This Raging Light is debut author Estelle Laure’s story of 17-year-old Lucille, who is trying to care for her younger sister Wren after their mother takes off. Not only is Lucille coping with money worries and the fear that Wren will be taken away, she’s caught in the grip of an intense attraction to her best friend’s twin brother, Digby. PW spoke with Laure from her home in Taos, N.M., about her book, which she describes as an exploration of love – between friends, romantic partners, siblings, and even neighbors – and a depiction of the power that the main character claims by realizing her own strength.
Where did the book start for you – was it the plot or the characters?
I started with a scene that’s fairly late in the book. And then I realized that without a before, this couldn’t be an after. I went back and started it earlier, and I ended up playing Tetris with the whole thing, moving scenes back and developing the plot more. Lucille’s voice came in really clearly to me, and I went with that. I hadn’t really thought out the plot. I just knew there were these two girls: Lucille and Erin. And then Wren burst in, and then Digby. So the first things were the relationship between the two girls and the relationship between the sisters.
And they’re all strong female characters. Was this something you set out to do?
I have a really strong reaction when I see girl characters who are frenemies. I really dislike that. A story is a story, and I don’t feel that anyone has to uphold some kind of moral standard, but for me, those books where the girls are nasty to each other and the friendships are really competitive, I don’t want to read about that, and I definitely don’t want to write about it.
Similarly, sibling relationships are often portrayed as competitive or distant, but Lucille is very protective of her younger sister. Was that something you wanted to portray?
I was the eldest of six, and I have fiercely protective feelings for my siblings. Sure, I was irritated by things as we were growing up, but for the most part I feel that your family is your family, your friends are your friends. It’s important, it’s lifeblood.
Lucille and Wren have neighbors who help them out. Do you think that’s something that could really happen?
In some ways, it’s aspirational, I suppose. I feel like that type of kindness and community is something we should aspire to. I also did have the experience of living where people were right on top of me, and you can’t go through any kind of crisis without everybody knowing it. And I found people to be incredibly kind there and very giving.
Lucille’s parents are both off the scene, but the book doesn’t feel accusatory. How did you achieve that?
There are a lot of people in the book who are in moral gray areas, including Lucille herself. And I think she feels her mother’s weakness and has compassion. Just because you get into these sort of quandaries about honesty and what you’re doing in your life doesn’t mean, I don’t think, that you aren’t capable of being a good person and doing great things.
As you said, Lucille and Digby are in a moral gray area, because they act on their feelings for each other even though Digby has a girlfriend. What did you think was important in telling that piece of the story?
I thought it was really important to show that attraction, because if they didn’t have that wind propelling them, we wouldn’t still be able to like either of them. They needed to exist in a moment where they were so carried away that they can’t think. And I also thought about what Lucille wants, because that’s what drives a character. She wants to stay with her sister, and she also wants to be with Digby. And in one case, that’s going to mean that she’s responsible, that she’s going to try her best and do everything she can. And in direct opposition, the fact that she wants Digby is going to make her do all sort of things that she’s going to have questions about.
Lucille gets a waitressing job that on one hand saves her, and on the other, forces her out of her comfort zone by asking her to dress provocatively. Did you see that as a contradiction?
Milan Kundera says, quoting loosely, that literature is for asking questions, not finding answers, and every once in a while I like to say, well, I’m just asking a question here. She needs to make enough money to stay with her sister, she’s working with great people who end up being a family, and for her it’s a worthwhile exchange. This part is really autobiographical, that feeling of being uncomfortable and having to do it anyway. It’s probably the most complex and unanswered part of the book for me.
In your blog you talk about your decision to only read books by women for a year. What prompted that?
I found myself caught in this web of male authors: I’m a huge Vonnegut fan, I love Cormac McCarthy, and Ian McEwan, and this person has a new book coming out, and this one, and this male friend of mine. And all of a sudden, I was like, that’s it. I wanted to know what would happen if I only read women, to see if I could capture any larger thematic wisdoms, to see if it would illuminate anything about being a woman. I’ve loved it so far. There’s so much out there that I haven’t read, and I’m feeling very passionate about shining a light on women. I feel liberated by having this sort of guideline. I don’t know if I’m going to stop after a year.
What are you working on now?
It’s called These Mighty Forces, and it’s a companion to This Raging Light. I pick up another character’s point of view, and that character goes off and has a whole other story.
This Raging Light by Estelle Laure. HMH, $17.99 Dec. 22 ISBN 978-0-544-53429-2