Emily Ziff Griffin, author of YA debut Light Years, explains what her late friend Philip Seymour Hoffman taught her about art.
Emily Ziff Griffin will publish her debut YA novel, Light Years, this September — but this is hardly the beginning of her career. Griffin has spent years working as a movie producer, from running Cooper’s Town Productions with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and to producing such films as Capote, God’s Pocket, and Jack Goes Boating.
Griffin’s grief over two events in her life — her father’s death from AIDS when she was 14, and Hoffman’s death in 2014 — helped inspire Light Years, the story of Luisa, a young girl with synesthesia, who ends up on a personal spiritual quest while also trying to stop a global pandemic. Griffin explains that in EW’s exclusive excerpt from the book, below, Luisa “starts out as someone who is driven by logic, rationality, and her intellect… and what she eventually gets to uncover is that there are other parts of herself, her emotional self and her creative self, that are equally important.”
The author spoke with EW about the book’s genesis and what Hoffman taught her about art. Check out the interview and excerpt, below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What inspired this book?
EMILY ZIFF GRIFFIN: The real seed of the book was my father’s illness and death when I was a child. I had always been interested in the idea of telling that story, but I never wanted to tell the literal story of what happened. I didn’t want to tell the story of a young child in the 1980s whose father gets AIDS and dies. I always felt like that wouldn’t allow me to get to the elements of the story that, to me, are most resonant for other people, not just for myself.
The things that have come with the distance from it. I was almost 14 when my father died. So at that age, I had no bigger perspective other than just fear, and kind of an inability to even process what was happening.
Telling that story would have been the story of a young child who’s sort of disconnected from this impending loss. But as an adult, with all of the distance and time and work that I’ve done, and all the other life experiences that I’ve had since then, I have the ability to think about my own death and the loss that we all experience when people around us pass away in a totally different way. There are a lot of ideas in this story, but the central ideas have to do with the ways in which the darkest moments of our lives actually become the most transformative, empowering, revealing, and impactful in a positive way.
Light Years was also influenced by your creative partnership and friendship with Philip Seymour Hoffman, right?
Yeah. I think, as creative people, these huge turning points — and sometimes very small turning points — become these anchors in our work. They are too influential, in terms of how we experience life and how we view the world, not to become huge factors in the work that we do. I had actually started this book shortly before he died. But at a certain point, I really started to view this book as a kind of metaphorical journey for a girl who’s coming into her own power, specifically her own creative power. And that was my own journey with Phil — it’s like a torch I feel like I picked up and am trying to carry on. I worked with him for 12 years, and that relationship influenced the way I view art and storytelling and character. Anything I know about those things is because of working with him. The continuation of our relationship, to me, is actually being able to put this book in the world.
What are some of the specific things you learned from him about character and art?
One of the biggest things is the idea that all creative work must be personal, but it should rarely be literal. I started to observe that he chose even the projects that bore no external resemblance to his own life because they were about him on some level. And as we built a production company and both made choices about what to take on, I learned from him to always be looking for that: Why am I attracted to this story? What is it about me that I can bring to the telling of this story that’s going to make it resonate for other people? That’s really what I think he did so beautifully, always connecting his own experience and his own perception of people and humanity to the character he was playing. I think that’s why his characters produce so much empathy, even when he was playing someone who was not nice, or not a “good guy.” You always felt for those characters, and I think it’s because he could see himself in them.
How do you flex different muscles as a novelist than as a producer?
The main attraction, aside from feeling that I have this thing I want to share and express, is the fact that producing requires a lot of other people to say yes to you, to give you money, and to agree to participate. The amazing thing to me about writing is that it requires none of that: I can literally sit down and do this thing, and no matter what anybody else says, whether it gets published, it exists in the world. I wrote the book and it’s a complete thing. I felt the most “in my element” writing this than I ever did producing someone else’s movie.
Excerpt from Light Years by Emily Ziff Griffin
It was that time of day, when the light hits everything sideways. The sun was casting its final gleam of golden warmth and the sky was going from blue to purple. We went down to the beach, my young mother smiling and laughing, her dark chestnut hair falling down her back in wavy curls, and my father carrying me in his arms. We braced against a sheet of wind that hit with the force of a clanging church bell when we cleared the top of the boardwalk and saw the ocean spill out before us.
