Matthew Quick, WE ARE THE LIGHT

Matthew Quick, WE ARE THE LIGHT

Zibby is joined by New York Times bestselling author Matthew Quick to discuss his deeply-moving new novel We Are The Light. Matthew shares the personal struggles and paranoias that inspired the book, the devastating writer’s block he experienced during his early sobriety, and the powerful forces that helped him heal and write again. The two also discuss Matthew’s wildly successful debut novel The Silver Linings Playbook, revealing the not-so-glamorous realities of fame. Finally, Matthew hints at his newest project and shares some words of wisdom for aspiring writers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Matthew. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss We Are the Light, your latest novel.

Matthew Quick: Thanks so much for having me. It’s an absolute pleasure.

Zibby: Wow. First of all, your book is funny at the same time as being devastating and thought-provoking. It has all the good things. Oh, my gosh, when Lucas is putting the mail through the slots and being like, I just happen to be walking by, so I’m going to put these letters here, all these things, I was chuckling. Then the next paragraph would be something horrific. It made for quite a ride. Beautiful. Amazing.

Matthew: Thank you. Thank you. That’s great to hear. I’m glad you took something from it.

Zibby: Why don’t you tell listeners a little bit about what We Are the Light is about and how you came up with this idea?

Matthew: We Are the Light is a novel about a small town by the name of Majestic in Pennsylvania that experiences this horrific tragedy in a movie house. Out of the aftermath, our hero, Lucas Goodgame, he reaches out to his Jungian analyst, who abandons him on page one. He starts to write these letters to his analyst. As we see the letters unfold, we really get to look at how Lucas’s psyche is protecting him by using story and really holding him in this very careful way. He constructs this narrative that is almost like a womb for him while he heals. We get to see how the town, rather than puncturing that protective bubble, really holds it in this very gentle way until Lucas can heal, his healing process can finish. I’ve been trying to write this novel since 2014. The shooting in Aurora, Colorado, really affected me. I’m a big moviegoer. Movies has always been like a church to me. It’s a sanctuary of story. I was also a teacher. It’s interesting because Columbine didn’t affect me as much as the movie theater. I remember going to the theater afterwards and for the first time in my life, looking over my shoulder and checking exits. Who’s sitting next to me? I did this event in Ambler, Pennsylvania, where I actually spoke at a movie theater in front of a packed house. I remember during the talk, which went really well, addressing this wonderful community who was loving and kind — that part of me was right there, but there was another part of my brain that was thinking, am I safe? It was this really weird almost paranoia that developed about movie houses. I always say with my mental health problems, I take them into the creative writing wrestling ring and try to wrestle them down onto the page. The second part of this story — I worked on that novel for years. I just could never get it right. Then I got sober four years ago. My great reward for getting sober was crippling writer’s block.

Zibby: Congratulations.

Matthew: It was wonderful. Ego fought back really hard. Ego said, you can just bull your way through. You can lone wolf it. Just sit down at the computer every single day and try to write. I would work every day for eight hours. Sometimes I wouldn’t be able to write a single sentence. A year would go by. I’d have ten pages. I would show them to my wife, who’s a novelist. She’d come back to me almost in tears, not because they were good, but because she was so afraid that I just had completely lost the ability to write. After three years of banging my head against my desk and not succeeding, ego was completely defeated. I entered into Jungian analysis. Very early on in my analysis, I became very attached to my analyst in this very profound and scary way. He was helping me. I knew that. This sick part of me kept thinking, when is he going to abandon me? When is he going to disappear? What happens if he gets sicks and he goes away? I took that paranoia to the creative writing wrestling ring. I thought, wait a minute, what if I combine this with my movie house idea? That’s how the novel was born, by combining those two things. When I sat down and started to write We Are the Light and I wrote those first two words, “Dear Karl,” it was like a magic spell. My writer’s block had been lifted. I couldn’t stop writing. I was writing ten, twelve hours a day, just go, go, go, for this six weeks of bliss. It was like being able to breathe again after four years of not breathing. It was very strange. My analyst would say that my psyche shut me down until I would go through this process and I was emotionally, spiritually, mentally ready to write this book. I think that that’s true.

