The Lightness author Emily Temple grapples with releasing a novel 'into two pandemics'
"I hope this book is a transporting one, for the moment," Emily Temple says of her debut novel.
Her statement is in reference to the current geopolitical climate, which makes These Times a highly confusing moment to release a book. In a few short weeks authors and publishers have pivoted from a conversations that sound like, how do we promote this book on Zoom or will we be able to print and ship to, essentially, what are we all doing with ourselves?
We'll get to that in a second but first, if you'll allow us, a word about The Lightness, which is, indeed, transporting. The novel reads like The Girls, if you replace Russell's dilapidated ranch with a mystical, picturesque Buddhist camp (colloquially known as The Levitation Center) high in the mountains. Instead of Evie Boyd, we have Olivia, another teenage girl with a runaway father and emotionally-unequipped mother — she's come to this camp (a special session for teenaged girls) in search of her father, a devout Buddhist who came to the Center and never returned. Instead of Suzanne, we have Serena, a queen bee dead set on achieving levitation (something rumored to be possible at the Center) who drags Olivia into her clique of darkness.
But where The Girls draws from the well-known canon of Helter Skelter, The Lightness tackles the fascinating and complicated matter of western Buddhism. The novel is autobiographical in that sense (and that sense only), using Temple's upbringing as inspiration — her father was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Tibetan teacher who brought Buddhism to the west. His was the Buddhism of the Beats ("I'm pretty sure my dad took a poetry class with Allen Ginsburg at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics," she says, "though he has not produced any of the poetry from that class despite me asking repeatedly."), and Temple spent her summers at a Shambhala center in Vermont, where her parents sat for lectures and the children participated in a sort of makeshift day camp. Buddhism trickled into many facets of her life, whether it was the shrine room in her childhood home or the time her father responded to a traumatic teenage haircut with the response Everything is impermanent.
"When I started writing this book I started with place," she explains. "The camp was my favorite place in the world. It’s beautiful, it’s in the mountains, and it has this aura of secrecy and specialness to it. But then I totally perverted it and changed everything about it. Sorry, dad. [laughs]"
The book exudes a dose of skepticism (or cynicism — each reader's take will probably depend on their own place on the religious spectrum), which seems to be a way for the author to grapple with her own relationship to Buddhism. There's the matter of appropriation: as narrator, Olivia imbues the plot with Buddhist teachings and a not-irregular reminder that what many Westerners believe the Buddha to be (you know, the chubby guy with the bare chest?) is actually completely factually inaccurate. But Temple struggles more so with the darker side of the religion itself.
"When I was younger, I thought Buddhism was morally better than other religions," explains the author. "Because you hear about the Catholic priests and you hear about corruption and abuses. And I thought, listen, in my thing we don’t have any of that."
She had an awakening, of sorts, that called into question her relationship to the religion. Buddhism as a whole, and Shambhala in particular, has been hit with the same allegations of abuse and harassment as other religions. Temple explains that the revelations complicated her ability to participate: "I knew exactly what to do — I was like, peace."
The Lightness, which hits shelves on June 16, began as a short story in 2014. Temple's wrote it as part of her MFA program, eventually building out the novel version for her thesis. The work evolved over the next five years as she found an agent, worked on drafts, and eventually sold the novel to William Morrow.
The author's day job just happens to be serving as managing editor at Lit Hub, which puts her in a unique (and not always enviable) position when it comes to the stress of releasing a debut novel.
"I'm pretty close to the industry, so in a way, it helps me to know what the range of possibilities are for debut novels, and in a way, I know too much," she admits. "As I was writing I had to actively fight against the thought in the back of my mind, what makes you, Emily, somebody has a desk full of galleys, pick up a galley? How can you be writing towards someone picking up your galley?"
But as so many aspiring authors know — especially after the past week's #publishingpaidme Twitter movement exposed the deep divisions between the experiences of white and PoC authors — it can be really hard to get a book deal and even harder to break through all the noise and actually find success. For many books, the thing that actually gets book editors and readers to pick up a copy is the often elusive (and internally controversial) Blurb: The quote on the back of the jacket (or prominently place on the cover when warranted) from successful authors offering their acclaim. Temple's blurbs are, to put it lightly, impressive. Téa Obrecht, Garth Greenwell, and Chloe Benjamin have all given The Lightness a (deserved) seal of approval, which of course begs the question of who gets the opportunity to put their book in front of authors of such prominence in the first place.
It's an issue that Temple has of course pondered — as an editor in charge of giving space and attention to books, she's aware that blurbs, much as they're derided, give a sense of where a novel is going to sit on the content spectrum. She points out that a lot of this comes down to the publishing houses, another source of existential crisis for many of us in this time of reckoning about the inclusion and treatment for PoC authors.
"The publishing houses give you all these signals, they signal, this is the big book we want you to know," she explains. "But then they also are publishing 10 other books. Maybe the answer is that fewer books should be published? That we should be paying more attention to the ones that do get published? But it’s a business so I don’t know how, or if, that would work."
In these early days of our country's highly delayed moment of reckoning, discussions like these can't (and shouldn't) be avoided, and can lend an air of seriousness, urgency, and confusion to a book promotion that would otherwise be lighthearted and celebratory. The idea of promoting your novel as a white woman can be as awkward as having to ask about promoting a book as a white woman.
"First I was going to publish into a pandemic," Temple says of her book's timing. "And now it's a reminder that I'm publishing into two pandemics — and a global uprising. To be honest, it's been a struggle to know whether I should even promote my book or whether I should make space for other people. I'm a white writer and it feels totally not important to push my book on people."
But what Temple does have is a platform, and a contract with a publishing house that doesn't lend itself to self-sacrifice. Plus, she believes in the theory that to build a truly inclusive and fair industry, authors and the people who publish them have to be deliberate in their work for change. She likens it to the difference between a crash diet and adopting a healthy lifestyle — the former is a fad, whereas the latter actually works.
"What I’ve been thinking the last couple days is that in order for this to be a sustainable movement, we have to include it in our daily lives," she says. "I hope there is space for all of it"