SARA BARNARD lives in Brighton and has a passion for books and book people. Good Reading for Young Adults caught up with Sara to discuss her novel, Where the Light Goes which is a moving story about grief and loss.
ABOUT THE BOOK
A heart-wrenching exploration of grief from a bestselling YA author, set in a landscape corrupted by fame and the scrutiny that comes from living in the shadow of a star.
To the world, Lizzie Beck is a superstar: famous, talented and beloved.
To Emmy, she is simply Beth: her brilliant older sister, her idol.
But then Beth takes her own life, and all the light in the world disappears.
Now Emmy is lost. Amidst the media storm and overwhelming public grief, she must fight to save her own memories of her sister – and find out who she is without her.
MEET SARA BERNARD
What inspired you to write this story?
It was the characters of Emmy and Beth who appeared in my head one evening on a train, which is the kind of thing that as a writer you hope will happen all the time, but actually happens only rarely! I knew they were sisters who loved each other a lot, that the older sister was famous and had died by suicide. I felt that they had a compelling story to tell between the two of them, and the way to find out what it was meant telling it myself.
I’d always wanted to write a book about sisters and also a book about the toxicity of fame. A few years ago, I lost a friend to suicide, and I’d been processing the complex emotions of this ever since. This book combined all of these elements into the story I had always wanted to write, though I didn’t realise it until Emmy and Beth turned up in my head.
Your novel deals with themes of grief and loss. How did you approach writing about such difficult topics in a way that felt authentic?
Honestly, I just wrote how I felt. I never consciously thought that I had to approach writing about grief in a certain way, because it all felt like a natural telling of Emmy’s story and emotions. Grief is such an overwhelming and relentless thing, and there are so many emotions that often have nowhere to go. For me, they turned into words, and that was an important part of processing my own experience.
Mental illness is also a significant aspect of your novel. How did you conduct research on this topic to ensure that you were portraying it accurately?
I think mental illness is always going to be a necessary element of a book that features bereavement by suicide and the subsequent grief, so it was more a part of my general research and planning rather than a specific topic to focus on, if that makes sense. I tend to explore these kinds of topics from the starting point of the character and their lives, rather than from a medical diagnosis angle. With Beth, for example, it was understanding the life that she had and the pressures she was under, and how that would have affected or exacerbated the mental health issues she struggled with. Emmy had always been quite sheltered from the reality of this, which meant that the reader was learning things alongside her in the book.
Without giving too much away, can you talk about a particular scene or moment in the book that was especially challenging or rewarding to write?
Finding a shape for the narrative was the hardest part, as the writing itself generally came quite easily – I find pouring out emotional monologues/dialogues the easiest way to write! But shaping those emotional outpourings of Emmy’s grief into a story and finding the right plot to drive it all forward took a lot more work.
I found the epilogue and the conversations with Emmy’s therapist the most rewarding to write, because they were the times when I could put more of a long-term perspective of grief onto the page, and give some outside guidance – in a way – to the reader and to Emmy.
The relationship between sisters, Beth and Emmy is central to the novel. How did you go about capturing their bond?
I have an older sister I love very much, so I think this has always informed how I write sisterly relationships. The younger sister is always in a kind of awe of her older sister, and a lot of her life and sense of self is shaped by her and their relationship. Of course, with Emmy and Beth, Beth’s fame has such an effect on their lives and their relationship. Beth has always protected Emmy as best she can from the darker side of it, while also wanting to share the good bits (‘the perks’) with her. For Beth, their relationship is a source of brightness and joy in her difficult life. For Emmy, Beth is just this golden light that she idolises. Understanding that was central to capturing their bond on the page for me.
Your book is titled Where the Light Goes. Can you talk about how you came up with the title and what it means to you in the context of the story?
It was quite a struggle to find the right title for this book! It needed to capture the tone of the book, which is a combination of profound sadness, love and hope, and also the relationship between Emmy and Beth as sisters. In the context of the story, to me it means that everything that Emmy loved about Beth hasn’t been lost, even as Beth is no longer part of her physical world. The ‘light’ of her is still there, and so much of it is in Emmy herself. Love is never lost, even when people die. The love we have for each other in life goes on.
What do you hope readers take away from your novel?
I hope that those readers who have sadly experienced grief will find some comfort in Emmy’s story by seeing some of their feelings reflected on the page. And I hope that readers who haven’t will be able to gain some understanding for those who have been bereaved that will help them help people they love in the future.
Finally, are there any authors or books that you draw inspiration from when writing?
Not while I’m writing, as I would worry too much about keeping my own writing completely separate from whatever it was that was inspiring me. But generally, I love the writing of Kathleen Glasgow, Jaclyn Moriarty, Hilary McKay and Curtis Sittenfeld. Being on the same metaphorical shelf as them would be an honour.