Zibby: In your relationship with your analyst, did he say, “I love you”? That was another really funny line when that happened with Lucas and his therapist.

Matthew: I made a rule that I’m not going to talk specifically about things that happened in my analysis. I will say that the novel is very much inspired by my experience with my analyst, who didn’t abandon me. Thank goodness. I think that’s as much as I want to say about what happened.

Zibby: Sorry, I did not mean to pry in any way.

Matthew: It’s fine. I don’t mind you asking that.

Zibby: That’s funny. There were so many parts about surviving a tragedy that were in here, from Lucas feeling shunned a little bit by the survivors because he didn’t want to get into the activism that was required or he felt that was required afterwards, which I thought was interesting. How do you be the right kind of survivor in your community when you’re all still there every day if you don’t drink the Kool-Aid on wanting to fight? He very much didn’t want to fight. In fact, his relationship with the brother of the perpetrator of all of this also ostracized him, in a way. Can you talk about this notion of, how do you be the right kind of survivor? What does that mean? Do you have to be part of this whole group if you feel differently than everybody else?

Matthew: I’ll start by saying that as an introvert, I face this dilemma all the time. As an introvert, a lot of very complicated things go on inside of me all the time that are very private. I think we live in an extroverted world. In particular, lately with social media, we’re expected to extrovert everything all the time. When it comes to activism, sometimes there’s this great pressure to say the right thing, join the right side. Sometimes it’s a little more complicated than that. Sometimes there’s a lot of things going on in people. There’s a quote from Jung that I love. I am not someone who memorizes quotes, so I will summarize it. I know I will get it wrong. The gist of it is, where there is love, there is no will to power. When there’s will to power, there can be no love because the two are the opposites of each other. They’re the shadow of one another. I think that Lucas, his response to the tragedy is all-out love. Sandra Coyle’s response is all-out power. Because they’re the shadow of one another, they’re very attracted to each other. Lucas wants Sandra to join the movie crusade. Sandra wants him to join the activists. In some ways, they’re kind of the same person. They’re just the shadow of each other. When I was writing, of course, I was inhabiting Lucas’s mind, so I was kind of on team Lucas.

As someone who steps out of the novel and not a writer anymore, just observing, I’m very sympathetic to both. I completely understand why Sandra feels the way that she does. I also feel, again, as an introvert, we live in a time where it’s very prescriptive. We say, everyone has to act this way. Everyone has to have the same response to a tragedy. Everyone has to have the same political opinion. I think that that is dangerous because we relegate the opposite side to shadow. We other the opposite side. I really wanted to write a novel where the response to this problem, or my character’s response, was this radical love and this radical inclusion, which feels, in some ways, transgressive in the current climate, but I think that there’s a hunger for that. As I raise this consciousness through the novel, I see people responding in ways that let me know that there are a lot of people out there that are hungry for an inclusive kind of love, particularly men, I would say. There’s a lot of men out there that are hurting, that are looking for a way to find the ability to be loved and to love other people.

Zibby: That’s beautiful. It’s really important that you say that. That’s great.

Matthew: Thank you.

Zibby: Lucas’s love transcends this world, actually, and goes to his recently deceased wife, Darcy. Darcy, right?

Matthew: Darcy, yep.

Zibby: You said one time, Dar, sometimes I drop the last syllable, or something. You said something funny like that. Anyway, he’s really convinced that he is with an angel and that there are feathers that he collects and puts in a baggie that he says, this is proof that she is here. He feels bad for other people who don’t see that and feels like he would be cheating on his wife for the nights that other things start to happen. Talk about that and, if you feel comfortable, your views on what happens after death or what you were trying to show by what this relationship was that he continued having with his wife after she passed away.

Matthew: I’ll start by saying what happens after death is probably above my paygrade. I’m not going to make any proclamations about that. I wish I knew the answer.

Zibby: I’m always eager. I’m looking for new data.

