Lauren Shippen is joining us today to talk about her novel, A Neon Darkness. Here’s the publisher’s description:
A Neon Darkness, the second Bright Sessions novel from creator Lauren Shippen, asks: “What if the X-Men, instead of becoming superheroes, decided to spend some time in therapy?” (Vox)
Robert Gorham always gets what he wants. But the power of persuasion is as potent a blessing as it is a curse.
Robert is alone until a group of strangers who can do impossible things—produce flames without flint, conduct electricity with their hands, and see visions of the past—welcome him. They call themselves Unusuals and they give Robert a new name too: DAMIEN.
Finally, finally he belongs. As long as he can keep his power under control.
But control is a sacrifice he might not be willing to make.
What’s Lauren’s favorite bit?
When I was a teenager, I spent every free moment lost in daydreams. Time that wasn’t occupied by school or extra-curricular activities or watching through all of The X-Files was spent imagining the ways in which my life could be anything but what it was. Like most teens in love with speculative fiction, I imagined worlds in which I had magical powers, worlds in which I was something more than human, worlds in which I was important, confident, better and stronger than I was in real life. And like most lonely teens, many of my daydreams were centered around relationships. While I certainly mentally played out overly dramatic declarations of love that would rival Austen, I was especially fixated on an entirely separate kind of relationship dynamic: the friends who understand you and stand by you, no matter what.
Ultimately, I made it through adolescence just fine, and even came out of it with a friend or two, eventually finding a wonderful community of friends and colleagues in my adult life. But, like the protagonist of my new novel, A Neon Darkness, I was a mostly solo flyer in my teen years, always feeling as if it was impossible to connect. Always sitting at the fringes of community. Of belonging. Like most eighteen year olds, I left my hometown thinking that I was different from most people my age, that it would be near impossible for me to find people who could truly understand me.
Robert Gorham is not like most eighteen year olds. He’s been living on his own since he was thirteen, abandoned by his parents and with no other support system to speak of. That’s how he would tell it anyway—a tragic backstory told to drum up sympathy. The truth is a lot more complicated. Robert is Atypical—someone with a supernatural ability—and has the power to influence everyone around him. What Robert wants, Robert gets, though it’s not nearly as straightforward as he would like it to be. When Robert arrives in Los Angeles at the beginning of A Neon Darkness, he’s never been part of a community. But in the City of Angels, he finally meets people like him—other Atypicals—and has his chance at belonging.
The Unusuals, as they call themselves, that Robert befriends—Neon, Indah, Marley, and Blaze—each have their own unique ability but, unlike Robert, they don’t define themselves by those abilities. A group of twenty-somethings who all came to LA at different times for different reasons and found home in each other. They are messy and goofy and far cooler than me, and I fell deeply in love with them as I was working on this book.
Writing a villainous protagonist can be wearying at times. Connecting with Robert enough to tell his story meant becoming comfortable with pieces of myself I didn’t like and imagining what makes someone lean into their worst impulses. Robert is thorny and cruel, but he loves the Unusuals as much as I do, and that shared love became the inroads for so many writing sessions that began with my protagonist feeling too prickly for me to touch.
In my adolescent daydreams, I imagined meeting people who immediately got me—who liked what I liked, thought I was clever and cool, who were different enough from me to be interesting, but not so different as to be intimidating. I didn’t think about the ways in which people are complicated and flawed—I wanted perfect friends for a perfect life, not people who would encourage me to grow. Robert begins in the same place—unable to see all the facets of other people and treat them as more than just extensions of what he wants his life to be.
My favorite bit of writing A Neon Darkness was getting to play out these old fantasies and improve upon them. I wasn’t just making up Manic Pixie Dream Friends to occupy the most mind-numbing moments of math class—I was making up people I would want to be friends with in real life. People who would frustrate me, challenge me, make me laugh. People I would want to comfort and tease and love. People I could grow with, who would grow with me. Even though they came from my own head, The Unusuals feel real to me; unpredictable and unique.
In many ways, A Neon Darkness is their story. We view them through Robert’s limited perspective, but even through the fog of his narrow self-interest, they assert themselves as more than what Robert wants to make them. Robert wants control over everything, but the true beauty of friendship is that it isn’t something that’s demanded and given—it’s something that’s shared. Getting to build a community of friends who share deep trust and love—who have found family in each other—is something I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to fully explore. I may be done with A Neon Darkness, but The Unusuals will be with me for a long time.
Lauren Shippen is a writer best known for her work in fiction podcasts. She was the creator and sole writer of the popular audio drama The Bright Sessions, which ran from 2015 to 2018. She went on to executive produce The AM Archives and co-produce the #1 podcast Passenger List, for which she received a BBC Audio Drama Award, Webby, and British Podcast Award. Most recently, she wrote MARVELS, an audio adaptation of the popular comic. Her first novel, The Infinite Noise, was released in September 2019. Lauren was named one of Forbes 2018 30 Under 30 in Media and one of MovieMaker Magazine and Austin Film Festival’s 25 Screenwriters to Watch. Shippen grew up in New York, where she spent most of her youth reading and going to Panic! at the Disco shows. She now lives in Los Angeles, where she does the same thing.