Emily Ziff Griffin will publish her debut YA novel, Light Years, this September — but this is hardly the beginning of her career. Griffin has spent years working as a movie producer, from running Cooper’s Town Productions with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and to producing such films as Capote, God’s Pocket, and Jack Goes Boating.
Griffin’s grief over two events in her life — her father’s death from AIDS when she was 14, and Hoffman’s death in 2014 — helped inspire Light Years, the story of Luisa, a young girl with synesthesia, who ends up on a personal spiritual quest while also trying to stop a global pandemic. Griffin explains that in EW’s exclusive excerpt from the book, below, Luisa “starts out as someone who is driven by logic, rationality, and her intellect… and what she eventually gets to uncover is that there are other parts of herself, her emotional self and her creative self, that are equally important.”
The author spoke with Entertainment Weekly about the book’s genesis and what Hoffman taught her about art. Check out the interview below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What inspired this book?
EMILY ZIFF GRIFFIN: The real seed of the book was my father’s illness and death when I was a child. I had always been interested in the idea of telling that story, but I never wanted to tell the literal story of what happened. I didn’t want to tell the story of a young child in the 1980s whose father gets AIDS and dies. I always felt like that wouldn’t allow me to get to the elements of the story that, to me, are most resonant for other people, not just for myself.
The things that have come with the distance from it. I was almost 14 when my father died. So at that age, I had no bigger perspective other than just fear, and kind of an inability to even process what was happening.
Telling that story would have been the story of a young child who’s sort of disconnected from this impending loss. But as an adult, with all of the distance and time and work that I’ve done, and all the other life experiences that I’ve had since then, I have the ability to think about my own death and the loss that we all experience when people around us pass away in a totally different way. There are a lot of ideas in this story, but the central ideas have to do with the ways in which the darkest moments of our lives actually become the most transformative, empowering, revealing, and impactful in a positive way.
Light Years was also influenced by your creative partnership and friendship with Philip Seymour Hoffman, right?
Yeah. I think, as creative people, these huge turning points — and sometimes very small turning points — become these anchors in our work. They are too influential, in terms of how we experience life and how we view the world, not to become huge factors in the work that we do. I had actually started this book shortly before he died. But at a certain point, I really started to view this book as a kind of metaphorical journey for a girl who’s coming into her own power, specifically her own creative power. And that was my own journey with Phil — it’s like a torch I feel like I picked up and am trying to carry on. I worked with him for 12 years, and that relationship influenced the way I view art and storytelling and character. Anything I know about those things is because of working with him. The continuation of our relationship, to me, is actually being able to put this book in the world.
What are some of the specific things you learned from him about character and art?
One of the biggest things is the idea that all creative work must be personal, but it should rarely be literal. I started to observe that he chose even the projects that bore no external resemblance to his own life because they were about him on some level. And as we built a production company and both made choices about what to take on, I learned from him to always be looking for that: Why am I attracted to this story? What is it about me that I can bring to the telling of this story that’s going to make it resonate for other people? That’s really what I think he did so beautifully, always connecting his own experience and his own perception of people and humanity to the character he was playing. I think that’s why his characters produce so much empathy, even when he was playing someone who was not nice, or not a “good guy.” You always felt for those characters, and I think it’s because he could see himself in them.
How do you flex different muscles as a novelist than as a producer?
The main attraction, aside from feeling that I have this thing I want to share and express, is the fact that producing requires a lot of other people to say yes to you, to give you money, and to agree to participate. The amazing thing to me about writing is that it requires none of that: I can literally sit down and do this thing, and no matter what anybody else says, whether it gets published, it exists in the world. I wrote the book and it’s a complete thing. I felt the most “in my element” writing this than I ever did producing someone else’s movie.