Matthew: Lucas, as we learn through the novel, has a very complicated relationship with his mother. He has a very complicated relationship with the feminine. Darcy comes into his life as a young man and really helps him form a new type of relationship with the feminine that is very healing and beautiful and positive. She really holds him in this way that is very healing to his masculinity. When he very suddenly loses her, he’s in crisis. He elevates his wife psychologically to the role of the divine feminine. She becomes a goddess to him, literally. She’s an angel. That archetype is something that he needs in order for his psyche not to fracture. Of course, Darcy’s best friend Jill comes in and starts to help him reorient to the feminine in, I don’t want to say the real world, but in the physical world because Darcy exists in the mental world. It’s this question of these powers that are greater than us. Jung was very curious about this, whether we’re talking about archetypes or whether we’re talking about the numinous, the divine. Lucas, and I think most people who go through a horrific tragedy, these forces that are greater than us descend upon us. The only way that we can fight back against them is to find something that is of that level. I know for me with my early sobriety, it was really tough to fight that, because it was this huge thing, until I started thinking through the Jungian analysis about the archetypes and the power within me and the connection to psyche and the connection to the self. Then I could start fighting back because I had something as powerful. Ego can’t fight those things. Ego is very brittle.

Lucas, his ego would very much want to say, I’m powerful enough to stand up to this level of tragedy. Of course, none of our egos are that strong that can withstand that. We need something more. I think that’s where love comes in. I think that’s where the divine feminine comes in. I think that’s where community comes in. His relationships with other men, particularly Isaiah, this really positive masculinity with these men who love him unabashedly, who touch him, who hug him, who tell him they love him, who act in ways that are incredibly positive, all of this is really necessary for Lucas to begin to heal. In many ways, even though I didn’t suffer a tragedy of that magnitude ever in my life, getting sober and kind of having my psyche fracture and realizing that I had to reinvent myself and get to know myself again was this really tremendous thing. I had to rely on the kindness and love of my wife. My closest guy friends really rallied around me and showed up repeatedly every week in very simple ways, having lunch, phone calls. We started a movie club. Those things and those acts of love, that steady showing up every week really held my psyche together in a way that got me through the writer’s block and got me through early sobriety. The beginning of that felt like I was against these huge forces that I didn’t understand. Those simple things and those people rallying around me and then the work I did through Jungian analysis really gave me the tools to fight back against these, what felt like incredibly dark forces at the time.

Zibby: You’ve essentially written a thank you note.

Matthew: Yes.

Zibby: Even in letter form. It’s perfect.

Matthew: I think it’s a thank you letter. I don’t ever want to be didactic when I’m writing fiction, but in some ways, it’s an instruction manual, too, for these times. I didn’t mean it to be that way, but as I look back — I usually write in kind of a fever dream. I’m an intuitive creative. When I write, I just let go. It almost feels like channeling. Then of course, I go back and psychoanalyze myself. My analyst reads my book and tells me what I was doing. You realize that, wow, I was very unconscious of a lot of the material that was moving through this novel. The unconscious was also sorting all of this stuff for me as well. The writing process was very much a healing process for me. I felt that at the time because it felt like this self was aligned with this project. It was very euphoric, but I didn’t really understand what was happening in real time. It’s only a couple years later that I look at it and I can see what psyche was doing, what the unconscious was doing, and how my ego kind of got knocked offline to allow this book to move through me.

Zibby: Wow, so interesting. I feel like maybe your therapist needs to analyze lots of books.

Matthew: If you’re a novelist, you need to know that if you are in analysis or you’re in therapy, they will get a lot of information out of your work. Those of us with the right eyes and ears to see and hear I think can do that to any artist, really.

Zibby: This could be your side hustle, analyzing other novels.

Matthew: I don’t know.

Zibby: I don’t know if you feel comfortable talking about this, but was there a hitting-bottom type of moment or a moment where you decided to get sober? Did you try repeatedly? What was it that led you at this point four years ago?

