Q&A with Sunya Mara: The Lightstruck

Out on August 29th, The Lightstruck by Sunya Mara is the climactic conclusion to the young adult fantasy duology that began with The Darkening. Vesper Vale awakens after eliminating the Storm, only to face another threat with the rise of the Great King and his army of lightstruck. Vesper must work together with the complicated Prince Dalca to save her city from destruction.

APA chatted with Mara over email about multidisciplinary writing influences, the evolution of Vesper’s struggles, and, on a more personal note, Mara’s time at USC.

APA: First of all, thank you, Sunya, for agreeing to this interview! Asia Pacific Arts is thrilled to chat with a USC alum and author as our home is at USC. To pay tribute to that, our first question is: how did your time at USC shape your writing career?

Hi! I’m happy to be here! 

USC was a wonderful creative cradle for me. I split my time between the film and business schools, and both nurtured in me a feeling that with a great idea and a ton of elbow grease, anything is possible. I found a lot of utility in that idea – believing it creates a shield in the mind that guards against a certain kind of worry, and it made it easier to be creative. 

And, USC was where I picked up some of the first tools of a metaphorical writer’s toolbox – both from my professors and guest lecturers, but also from other students. I was surrounded by people who were so hungry to learn and so willing to share their thoughts, and I think all those late-night conversations about stories still live somewhere in the back of my mind.

Also, just on an access level – USC’s libraries, particularly the film libraries – are fantastic. I still dream of some of the movies I watched at USC, that I haven’t been able to find since. 

APA: You studied both film and business at USC and have worked as an illustrator. How do you see those multidisciplinary experiences play out in your writing, if at all? 

That’s an interesting question! It does feel like writing and illustrating and even coming up with clever business strategies all draw on the same creative pool. It’s a matter of siphoning off some of that energy and directing it where I want it to go. 

I will say that, by nature, I think in images. When I write, I envision a scene playing out – i.e. a character moving through a designed space, moving through light, seeing what they have at hand to touch and reach for – and then I translate that into the written word. I’m sure that shapes the kind of scenes and stories I like to write, and what details I feel I need to include. I know film principles of blocking and lighting have made an impact on my writing. 

APA: What does your writing process look like?

Before I sit down to write, there’s a whole lot of research and outlining and pre-writing to get a feel for the characters and the systems of the story. 

When I’m writing, each day I aim for a chapter, or about three scenes. I write out a scene in shorthand, pulling the important parts from the movie playing in my head. And then I write out the dialogue, and for non-dialogue scenes, write out the important moments. If I like it at that stage, I’ll re-write it, this time paying closer attention to word choice and description. If I like that, I’ll do one last pass. 

But usually there are a ton of small things I don’t like, so I’m often “reshooting” the scenes in my head – like if I know I need to get a piece of information to the main character and reader, I might change up who gives them that information, how they get it, or where the scene takes place. 

This process lets me feel confident that I’ve explored enough to know that a scene is the sharpest I can make it. At least, until I wake up a week later having dreamt up a better idea.

APA: As someone based in Los Angeles, do you find the city inspiring you creatively? 

Yes, because LA makes me think. 

When I look at LA, I see an endless sprawl and a thousand neighborhoods inhabited by folks that hope they belong. I see the beauty of the beaches and the cliffs of Malibu, and I see the hungry-eyed crowds and the litter and the effort it takes to manicure a long stretch of the ocean. I see incredible bastions of learning and cutting-edge research, who can’t save all the folks on their doorstep who need help. I’m fascinated by LA’s museums; they’re pockets of curation in an extremely hodgepodge land. LA is telling its story as it’s writing it. 

All those contrasts create a friction, and that’s where ideas come from, for me.

APA: For fans of The Darkening, what can readers expect from The Lightstruck

I like to think of the duology as two sides of the same coin. The Lightstruck inverts much of The Darkening, in terms of atmosphere, the villain, and what Vesper and Dalca are dealing with.

APA: While The Darkening focuses on Vesper’s rise to heroism, The Lightstruck depicts the aftermath of being a hero. What was your thought process while writing Vesper’s internal struggles with her identity?

There’s something really interesting in that one great heroic act can make a hero. But people are made up of many actions, and many of them will take place after their great heroic act. And also that – in one’s life, you can achieve a great goal – and find that there is no applause, or that you don’t like the sound of the applause. Or that people are applauding you not for the effort and the struggle it took to achieve something, but for something else. 

APA: The Darkening ended on a rocky note with the relationship between Vesper and Dalca. Without spoiling the events of The Lightstruck, how do you see the romance between Vesper and Dalca evolving given his betrayal?

In book one, Vesper was in some ways a fish out of water, trying to belong in a world that Dalca was born into and occupied effortlessly. They slowly made it to an equal footing that was shattered by the end of The Darkening.

And now, in The Lightstruck, Dalca feels he’s the one that doesn’t belong. He has a lot of room to grow!

Vesper now is revered as a goddess. Everyone looks up to her – and she has no one to look up to. She belongs and she doesn’t belong. 

So I think they have some things in common that they’ll have to work on. 

APA: Your reels for The Darkening are absolutely ethereal. How do you begin to conceptualize and create those?

In a way this goes back to your earlier question – writing and business, film and illustration, all those meet in these videos. I’m sure my background helps me make those in ways I can’t articulate.

But the process is simple: I make them with my partner, and we start by pitching ideas back and forth for about 15 minutes, until we have an idea that makes both of us laugh. The idea is to find something that delights us, that makes us want to spend hours bringing it to fruition. We have fun with it – making these videos are kind of like our crafty date nights.

We’ve been lucky that they’ve done well so far!

APA: Your books have often made book lists highlighting Asian authors, and The Darkening has been described as having “South Asian influences.” In your opinion, are South Asian identity and culture influential in your work? Why or why not? 

More than the set-dressing – the way buildings look, what people wear, what language they speak – I find that culture shows in the bedrock of a story. In things like: what values are expressed throughout the world, both by in those in power, and by those who might call themselves “common folk”. 

One of the values of my upbringing and culture that I drew on is that of tolerance for a thousand different beliefs and ways of life coexisting. Another is of education being the way to save oneself and the world. 

But, I was born in America, and so my identity and culture are complicated by that. I have a perspective specific to my experiences, and I don’t hope to speak for all South Asian people. 

APA: What do you hope readers will take away from reading your work?

I hope that readers will feel less alone. 

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