is unabashedly romantic. Guys want a little romance, too, after all. What did you want to explore and capture in that area?

SE: The romance and relationship aspect was definitely there before the more dramatic segments. If you read Happyface or Winter Town or even my comic book Emo Boy, that’s much more where I’m ‘comfortable,’ and it took a lot of prodding from my editor to fully expand the story. I had hints of the racial differences, the “friendly racism” in social structures, etc, but it was my editor who said ‘if you’re bringing up these fascinating topics, you should really go into it.” I didn’t want to keep writing the same story over and over so the idea for me became this difference of looking inward and looking outward. The first half of the book could easily stand side by side with my other stories but the second half was really something new for me, and it became very invigorating for me to do the research and write something like I’d never written before. Some reviewers I find love the early relationship stuff, while others wanted a lot more of the heavy topic stuff. It’s a lot to cover in one book!

GR: Walter learns a lot about how he views people-through race, through relationships-what do you feel is specific to this muddy process for people Walter’s age? What were some challenges you had in capturing this?

SE: I learned a lot of what Walter learns myself. There were early drafts that had problematic content, either not giving characters full three dimensional arcs, or solving things too easily, or letting Walter off too easily. I needed to show that Walter, even if he’s our protagonist, has some deep-routed issues to solve. And he at least gains a knowledge of it by the end. Likewise, I couldn’t have a pat “bad guy” character to throw wrenches in Walter’s plans, I needed to show that the villain of the story isn’t really a villain, just someone dealing with his own issues, and in some ways Walter’s a villain for him. The book deals with some dark subjects that give every character something new to think about by the end. Some reviews have claimed that I solved it all too pat, with everyone in a positive space at the end but that wasn’t really my intent. I did want to show that status quo is shaken by the end and that change occurs. Change is the name of the game for a teen audience, the entire genre of Young Adult is about the transition from youth to adult, so it’s a great genre for books. Stories are about change, about learning and reacting and growing.

GR: How much is your audience in mind while writing?

SE: My first book I wrote as something I’d like and that was about it. Having an editor helped in terms of thinking of a broader audience outside of myself. A lot of my earlier notes were about the bigger picture: what are we really saying with this story, what’s being learned, what will the audience gain from it? I got a lot of great emails on that book about people, boys and girls really, who didn’t read much but really held onto that story as one of their favorites. It’s hard not to imagine that when writing. With Winter Town I found a lot of people held on to certain passages and lines as really meaningful to them, all the little nuggets of truth. I tried to keep both in mind working on Bright Lights, being a topical book and “ripped from the headlines” (slightly misleading as I’d started this back in 2011, it took a while to write). I certainly hoped to write something that would open minds and have readers thinking after they closed the book. I didn’t want to be preachy or message-y, I wanted to tell a story about Walter and Naomi, and if on top of that I can have someone think about these themes, it’s an added bonus.

GR: What have you learned about guys and reading during your writing journey and speaking engagements?

SE: It’s hard to say from where I stand, as an author. Ninety-nine percent of what I do is by my lonesome, so mostly what I have to go off of is emails I receive. My editor is more ‘out in the book world’ and she tells me that my books are well regarded for reluctant readers, and crossover readers from comic books, or transitional books from people that grew up with illustrated MG novels. I’ve received emails from people saying they don’t read often but really love my books, especially Happyface. Or emails from teachers or parents saying they’re shocked to see their son reading and carrying this book with them everywhere. It’s a really amazing process going from an idea in my head, to the writing process, to publication and emails like those.

GR: Lastly, what are a handful of books you love and want to pass on that inspired or are like BLDN, or not at all?

SE: (Here’s a list of) books I was likely inspired on some level by while I wrote. For what it’s worth, originally I was drawing heavy inspiration from 60’s Stan Lee Marvel comic books but I’m not sure how much of that made it through to the end. And some inspirational movies:
Love Jones-this is one of my favorite movies ever and was a big influence in terms of the conversations and casualness of loafing around the city while falling in love.
Love and Basketball-in the same category as Love Jones.
Do The Right Thing-I had to work hard to not get too close to this movie, it’s so note-perfect for race arguments and gradually raising hostilities. It’s a great movie if anyone hasn’t seen it.


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