Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Wednesday, July 13, 2022: Maximum Shelf: We Are the Light

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: We Are the Light by Matthew Quick

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: We Are the Light by Matthew Quick

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: We Are the Light by Matthew Quick

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: We Are the Light by Matthew Quick

We Are the Light

by Matthew Quick

A high school counselor suffering the aftereffects of severe trauma decides to mentor a troubled teen boy in We Are the Light, an alternately dark, tender and funny novel from Matthew Quick (The Reason You're Alive)--his first book in five years. The healing power of art, grief's reality-shattering weight and the resilience of community come together in a series of achingly honest, unanswered letters from a man trying to make sense of a world that has tilted on its axis.

Lucas Goodgame struggles to accept the dissolution of his relationship with his Jungian analyst Karl, who is no longer seeing patients. Since repeated visits to Karl's home office have failed to reinstate their regular Friday sessions, Lucas begins writing him letters signed "Your most loyal analysand." In his correspondence, Lucas confesses that he also has not been able to return to work since the mass shooting at the Majestic Theater, their small town's eponymous indie movie house, in which he witnessed the death of his wife, Darcy; Karl's wife, Leandra; and several other community members at the hands of a former student. During the shooting, Lucas had a vision of the victims as angels in "their collective graceful ascent toward the heavens. Their white feathers sparkling like opals. The steady pulse of flapping. The dignity and glory and compensation." In his letters, he confides that "winged Darcy" has visited and spoken with him frequently since her death. He hasn't mentioned her to anyone but Karl, not even to Jill, Darcy's best friend who moved into Lucas's house to keep an eye on him, or Isaiah, his principal and good friend.

Then Lucas finds 18-year-old Eli, whom he previously counseled, camping in his yard. Winged Darcy tells Lucas, "That boy is the way forward" but will say no more. Lucas realizes his departure left Eli adrift just as Karl's absence has unmoored him and resolves to serve as the youth's Jungian analyst. With Isaiah's assistance, he obtains permission to oversee a senior project that will earn Eli the credits he needs to graduate. Together, the two conceive an ambitious script for a monster movie that Lucas believes can heal the town's pain after the theater shooting. However, making the movie will require help from the other survivors, and convincing them to participate may be difficult, since Eli happens to be the shooter's younger brother.

Quick creates a portrait of Lucas in his own words with all the requisite intimacy and immediacy that make the epistolary novel such a beloved form. Glimpses into his relationship with his emotionally abusive mother and his courtship with Darcy help to ground readers' understanding of the version of Lucas who walked into the Majestic Theater on the night of the tragedy. Post-shooting Lucas emerges not as a broken, pitiful creature or a man utterly out of touch with reality, but as someone struggling to make sense of the unfathomable, a soul who may be lost but nevertheless strives to chart a course for himself and his wounded community. His innate understanding of the cathartic power of art and its connection to "reclaiming and redeeming the monster within all of us" inspires the people around him despite his precarious mental health.

Majestic's overall regard for Lucas shines in how its members care for him, especially a kindly police officer who remembers Lucas's positive influence during his own troubled teen years. Quick creates a strong network of supportive, loving male friendships that sustain Lucas as he works through the toughest season of his life. This portrayal of men lifting each other up and showing authentic, tender emotion feels like an antidote to the frequent portrayal of masculinity as a competitive, aggressive arena.

Although a mass shooting incident underlies the circumstances of the story, Quick never leans into sensationalism but instead focuses on the devastating ripple effect of trauma experienced by the town. Unexpectedly funny moments lift the somber subject matter, such as when Lucas confides that he has felt a momentary distance from Darcy's angelic incarnation, "which made me worry that my marriage might be in trouble," or when Eli's costume malfunction causes a scene at a movie pitch meeting. At its core, the story orbits around the central lesson Lucas has taken from Karl, that "it's everyone's soul's purpose to love, just like it's the job of our lungs and nose to breathe." Lucas's odyssey through grief toward the reunification of his town and the scattered parts of his mind mirrors Jung's theory that disparate parts of the self can be integrated into a cohesive whole.

Filled with everyday guardian angels, this bittersweet, redemptive meditation on rebuilding after the unthinkable reminds readers that beauty can be found even among shattered pieces. We Are the Light is a perfect read for anyone in need of an insightful, optimistic view of humanity's capacity for compassion and growth. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Avid Reader/Simon & Schuster, $27.99, hardcover, 256p., 9781668005422, November 1, 2022

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: We Are the Light by Matthew Quick

Matthew Quick: Writing as 'Soul Medicine'

(photo: Alicia Bessette)

Matthew Quick is the bestselling author of The Silver Linings Playbook, which was made into an Oscar-winning film; The Good Luck of Right Now; Love May Fail; The Reason You're Alive; and four young adult novels. His work has been translated into more than 30 languages, received a PEN/Hemingway Award Honorable Mention, was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist, a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice and more. The Hollywood Reporter has named him one of Hollywood's 25 Most Powerful Authors. Quick lives with his wife, the novelist Alicia Bessette, on North Carolina's Outer Banks. Shelf Awareness recently chatted with him about the power of art and his ninth novel, We Are the Light (Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster, November 1, 2022), which brings together the healing power of art, grief's reality-shattering weight, and the resilience of community after a mass shooting in a local movie theater.

