By Lindsey Wojcik
“I can’t believe you’re leaving Manhattan.”
The opening line to Andrea Dunlop’s debut novel Losing the Light immediately pulled me in. The thought of leaving New York City is something I grapple with daily, yet the line also had me yearning to discover an exotic place far from Manhattan.
As 30-year-old Brooke Thompson prepares to leave Manhattan to move upstate with her fiancé, she runs into a man she once obsessed over, French photographer Alex de Persaud, at a party. Though Alex does not seem to remember the time they spent together in France while Brooke was an exchange student, Brooke accepts an invitation to meet him for a date the following week.
The meeting sends Brooke into a tailspin, and she’s flooded with memories she hoped to forget about her year in France—including an affair with a professor, her close friendship with fellow American exchange student Sophie, and the impact that Alex had on her a decade prior. Dunlop also takes readers on a journey to the picturesque city of Nantes, and she sprinkles the French language into dialogue throughout. (I had the opportunity to read the book in its natural habitat on a recent trip to Paris and hoped it would improve my French. Il a aidé un peu.)
Dunlop, a Seattle-based writer and the social media and marketing director of Girl Friday Productions, recently took some time to answer questions about her first novel, her cure for wanderlust, and what notable figures would be invited to her dream dinner party.
Lindsey Wojcik: Did you grow up wanting to become a writer, or was that something that grew organically over time?
Andrea Dunlop: I always wanted to be a writer. My mom loves to tell people about finding little scraps of paper with dialogue written on them all over the room when I was a kid. It’s always been wrapped up in my identity.
LW: Who were your early influences?
AD: I was lucky in that my parents read to us a lot when we were kids. Some of the first books I remember being captivated by were those in C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. The idea of having a portal to an alternate world really captured me: probably because I always felt a bit like that with my own imagination. I discovered Sandra Cisneros in high school, and her work is so beautiful and vivid, I’ll never forget reading The House on Mango Street for the first time. In college, I studied with the novelist Pat Geary, who became my mentor and friend. Her work is stunning and impossible to put into a genre: magical realism would be the closest. Not every great writer is a great teacher, but she definitely has that distinction.
LW: What's your writing process like? Do you outline, just dive in, listen to music, etc.?
AD: I write in the morning when I first wake up—after coffee, of course. I usually have a general idea of where the story is going, but I’m often surprised by what comes up as I’m working. That’s the most gratifying part of the process for me: that I learn more and more about my characters as I write them.
LW: What inspired you to write Losing the Light?
AD: I started writing an early draft 13 years ago when I was still in college. I had just returned from a semester in France, and it was an utterly transformative experience—not in the way it is for my characters, I would hasten to add. To be truly out of your element in that way, to see with your own eyes how differently people in other countries live, that was something that stuck with me in a big way. What’s interesting is that when I started the book, I was the age of my characters in the flashbacks, and when I finished it I was roughly the age Brooke is when she’s looking back, so I felt all the nostalgia that she’s feeling about those memories.
LW: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters in the novel? How do you develop your characters in general?
AD: My characters often have an initial real-life inspiration, but the fun part is that they grow to very much have a life of their own on the page. I usually draw inspiration from people I have brief interactions with, rather than those I know well. It’s fraught to write about someone you know well, obviously, and also, if you’re too close to someone, your imagination has no space to fill in all the gaps. A huge theme of Losing the Light is the way in which you become infatuated with people when you’re young, and therefore completely misunderstand their true nature and intentions. I often feel that first flush of infatuation with characters, and then grow to know them on a deeper level as I go.
LW: What were some of the themes you wanted to tackle in the novel?
AD: One of the major themes is the sense of possibility that you feel when you’re on the cusp of adulthood. It’s really a coming of age novel in that way: that opening of the mind and heart when you leave your home for the very first time, especially traveling abroad, that was something that was really life-changing for me. The female friendship angle is also very strong, the way in which when you’re that age, friendships feel like the most important thing, and yet they’re often complicated and even destructive. Those friendships are almost romantic in their intensity—even if they never become sexual—you feel like you can’t live without the person and you just want to be with them all the time. And everyone is still figuring out who they are, so the breakups are often even more dramatic than whatever romantic splits you have. It’s so different than when you’re in your thirties and your best friends are people you’ve known for a decade through marriages, kids, what have you.