Matthew: I flirted with sobriety for a while. In my early forties, I had some health scares. I went to the doctor, and I had really high blood pressure. I was about sixty pounds heavier than I am now. He told me that I had gout. I thought, wait a minute, people who get gout are eighty years old. How could I possibly have that? There was another moment, too, where we were at the Wright Brothers Memorial, which is a couple miles down the road from where I live. It’s this flat, open space. Of course, the memorial is straight up. It’s basically a lightning rod. Lightning came. It’s always risky in the Outer Banks. You’ve got to get in. I started to try to run to the car. I ran about twenty feet, and then I realized I couldn’t run anymore. It was this moment where I thought, okay, this has got to stop. There was another moment, too, where I’d gone on vacation. People had taken pictures of me. I looked at them. I literally didn’t recognize myself. I thought, who is that person? I was like, oh, that’s you. It was this moment where I realized just how out of control I had gotten with it. It was never a rock-bottom moment where I woke up in a gutter or I got fired from a job. It was more just, I wasn’t seeing what was happening because alcohol is something that numbs. Alcohol is kind of like a womb. It numbs you. It puts you in this very passive state. I enjoyed that for a couple decades until I didn’t anymore.

Zibby: How did Silver Linings Playbook fit into everything, the success of that, the movie? Was that a celebration? Did that amplify the negative forces? How did that affect your life, really?

Matthew: From a career standpoint, it was amazing.

Zibby: Well, yeah. I mean your mental health and all of that.

Matthew: From a mental health standpoint, it was very disorienting. To go from an unknown writer to talking to Harvey Weinstein on the phone every day and having him sending me places and telling me to write things and do things, that in and of itself, just dealing with Harvey, was a mentally straining situation for all the reasons you might imagine. Also, when you’re in the MFA at grad school, you have all these friends. You’re all writers. You’re all in the same place. Then you get a movie deal. You’re no longer in the same place. You don’t have peers anymore. Of course, my friends were very gracious and wonderful, but they don’t know what it’s like to do that. It was very disorienting. Expectations were really high. I’d never been media trained. All of a sudden, I’m in a room doing satellite interviews for hours. I feel that I did the best I could at the time. I think that I did well. I was also on Klonopin. I was drinking heavily. All of the things that I hadn’t dealt with in analysis were all there bubbling up. I just was pushing it down and pushing it down. I do think that it ratchetted things up.

I remember going to the Oscars and feeling so much anxiety to the point where I just wanted to leave. The funny thing was that there were plenty of extremely famous people — I won’t name names — that looked exactly like I did when the cameras were off. It was one of these things that you think you know what you see when you’re seeing on TV and in the movies, and then you see what it’s really like behind the scenes. It’s a very, very different experience. Those people work extremely hard. They’re under incredible amounts of pressure that I think the general public doesn’t appreciate. My level was nowhere near what the A-listers were going through. It was one of those moments where you realize that you’re so privileged to be there. Everybody is looking at you as though you’ve “made it.” Yet I felt like I was falling apart inside. It was this very strange separation between what people were seeing on social media and what was really going on privately with me. Maintaining that persona, if you will, took a lot of bandwidth. I think that kind of led to my crash as well.

Zibby: People always think grass is always greener, or whatever. If only I were a movie star. If only this. People don’t know.

Matthew: No. I think everybody has their own private battles they’re going through, whether you’re an A-lister in Hollywood or the person that lives down the street. We all have that drama going on in our head. We all have hurts. We all have pain.

Zibby: Just because you’re famous doesn’t mean you’re not a person. I think people forget that famous people are people.

Matthew: I think too. The other thing that I’ve thought a lot about is, how do you get the drive to become famous? Speaking from personal experience, how did I get the drive to become a New York Times best-seller or to go to the Oscars? The engine of that was tremendous pain. It was psychological pain and trying to prove my worth, trying to figure out who I am, trying to understand why it was that some people could go into a high school and teach for twenty years and feel fine, and for me, I went in, and it felt like my head was going to explode. Why was that? What was going on with me? That drive to figure that out really is what created the art. In some ways, it’s a gift and a curse. A lot of these genius actors or directors, they have that engine going on as well. That’s not what we see when we see just the glitz and the glamour. I think most creative types, they pay a price for this spark that allows them to put something on the page or up on the screen or to inhabit a character. Oftentimes, people are quick to admire the so-called rewards of that, but they’re not so quick to acknowledge the price of that. My analyst always says about anything that I do, are you willing to pay the price for that? I think that’s not something that we really talk about openly in the current zeitgeist, but there’s always a price.

