Close Encounters: Leah Thomas Chats About “When Light Left Us”

The Morris Award finalist shares what inspired her latest sci-fi mash-up, the soundtrack that helped her keep writing, and what she’s working on next.
Leah Thomas has followed up her Morris finalist Because You’ll Never Meet Me (2015) and the acclaimed Nowhere Near You (2017) with the genre-bending When Light Left Us (February 13, 2018; all Bloomsbury). In its starred review, SLJ said, “This is a novel about coping with loss and family dysfunction. What makes it stand out is Thomas’s talent of bringing intimacy, thoughtfulness, and a sense of wonder to her writing.” The YA author shares what inspired her latest sci-fi mash-up, the soundtrack that helped her keep writing, and what she’s working on next. What inspired you to write When Light Left Us? Like most stories, When Light Left Us has no shortage of inspirations. But unlike most of mine, I can pinpoint the actual moment I decided to write this story. My roommate and I were having an extraterrestrial movie marathon, and of course Spielberg came into play. My dad’s favorite film when I was growing up was Close Encounters of the Third Kind, so I’d always loved it vicariously. However, rewatching it as an adult really kicked my fridge-horror brain into gear. The movie ends with the main character leaving Earth to travel with aliens, which seems transcendent and cool until you actually think about it. This guy doesn’t just run away from Earth—he also abandons a wife and several children, who then have to grow up knowing that their father chose the stars over them. Of course, this is a powerful and probably intentional allegory, because similar traumas impact all our lives—how many of us are raised despite absent parents? So I wanted to write this story from that perspective. I just wanted the kids to be okay one day. A story like this should belong to those left behind. This novel has the same otherworldly touch as your previous works (Because You’ll Never Meet Me and Nowhere Near You). Is this a companion novel to that duology? I didn’t really think about this, but maybe I did, because at one point a character in When Light Left Us references the fictional town of Kreiszig, which is Moritz’s home [in the previous books]. And I love the idea that science fiction novels allow for all manner of weird to exist in the same space. I would love to write a sequel novel to both Because You'll Never Meet Me/Nowhere Near You and When Light Left Us, perhaps about Brendan Nesbitt studying abroad in college and meeting Owen Abend (from Because You'll Never Meet Me) there. I think they would have a lot of very uncommon things in common, and honestly it would be nice to write such a specifically weird romance, especially as I have an unaccountable fondness for boarding school/dorm stories (thanks, J.K. Rowling!). I also admire stories that don’t resolve easily—when we experience traumatic experiences, healing takes decades. Character growth doesn’t stop when a book ends. I doubt there’d be much audience for this mash-up, but thanks for indulging my ramblings. Maybe I’ll write it anyway. The third-person narrative often switches perspectives, focusing on the different Vasquez siblings, their mom, and even on Luz, the alien that indelibly impacts the family. Why did you choose to write the novel in this kind of format? There are a few true answers to this question. Firstly, I am most comfortable writing in multiple POVs, because I think this creates a natural momentum for storytelling. As a character-driven writer, I often need this push-and-pull between voices to become invested in a writing project. Secondly, I think it behooves authors to consider situations from multiple perspectives. I don’t pretend that my novels are educational, but I think if we can demonstrate a little empathy, we’re doing our readers a favor. Life is a constant struggle to understand other people, especially those we may not agree with, and I’m a big proponent of putting on another’s shoes. Every time I start a book from one POV I find myself asking, “Okay, but what does the other person think?” I could not have written this book without the mother of the Vasquez kids, just as I could not have without the voice of the alien parasite itself. Can you tell us a little bit more about your writing process? Oh, buddy. Well. I’m an obsessive person by nature, and when I begin something I want it finished ASAP. The trick recently has been making sure that writing is the thing I’m obsessed with, because sometimes that’s not the case. For instance, for the past month I’ve had no desire to write or revise and have instead spent all my spare hours building four new costumes for cosplay. I think attention deficit is extremely common these days, especially among anxious