Healing through art is a major theme of We Are the Light. What made you decide to explore this idea? Are there any specific moments from your life that spring to mind when you think about art's ability to heal?

I began writing this book during a dark period in my life when I was searching desperately for light. I have always used fiction writing (and reading) as soul medicine, but I'm not sure I ever needed it as much as I did after I got sober in 2018 and really started dealing with some of my past hurts.

I once chaperoned a high school trip to the Peruvian jungle. For a week, my students were matched up with teens living in the Amazon. On the first day, the American teens marched off to their new friends' huts proudly carrying the small gifts our guides had suggested--things like battery-powered flashlights and clocks. When my students returned to the riverboat hours later, some were solemn and a few were crying. I asked what was wrong and they lifted up the gifts they had received--beautiful handmade jewelry and intricately woven items and colorful paintings on tree bark. One student explained that she had given plastic that her parents had thoughtlessly bought at the store and yet she had received something that had taken her new friend months to craft out of natural items hand-selected from the rain forest. She was ashamed and yet, somehow, receiving the gift had been one of the most beautiful experiences of her young life. It opened her eyes to the humanity of others. My students were mostly privileged kids who were used to getting what they wanted. But they weren't used to receiving art from people deeply connected with their culture and surroundings. Thinking back now, I imagine the complicated emotions were due to being gifted something soulful that my students didn't feel they deserved. Some people might call that grace.

Some of the biggest influences in Lucas's life are other men who support him and express their love for him in defiance of stereotypes about masculinity. What draws you toward portraying emotionally deep male friendships and what do they mean to you?

It takes positive masculinity to defeat toxic masculinity. I've become platonically intimate with men who helped get me through my aforementioned dark period. My closest male friends express their feelings and are often heroic with their caretaking. Men have been historically stereotyped as non-supportive and competitive, but I have received a lot of love and support from men in my peer groups over the years. This was even true when I grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood in the '80s. I remember the self-proclaimed toughest boy in my junior high regularly putting his arm around me on the basketball court and telling me he loved me at a time when I really needed that. Far too often we shame our men out of their ability to love and be loved.

What were the challenges of writing about the emotionally charged topic of a mass shooting in a movie theater?

This storyteller has always considered movie theaters to be sacred places. My wife and I have often said that going to the movies is our church. Learning about the 2012 shooting in Aurora, Colo., forever changed my moviegoing experience. I still to this day make sure I know where the exits are when I go to a theater and I always scan the room for signs of trouble, sometimes mid-film. When I obsess about a topic, I tend to write about it. I find that writing about such an emotional subject requires an objective mind-frame. Slipping into Lucas's dissociated state provided the distance I needed to find my way into the story.

What kind of self-care did you practice as you wrote about trauma and its aftershocks?

In many ways, writing is self-care. Fiction is where I go to try and make sense of the world. It's where I process my feelings. When I began writing WATL, I was about a hundred hours into Jungian analysis and reading a lot of Jungian-related books, many of which had to do with trauma. My analyst--whom I still see three hours a week--helped keep me stable through the creative process. Remaining sober, running and eating well are also important parts of my mental health regimen.

Why did you decide to make Jungian analysis a foundation of your main character's worldview?

I had always been Jung-curious. A few years ago, my wife turned me on to a podcast called This Jungian Life. After binging the show for a few weeks, I entered into Jungian analysis and then Jungian thought began to radically reshape who I am. The goal of Jungian analysis is individuation, which involves integrating the split-off parts of us in an effort to become whole again. That's exactly what Lucas Goodgame needs to do.

In your acknowledgments, you mentioned that you had severe writer's block for years before writing this story. How did you work through it?

For decades alcohol helped me stoically deny the intense emotional and psychological pain I had been carrying since I was very young. When I stopped drinking, so much bubbled up and demanded to be felt. It was overwhelming. Since fiction writing has long been my best mental health maintenance tool, writer's block felt like a particularly cruel reward for my sobriety. I'm an intuitive creative type, so when I lost the ability to feel my way into a character and a narrative, it was like losing one of my senses. When it started to affect my livelihood, it was emasculating. Through Jungian analysis, I've come to suspect that psyche temporarily shut down my writing so that I would focus on healing, which I did pretty much exclusively for a few years. That, of course, happily led to the writing of WATL. Reconnecting with my creativity was perhaps the best high I have ever felt, and I've never been more grateful for the opportunity to publish a novel.--Jaclyn Fulwood

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