My mother ran ahead, flinging her sandals onto the sand and stripping off her emerald green dress. My father set me down, grabbed my hand, and we ran after her. I was all of two or three years old, but I remember. The waves seemed like mountains, but as my mother charged into them, they shrank. My first lesson in scale and perspective. My father pulled his T-shirt off over his head and stooped down to my level: “Stay here, lamb. Okay?” I nodded and watched him go.
The two of them sank under the warm summer sea, then reappeared, kissing, as I stood on the wet beach, the frothy water rushing up and over my feet. I smiled and took a step toward them. And another. They looked back at me and began to swim to shore. I took another step. Suddenly a wave rushed in and knocked me down. I felt the water all around me, filling my ears and pulling me as the wave ebbed. And then, my father’s hands, lifting me to him and my mother swooping in. She grabbed me and held me as I cried. I don’t know if I cried from upset or relief. But I cried and my mother kissed my face, wrapped me in her green dress, and carried me all the way home. That is my first memory.
The sound of the city dissolves into a hum. I stare up at the gleaming glass tower and a torrent of blue pours down. The building’s edges blur against the cloudless sky—nature and the man-made becoming one. Blue always tastes like chocolate when I’m nervous, and I’m nervous. I swallow, then will the sensation away with the sound of my own voice.
“This is it,” I say to my father as the white-gloved doorman beckons us inside. We enter the marble lobby and the temperature drops about twenty-five degrees. A rush of magenta sweeps across my eyes. My skin erupts in goosebumps and the trickle of sweat that has been nagging its way down my spine dries up in the cold air.
I step toward a bright-eyed man behind a reception desk. “How can I help?” he asks.
“I’m Luisa Ochoa-Jones,” I reply quietly. My father mops his sweaty brow with a handkerchief.
“Yes, of course,” the man says, nodding. “Seventy-fifth floor.”
“Thank you.” I turn toward the long, mirrored corridor that leads to the elevator bank.
I’ve been blonde for exactly nine hours and even though I’d never felt more like myself as when I stepped out of the shower with my new hair, my reflection is kind of a shock. I guess I’m still getting used to it.
My father and I arrive at the elevator. I glance down at my black lace dress and chunky, high-heeled ankle boots. I press “up” and focus on the shape of the arrow on the button. It’s short and squat. A fat little arrow.
“Before a concert,” my dad says as we wait, “I like to think about how the music isn’t for me; it’s for someone out there listening, someone who needs it. That always makes me less nervous.”
Okay, that’s nice and all, but Thomas Bell doesn’t need anything from me. It’s the other way around.
The elevator car shakes gently against its surrounding walls as we rocket up the seventy-five stories to the penthouse. My ears pop and my stomach rolls over on itself. I clutch the handrail, wanting both to get there and never arrive. A ding as we level off. I shift my posture, tilt my chin slightly upward, roll my shoulders back. Breathe, I tell myself. The doors open with a wave of cold air. Another flash of pink reminds me that I am not at ease.
These sensory misfires have been with me all my life. When my emotions run high, my senses get muddled. It’s like the wires get crossed and my brain sends the wrong messages to my body, or vice versa. Smells come with flashes of color, sounds have tastes, sights bring the sensation of temperature or touch. Certain people and places can spark complex reactions. My grandmother is the same way and all her life everyone has treated her like she’s crazy. She doesn’t seem to mind the condition, but I do. I keep it hidden. Most of the time, I can think my way back to normal. Most of the time, I can keep my feelings in check.
We come out into the hall. The walls are papered in pale grey velvet and lit by small chandeliers that look like they were salvaged from the Titanic. A light-haired, boyish-looking man stands waiting in crisp khakis and a white dress shirt. “Hello, Luisa,” he says. “And good afternoon, Mr. Jones. I’m Joe Anderson, Special Assistant to Mr. Bell.” He shakes our hands and leads us to a door at the end of the luxe hallway.
We step through. Below us, Central Park’s lush meadows and plump trees spill out, surrounded on three sides by the gray and beige concrete of an older New York, the one that existed before the skyline was swallowed by glass and steel. I stand and look down from this 200-million-dollar apartment nearly 1,000 feet in the sky. I feel like I can hold the entire world in my palm.