LW: The book’s opening line “I can’t believe you’re leaving Manhattan” really struck a chord with me as a New Yorker, and it's something all New Yorkers can relate to—the unbearable idea of leaving the city. You left New York for other adventures. What was the hardest part about leaving? What do you miss the most?
AD: To be honest, it wasn’t so hard when I left because I was really ready for a change. But if you’d asked me two years earlier if I’d ever leave, I would have said “Leave New York? Blasphemy!” New York is a pretty magical place, and for me it was the perfect place to spend my twenties. There is the sense in New York that anything can happen at any time, that there are life-changing opportunities around every corner. It’s thrilling and exhausting in equal measure. I worked for Doubleday when I was in New York, which taught me so much that has put me in good stead as a publishing professional and an author. I wouldn’t trade those years for anything, but nor would I ever be tempted to move back. Certainly it was glamorous and exciting and that sense of possibility was wonderful. Everyone you met was doing something fascinating; I feel like I met plenty of difficult people, but never boring ones. I miss that. And also—no disrespect to Seattle, which has many fine restaurants—but I miss the food! And the pizza? Get out of here.
LW: What's your cure for wanderlust?
AD: Well, travel if possible. Even going somewhere not terribly far-flung for a quick weekend can give you a new perspective and remind you how vast and wonderful the world is. But if not, books! I think that traveling via book is something all readers can relate to. The variety of perspectives available to you in books is mind-blowing. One of my favorite book-travels in the past few years was reading the stunning Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi. It was so vivid and transporting; I don’t know that I will ever get the chance to visit Lagos or Accra, but with this book, I was given a meaningful glimpse at what life in those places is like. I really hope that American publishing will move in the direction of incorporating more diverse voices in the coming years, including translations, otherwise it’s such a missed opportunity for us all to see outside our own experiences (and for underrepresented voices, see to see their own experiences reflected). Buzzfeed is doing some truly impressive work in this area, including their fellowship program. More of that please.
LW: How has your role as the social media and marketing director for Girl Friday Productions helped your writing career?
AD: My work with GFP has given me an incredible skill set for marketing my own work. The job of being an author, and a businessperson with a product to sell, is quite different from the job of being a writer—an artist who needs to create. I think my career in publishing has given me a unique appreciation for the way in which those two roles must co-exist and also remain separate. My work has given me a lot of skills in terms of promoting my work, but perhaps even more helpfully, it’s given me the ability to take a step back and not take things super personally. Once the book was finished, I put my marketing hat on. Many writers are way out of their comfort zone having to promote their own work, but the way I see it, this is my job. I worked really hard to get a book published, and I want it to reach as many readers as possible; I don’t think that’s anything to feel embarrassed by! Many other people also worked very hard on my book—my agent, editor, publicists, etc.—and so anything I can do to promote the book is for them too.
LW: Now that you have your first novel under your belt, what’s next for you?
AD: Working on another book, of course. My new novel is about a woman who discovers that she has wealthy cousins she never knew about when she meets them at her mother’s funeral. She joins them in New York two years later and much drama ensues. It’s about how you think you know your family members, but actually your very closeness to them can obscure some truly disturbing things about their nature. I’m also very excited to be writing about New York!
LW: What’s your advice for up-and-coming writers of all kinds?
AD: Figure out what your goals are, and then work towards them accordingly. Maybe you just want to write for yourself and a small audience, that’s absolutely valid. There are plenty of university presses and small presses that do amazing work for a small handful of titles each year. Maybe you want to be a best-selling author someday, that’s awesome, but recognize how much work that will take, far above and beyond writing a great book, which is always step one. I also feel that it’s really important to support the community on which we all depend: i.e. other writers, booksellers, etc. Always be reading new books by your fellow authors, talk about them on social media, review them on places like Goodreads and Amazon, and come see them when they visit your town. If you want support from the community, it starts with you.
LW: Can you please share a random fact about yourself?
AD: I’m obsessed with exercise guru Shaun T. I do one of his Insanity workouts almost every morning. The workouts are great, and he just seems like such a lovely positive person. I think he is a good force in the world. Do you ever do that game where you imagine your fantasy dinner party? Mine is Shaun T, Cheryl Strayed, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Michelle Obama. There could be more, but I’d want to keep it intimate. We’d eat something healthy but there would also be plenty of wine.