The Luminist is David Rocklin’s debut novel. It will be released in the United States by Hawthorne Books on October 1, 2011. Set in nineteenth century Ceylon, the novel tells the story of Eligius Shourie, an Indian boy whose father is killed by English soldiers after a melee at the Court of Directors, East India Company. He becomes a servant in the house of Catherine Colebrook. Independent and driven, married to a fading Court Director, Catherine is chasing an obsession: the nascent art and science of photography. Eligius becomes her apprentice in the quest, and a bond neither of them expected is formed while around them, unrest between the native populace and the colonials occupying their country threatens to break open. The Luminist has also been sold in Italy and Israel.
What’s a nice boy from Chicago doing writing a story set in 19th century Ceylon?
What’s said nice boy doing writing interview questions back and forth to himself?
Ah – I see how this is going to be. How did you come to tell this story?
The Luminist is very (emphasis on very) loosely inspired by a period in the life of Julia Margaret Cameron, an English woman who became involved with photography in its infancy. She was a remarkable woman, unique for her time in that she tenaciously pursued this little-known art and science against all societal pressures and expectations. I saw an installation of her photographs at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Now, I’m not a photographer, and I had no previous experience with India, but something about those images really captured me (read HERE for the story behind the novel’s cover). I read a quote attributed to her – “I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me” – and she had me. This obsession of hers, to take a moment out of the world and hold it still, became the novel’s heart.
Is that how you approach writing? The story coalesces around a unifying theme?
I guess it’s fitting that the novel deals with images (both indelible and fleeting), because for me the story always comes from a picture that won’t leave my head. I begin with what I see in there. Why is that person staring that way? What’s going on through that window behind them? Was there someone else with them, in the moment before this? Whether the image is something fixed and real, or something in my memory, or something that never was (but now has taken up residence with me and may as well have happened), I tend to look for what I know is there. Then I start to imagine myself into the gaps between what I can see, what I can demonstrate, and what I don’t know. I read a quote once, that historical fiction is speculating on the gaps between what we know and what we don’t know about a particular person, or epoch, or event. I completely agree. The thing you can see sparks the desire to write, but all the things that can’t be seen – how people felt, what they said, what they did; all that has been hidden away by the passing years – that’s what’s written after I’m provoked towards the possible.
You must know what I mean. This is meta, for god’s sake.
Work with me.
Ok. The moment before a thing existed, and then the moment it does –what is there to compare with that feeling? There’s the moment before you see the love of your life for the first time, and then the moment you see them. There’s the moment before the first photographic image ever came into the world, and then the moment it did. The gap between, that’s where the possibilities live, that can be written into being. I found myself really drawn to that as a driving force in the lives of these characters – Catherine first, and then Eligius as he began to understand what lay behind her obsession.
I find meaning in things that aren’t in existence any longer. They come from a time and place when that gap was so much wider. News of discoveries in India would have taken months to arrive anywhere else. There’s so much one can create from those chasms of time and distance. It’s the possible. Does that make sense?
You’re asking me…er, you?
So, you don’t subscribe to the “write what you know” school.
I actually think that in the wrong hands it can be very limiting advice. Write what you can’t stop thinking about. Write what you don’t want anyone to know.
Does that mean that there are pieces of you in The Luminist? Pieces you don’t want anyone to know?
Can I ask –
Was it daunting to research a time and place so far removed from your own life?
It was. When I first began to consider what I’d taken on in terms of overarching story and setting, I defaulted to the elements that I’d seen before. Only, I am not the person to render, intuitively and comprehensively, things like India’s caste system, or the intricacies of politics at the East India Company, or the precise mechanics of early photographic devices. That daunted me. Then I realized two things. First, the Ceylon of this story no longer exists – I could travel to what is now Sri Lanka and I would not find it. I had to imagine life into the characters’ Ceylon to make the novel work.
Second, those elements (which have been so critical to other stories) were not what brought this story to me. The Luminist at its heart is about the moment before those photographs ever existed in the world. It’s about what it felt like to see the first image come, and how the quest for that moment changes Catherine and Eligius.
Once I had a good feel for the general events of the period – and an even better feel for how I was going to fictionalize them into being in this novel – my research focused on the day to day experiences of the people themselves. I wanted to bring the setting into being from the perspectives of someone who’d never been there (Catherine) and someone who sees the only place he’s ever known in a new light (Eligius).
Looking back, tell me a few things that surprised you about this whole process.
I feel like an old hand at writing (that is, I’ve been at it a long time, and am smart enough to know how little I know), but brand new to the experience of publication. I didn’t know what to expect from the editorial process. Would the publisher gut the whole thing? My editors at Hawthorne went over my manuscript with a passion for the rendering of the story. They really cared about how the book came out, down to the selection of the cover. My agents are the same way – relentless on my behalf. I’m very lucky to be among these amazing publishing professionals.
I was also very pleasantly surprised at the graciousness and generosity of time and encouragement I have experienced from other authors. A number read the book and offered up wonderful blurbs. They didn’t have to do that. They just wanted to pay it forward.
Give us one of your writerly quirks.
I’ll give you two. I have to write at Starbucks. Have. To. Another coffeehouse will do in a pinch, but I prefer Starbucks. It’s the chai, the ambient noise, the constant motion. It just takes me somewhere. I thank them in the acknowledgements – a cry for help, I know.
Another have-to: I have to read it out loud before I know it’s done. I need to hear the melody of the sentences, the way the word that should be there but isn’t sounds, the forward motion of the story. And no, I don’t do that at Starbucks.
During my research for The Luminist, I came across an image that Ms. Cameron had created. It was a photograph of an Abyssinian (Ethiopian) boy. I knew right away, that little boy was going to become something. So, I’ve embarked on that story, tentatively titled “The Daylight Language.” It’s set in Abyssinia and England, and Queen Victoria figures prominently. More I cannot say.
Do you mind that it took you this long to get here?
I think I’d mind if I got here and couldn’t remember where here was, or why I came.