My father takes in the space. “Jesus,” he mutters. It’s easily twenty times the size of the biggest room in our house. Leather sofas. Thick, plush rugs. Two walls of floor-to-ceiling windows, a third with a series of closed doors, and a fourth covered by a massive painting of a shirtless figure superimposed over a satellite image of a city.
“Is he falling or flying?” I wonder aloud.
“What do you think?” replies Joe. His expression is unnervingly flat. “Please sit,” he offers after a moment. “Something to drink?”
My father clears his throat. “I’d like some water, please.” Now he’s nervous. Which somehow makes me calmer. I watch Joe move briskly to one of the doors, then vanish behind it with barely a sound.
My watch buzzes with an incoming text. My mother: In a cab. Be there ASAP. She’s late, like always. I sit down and look over at the wall of closed doors. How many rooms are back there? Who’s in them? What does Bell keep in his fridge?
I cross my legs and direct my anxious mind to the scar on my knee from when I fell horseback riding in Mexico. My grandmother says it looks like Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Mexican Virgin Mary. She says it signifies my closeness to God. Like I said, people think she’s nuts. Maybe she is.
I rub the scar with my thumb. My shrink, Dr. Steph, says that the more I can engage my senses deliberately, the less they will take on a life of their own.
“She’s late,” I report.
My dad shakes his head. “I told her, not today. Not to this.”
“I don’t care,” I respond quickly. “It’s better she’s not here. She’d only make me more stressed.”
He sits down and hooks his steady green eyes to mine. “You have nothing to lose here, whatever happens. You just be yourself and let go of the results.”
But I have everything to lose.
Thomas Bell is the most brilliant and successful tech entrepreneur in the world and the Avarshina Fellowship means funding, mentorship, and most importantly, freedom. Yes, the fact that I’ve made it to the final round will most definitely help get me into college, if I wanted to go to college. But I don’t. College is just a bubble, a delay.
I want my life to start now. Five minutes ago. I want to know what it’s like to turn the lock on my own apartment door, to work all night and sleep all day if I feel like it, to not have to explain myself to anyone. Plus, my mom would be paying for college and I don’t want to owe her anything.
“Mr. Bell is ready to see you.” I look up. Joe is back. He sets a crystal-clear glass of water on a heavy coaster. I watch the liquid settle in the glass. I look down again at my scar. All the days between splitting my knee and dyeing my hair are imbedded in my cells like bits of rock in a mountainside: my body as time capsule.
My father and I stand.
“Sorry, the meeting is between Luisa and Mr. Bell,” Joe says.
I hesitate. My father looks at me. His eyes are searching, uncertain, then they shift.
“You’re very tall in those shoes,” he says after a moment. I soften into a smile. I grab my bag and follow Joe to the wall of closed doors.
My watch buzzes again. My mother: In the lobby.
I quicken my pace. My pulse quickens with it and my mouth becomes so dry I imagine any words I form will come out as imperceptible gasps. I take one look back at my dad and cross into the next room.
The door clicks behind me and a wave of bright yellow gives way to pitch black. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I see a large desk at the center of the room. Two slick black chairs stand next to it facing a monitor that seems to float on the surface. Joe leads me to sit and a moment later I am alone.
My chest constricts. A hissing sound envelops me, like I’m surrounded by snakes. This isn’t real, I tell myself. But my body doesn’t believe me.
I leap to my feet. My eyes search for the door. I have to go. I have to get out. I take two clumsy steps and the screen lights up behind me. I turn back. The Avarshina Industries logo fills the void: an abstracted image of a flaming match.
I struggle to draw breath. I zero in on the match’s orange tip. Orange: bright, harmless. I track the edges of the match from one end to the other and back again. I start to relax. I remind myself that 2,300 people applied and only five of us made it this far.
I picture the apartment I will have. It’s one big room. Bright light and a couch for reading. A place to work, a bed. All grays and white. I’m making coffee in the morning quiet. Maybe there’s a bird on the window ledge. Maybe it chirps like it understands the value of solitude.
I go back to my seat. I wrap my hands around the armrests and wait, steeping in the amber glow of the monitor. Moments later, I am overwhelmed by the smell of roses. I sense a figure standing in the corner. The room brightens. The figure is Bell.