On May 16th, at our 10th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating six of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.
Lights All Night Long follows a Russian exchange student, Ilya, to a small town in Louisiana. If navigating a new country with an entirely different culture were not difficult enough, Ilya remains haunted by what he has left behind. His older brother, Vladimir, remains in prison for a crime Ilya does not believe he committed. Consumed by the weight of his past, Ilya embarks upon a quest to vindicate his brother along with the help of his host sister, Sadie, who has a complicated history of her own.
Natalie Whalen: Where were you when you found out Lights All Night Long was going to be published? How did you celebrate?
LF: I was at home, crouched in the one corner of our yard where I get cell service. My daughters were inside, peering through the windows at me, wondering why I was acting so strange. That night, I went out to dinner with my mother-in-law to celebrate—my husband was out of town, and she, sweetly, had come to help me out with the girls—so the two of us went on a date and ordered too much food and drank too many French 75s.
NW: You wrote in your author’s note that Ilya, the protagonist of Lights All Night Long, was originally supposed to be a minor character. Clearly, the novel ended up very different from how you originally intended it. What was the novel originally supposed to focus on, and when did you decide to take the novel in such a different direction?
LF: When I was in grad school, I wrote a short story in which Sadie was the protagonist. The story was published, but I had this lingering feeling of not being done with it, so I began writing more about Sadie and her world. I began the novel over and over, with different versions of Sadie—in some of those early drafts she’s pregnant, and in others the perspective alternates between her and her mother and J.T.—but each of these beginnings petered out around the hundred-page mark. Then I wrote a scene in which Sadie meets Ilya, a Russian exchange student. I’d intended for their interaction to be brief, for Ilya to throw into relief Sadie’s sense of being an outsider, but once he entered the story, that was it. He took it over pretty instantly.
NW: What really stands out for me in Lights is the tenderness with which you treat your characters. While they are quite nuanced, I understood as a reader how much you cared for each of them. I found this to be particularly true with Ilya’s brother Vladimir, who is written in such a way that allows us to reckon with his morality right alongside Ilya. How did you come up with his character, and do you find it important for yourself as a writer to love each of your characters?
LF: I do—or, if not to love each and every character (because of course there are some who are hard to love), then to find an emotional point of contact with each character, something that helps you understand their motivations and desires even if you don’t share them. That said, with Vladimir it was pure love. Vladimir has this spark, this joy for life that contrasts so sharply with the risky choices he seems intent on making—and I think he emerged initially from some sort of wish fulfillment. I’d like to be more impulsive, more like Vladimir in that sense, but as I developed his character, and the world he inhabits, that impulsiveness began to pull him in dark directions.
NW: Lights is timely in so many unexpected ways, in terms of its exploration of narcotic addiction and life in contemporary Russia, both of which seem to constantly be in the news these days. “Safety,” your 2015 One Story piece, was similarly relevant to contemporary goings-on with its subject matter of a school shooting. Can you talk a little bit about writing fiction inspired by the news cycle?
LF: I wrote “Safety” in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. I was a new mom then, and naïve enough to think that having a child meant I could also protect that child, like that was a promise I could honor, but of course it’s not, and the story came out of that realization.
With Lights All Night Long, the inspiration didn’t really come from the news cycle—my mom’s a Russian historian, and when I was young, we hosted two Russian students who eventually became the inspiration for Ilya. Also, I started the novel over six years ago, when Russia wasn’t looming nearly as large in the public consciousness. The opioid epidemic was in the headlines, though, with heartbreaking regularity, and in my research I also came across krokodil, which is a horrifically deadly home-made heroin that first appeared in Russia in the early 2000s. I think that it’s easy to be myopic about the opioid epidemic, to think of it as an American problem, but it’s bigger than our border. Russia’s opioid epidemic is every bit as serious as ours, and the devastation of krokodil is a sort of terrible synthesis of that point.
NW: Lights is a murder mystery, but I feel that where the novel really shines is its treatment of connections between people and places and its investigation of morality in relation to these two things. Is this something that you feel that you uncovered through writing Lights?
LF: Definitely. Writing Lights was a process of discovery, and I came away from it with a reinforced sense of our universal humanity. Sadie is from Louisiana, and Ilya is from a town in Russia’s northwest—worlds that seem, on the surface, incredibly disparate—and yet their traumas and burdens and desires and dreams have a lot in common.
NW: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the Literary Debutante Ball?
LF: Meeting the whole One Story team!
Natalie Whalen is a writer and student living in New York City.