Zibby: I feel like it’s so obvious in politics. Not that I want to talk about politics. The personal cost and all the things you have to be willing to sacrifice has never been more obvious than some of the recent events. It’s absolutely true. Do you feel like, now that you’ve done all this work, you can point to the pain points of your own life that led you down these paths? Do you feel like you’ve processed it all and you’re like, okay, it was a combination of X, Y, and Z, and that’s kind of what did it? Is that overly simplistic?

Matthew: I don’t think it’s overly simplistic. I think it’s the work of a lifetime. There was a moment early on in my analysis where I had a couple months under my belt, and I said to my analyst, “Are we almost done? Am I going to be able to write? It feels like we’ve done a lot of work here.” He just very wisely said, “I don’t know. When I did my analysis, it took twenty years. You might think yours is going to take two months. It seems a little brazen to say that, but we can explore it.” Then I realized I needed to come to this with more humility. I think I have learned a lot about my own personal psyche and my pain and what was driving. I can look back. I don’t know if I’m going to get into all of this right here.

Zibby: No, I just wondered if you had figured it out, not that I want you to share it. I wasn’t going for that. I just wanted to know, is it possible to pinpoint? We all, obviously, have so much that makes up who we are today.

Matthew: It’s peeling the onion layers. Again, it’s the work of a lifetime. I think that can sound daunting, but then there’s always something to get up and do tomorrow. There’s always more work to do. I look at it in a positive way.

Zibby: How are you feeling about work going forward? Are you still able to write? Did the spigot close after this novel came out? Is it still dripping? Is it pouring out?

Matthew: I will knock on wood here because I don’t want to jinx anything, but I actually just finished my next novel yesterday.

Zibby: Wow, yay! Congratulations.

Matthew: I’m very happy I got the rough draft done before book tour.

Zibby: That is so exciting.

Matthew: Thank you. It’s still going.

Zibby: Can you say anything about that book?

Matthew: No, I cannot, but good try.

Zibby: Thank you. I’m really happy for you. That’s good. I feel like there’s always this fear that the well will dry up again.

Matthew: There’s still that fear.

Zibby: I’m delighted to hear that. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Matthew: I think the best advice is to not try to be someone else and not try to be the thing that your agent or whoever is trying to make you be, but to get quiet, to go inside and do the work to get to know yourself the best that you can. Then ask your soul or your psyche, what is the story that wants to come through me? I remember doing the MFA and having very brilliant and wonderful teachers. They would tell me, hey, try this. I would do all of it, almost like a workbook, because I could learn. I wrote The Silver Linings Playbook in secret. I didn’t show it to anyone because that was the thing that was going to be me. I think you need to be humble enough to learn from other people and glean from the masters, but you also have to have a sense of self and know when to break away and do the thing that you’re meant to do and then to find the people who get that thing and love it and will help grow it. I also think another great piece of advice that was given to me early on was, be professional, and to be grateful and to really be good the people that come around and shake your hand. Shake their hand back. Staying humble, it’s hard over the long haul. If you don’t stay humble, you will be humbled. I’ve learned that. My writer’s block taught me that. Stay humble. Work hard. Know who you are.

Zibby: My last question. Do you feel more comfortable now going to the movies or not?

Matthew: I do. I would say that I feel more comfortable going out in general through my analysis. In early sobriety, I became very hermit-like. I would only go into the woods and run and then be in my house. I’ve branched out. Next week, I’m going to be on a plane every single day.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Matthew: I know. It’s going to be a big transition for me, but I’ve done a lot of work to prepare for that. I’m feeling good about it.

Zibby: I had a therapist, when I was telling them how little I liked to leave my house, she was like, “I feel like you’re actually borderline agoraphobic.” I was like, I thought I just liked being home. I just really like being here.

Matthew: I very much like being home too.

Zibby: It’s a fine line.

Matthew: It is.

Zibby: Congratulations on your next book and on We Are the Light. I wish you all the best on tour. Good luck.

Matthew: Thank you. It’s a pleasure.

Zibby: Thanks so much. Take care. Bye.

Matthew: Buh-bye.

Matthew Quick, WE ARE THE LIGHT

WE ARE THE LIGHT by Matthew Quick

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