Emily Ziff Griffin Interview: Light Years, the World of Publishing, and Inspiration for Writers

Emily Griffin is the author of the new release Light Years, which defies genres, provides both action and heart, and gives readers a gripping narrative from authentic teen voices. I had the honor to ask Griffin a few questions about her writing process, the authors who have shaped her work the most, and what she has next for readers. Not only does she provide great insight into the industry and the positive and negative aspects of writing, but she also has plenty of wisdom to share with the next generation of writers, seeking to write diverse and realistic teen stories.

 

What first inspired you to tell Luisa’s story in Light Years?

I wanted to tell a story inspired by losing my father to AIDS when I was a teenager. And I wanted to tell it from a teen girl’s point of view, for a teenage audience. I basically wanted to write the book that would have resonated for me when I was a teenager grappling with death and the future and the nature of human existence and what it means to be a girl and a woman and to have big feelings that are often not easy or convenient.
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In the book, Luisa has a condition that was very intriguing to read about. At what point did you know this would be a significant aspect of Light Years?

Her condition came about during the writing of my second draft but then didn’t really become what it became in terms of its connection to Luisa’s emotional state until much later. That was a key turning point in the book’s evolution. I was always writing about a girl finding her way toward embracing her authentic self, her emotional self, but connecting that journey to her condition was one of those “finally seeing the forest through the trees” moments of writing.
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Do you consider yourself a plotter or a pantser? How did your method of choice affect the overall structure and flow of your book?

Mostly a plotter, like I need the security and confidence that come with a solid outline. BUT I am learning to trust that I can also rely on a fair amount of discovery along the way, and, in fact, that is vitally important. I think because I’ve spent the past nearly 20 years working in film, the basics of the ‘hero’s journey’ three-act narrative structure are burned into my brain, and I do instinctively follow those signposts. But then I leave room for a deepening of the story and characters and themes to occur and evolve as I go.
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How similar are you to your main characters? Do you add aspects of yourself to every character, or are there certain ones that reflect more of your personality than others?

I believe all creative work must be deeply personal while striving to be non-literal. So Luisa and I have a lot in common. We both have had to learn how to embrace our emotions as powerful tools, as opposed to trying to hide them. We have both come to recognize our instincts and creativity as having world-changing potential. We have both lost a father to a devastating disease. But Luisa is also present to her experiences in a way I was not at her age. That is one of the biggest differences between us. And she’s also half-Mexican and a world-class coder, which are not things I can claim to be! I do have things in common with all the other characters too: Thomas Bell, Kamal, Phoebe, Evans, Lu’s brother and parents. I use elements of my own psyche to help me understand and bring to life all my characters.
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Which writers and books have influenced your writing the most?

Jennifer Niven really thrilled me with All the Bright Places. The suspense and emotional impact she created around real life, around incredibly accessible, honest love and loss was so artful and surprising and thrilling to me as a reader. She really honors her readers’ intelligence too, which I appreciate. I also found Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone inspiring from a world-building and thematic point-of-view when I was working on Light Years. But I tend to read a lot of things that are not YA because I am newer to the YA world. So I love Joan Didion and Dana Spiotta and George Saunders and Meghan O’Rourke and the mythologically-rooted storytelling of Clarissa Pinkola Estes (her work has been a HUGE influence on my writing). And then, of course, a childhood favorite: A Wrinkle in Time, which has much in common with Light Years for me.
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How would you describe the publishing process? Do you have any tips for teens and young adults in regard to the world of publishing?

The publishing process has been frustrating, to be honest. It should not be surprising coming from the film business where the challenge is the same, i.e. that there is so much competition for the audience’s attention, and it is very hard for most books to gain a foothold. What has been gratifying is that people who have no connection to me seem to love and really respond to the book, but I wish more people knew the book existed. My approach has been to see myself selling one book at a time, connecting with one reader at a time, and taking satisfaction from those connections. I think that’s my best advice: Connect with as many people as you can, and be grateful for those exchanges and the chance to share your work in whatever form you can find.
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Do you ever see yourself writing in a different genre or for adult audiences?

Absolutely. I am a content creator and storyteller, and for me that takes many forms: on screen, through teaching, through the creation of products, books, games, stories of various kinds. I have no shortage of ideas of things I want to put into the world! That said, I think I have a deep connection to teenagers, particularly teenage girls because of how significant that period of my life was for me. It is an audience I am drawn to over and over, and it feels like an important place for me to center a lot of my work.
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If you could cast a celebrity to play Luisa, who would you choose? Why?

This is tough because there aren’t a ton of teenage Latina celebrities. That’s part of why I wrote Luisa as half Mexican, because I want young girls of color to be able to see heroines of epic stories who represent them. That said, I’m super into Dafne Keen, and even though she’s currently too young, things take so long in Hollywood maybe she will end up being the right age at the right time. She has a ferocity and strength but also a kind of otherworldly quality that I think could be amazing for Luisa.
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Your bio on Amazon describes that you produced the film Capote and worked closely with Philip Seymour Hoffman. How would you describe this experience, and do you have any interesting stories to share from your time in the film industry?

My work with Phil for over a decade was incredibly rich and rewarding, not always easy, but it made me who I am in so many ways. It is the blessing of a lifetime to work closely with an artist at his level, and it taught me so much about how to think about storytelling and art-making and character and why all of it matters.
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What has been the highlight of your time as an author? Do you have any memorable or funny stories from your time on tour?

I had some really wonderful exchanges with my Lyft drivers, which I wrote about on Instagram. I think I was in a state of such openness sharing my book with people at events that I was able to really connect with my drivers and hear their extraordinary life stories. It was kind of profound!
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Are you currently working on another book? If so, what details (if any) can you share with readers?

I am working on another book, set at a summer camp in Maine. Like Light Years, it is high concept with a metaphysical/supernatural component but also very grounded in the real-life experiences and emotions of the characters.
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Finally, what advice do you have to share with aspiring young writers?

Make your work personal, write from your heart, from the center of your emotional experience. Stay away from “good ideas” and veer toward the undeniable feelings you’ve felt and want to say something about to your readers. Don’t get trapped by what actually happened; expand beyond it by letting your emotional truth dictate the narrative on the page. Find the people who truly wish for your success, and ask them for honest feedback. And finally, after opening up to that feedback, take what you like, then leave the rest. You and only you are the author of your own work.

Joshua Flores currently lives in Tustin, CA, and attends Arnold O. Beckman High School. When he is not busy doing homework or cramming for math tests, he can be found dreaming up ideas for his book, obsessing over YA fiction, attending book signings, or discovering new and exciting places in LA. He is currently an editor for the Entertainment section of The Beckman Chronicle and a contributing editor for the blog Food, Fitness and Fiction. Follow him on Instagram and on the blog Food, Fitness and Fiction to hear more about anything book related.

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