individuals, and so the issue is not a lack of creativity energy so much as an occasional lack of focus. For this same reason, I’ll often write 20k [words] of a new book within four days and then suddenly switch projects. The trick is commitment. The trick is getting over the voice that tells you it’s a pointless waste of time. Also, caffeine. That’s good, too. And a good soundtrack. There are tough topics here: self-harm, abandonment, sexual identity. But there are also themes of forgiveness, love, and family. Was it difficult for you to balance the light and the dark in this one work? This book was a challenging one to write, mostly because I could not get out of my own head. Some of these issues hit closer to home than others. I was aware while writing that the central concept was really out-there sometimes, and abstract at best, despite trying to tackle some difficult subjects. I stand by the idea that science fiction and fantasy are ideal lenses through which to view tragedy, because they provide a small buffer. So I think I’ll say what I’ve said before: it’s important to me that in fiction, at least, decent people get what they deserve. If good people can’t have happy endings or at least happy moments in fiction, where can they? Unfortunately, the real world doesn’t always provide that balance. One can’t help but think of a certain 1980s film about a quirky extraterrestrial while reading this novel. Was When Light Left Us inspired in any way by E.T.? Of course it was! Because yes, the seed of the idea was planted with Close Encounters, but there are facets of all kinds of classic sci-fi tropes in here. The idea of Elliott soul-bonding with an alien in E.T. really haunts me. How do you maintain normal human relationships after you’ve shared your actual soul with another creature? How could any future connection possibly compare with being known that well? Which character was the most difficult to write? Which one did you most identify with? I was so determined to make Maggie (the mother) a sympathetic, flawed character. I think that too often parents are written out of YA books. For better or worse, the people who raise us are hugely impactful on shaping who we become as adults. But I also take issue with fictional parents who seem too cookie-cutter, too functional in a story. The majority of adults struggle with mental illness, too, and are often expected to put aside these struggles in order to maintain a family and a social image. But you don’t lose your humanity when you become a parent; you aren’t suddenly a better or worse person. Early in the writing process, my editor warned me that Maggie might not make the cut in the end. I gave her everything I could after that, because this story is about absent people but more about the people who are present: the ones who stay. Milo (the youngest sibling) is coping with the loss of Luz by listening to really loud music. What kind of music did you listen to while writing this work? Like Milo, I have a deep abiding love of alternative/indie music. Milo listens to Radiohead because they write a lot of songs about aliens (using Radiohead is about as unsubtle as anything I’ve ever written—ahaha—but can only be expected of a girl who decorated her entire college dorm in pictures of Thom Yorke). And there’s no band like Sigur Rós for creating atmosphere. An early draft of the book was named after the Sigur Rós song “Starálfur,” but of course that wasn’t marketable (but go listen to it, if you haven’t, because that’s the tone I was shooting for!). Other artists that helped me through this draft were Pinegrove, Beach House, and Perfume Genius. Musical soundtracks like Fun Home and Dear Evan Hansen helped me through it, too. I really can’t write without my headphones on! What are some of the books on your nightstand right now? Ooh! Well, I just finished The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzgerald, which was grisly and super fascinating and all about Joseph Lister, antiseptic, and the botch-ups of Victorian medicine. My nightstand holds The Book of Dust, which is gorgeous as expected. I dream to write anything half so good one day. What is next on your plate? I’m revising my fourth YA novel, Wild and Crooked, which is heavily inspired by true-crime stories (stay sexy; don’t get murdered!) and features two POVs: the son of a murder victim and the daughter of the murderer.  I’ve started a few new projects that have been tough to dedicate my brain to, including a story about necromancy students in London, a middle grade book about half-baked monster kids (a fruit bat vampire, an invisible girl who’s just slightly blurry, etc.), and a fantasy book about bone magic and homunculi. I really can’t commit! Something has to give.

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