Kate Sweeney’s debut YA novel, Catch the Light, is a moving story of healing through art and opening yourself up to a new life after suffering a great loss. Sweeney graciously shares a heartfelt look into her experiences of grief and loss, which inspired the story of her protagonist, Marigold “Mary” Sullivan. Sweeney discusses what she and her protagonist, Marigold “Mary” Sullivan, have in common and what she hopes readers take away from the novel.
Tell us a little bit about Marigold and what’s happened in her life when we first meet her.
Marigold is a white, middle class, cisgender, heterosexual 17-year-old who is about to start her senior year of high school. She has just moved from Los Angeles to rural upstate New York with her mom and little sister. Her father died nine months before the book starts, and she’s also just lost so many other parts of her life—her friends, her boyfriend, her home. She’s grieving and feeling out of control but also trying to keep things together for her family. On top of that, she’s grappling with the fact that she’s forgetting her father.
How did this book begin for you?
This book felt like it came to me all at once. I think part of that is because so much of the emotional territory is familiar to me. I experienced a lot of Marigold’s journey in my own life. When I started Catch the Light, I hadn’t written a word of prose in over 10 years, I was a new mom and a full-time public school teacher, and I was feeling totally underwater, like I was losing myself. And then suddenly I got this feeling like I needed to write this story. It felt kind of like I was bringing myself back from the edge.
“When I lost my father, there was a lot of shame in feeling like I was doing it wrong, that I wasn’t feeling enough or showing enough. But it’s not something that we really have control over; the only thing to do is just to make space for it however you can.”
You started writing when you were 16, five years after your father died. How much did you revisit your own experiences as you worked on this book?
The amazing part of writing this book was getting to relive a moment that, in many ways, shaped my whole life, as an adult person and a parent. I had this dual perspective on the experience: I could be myself and my dad at the same time. I could understand the tension of being an artist and a parent, of wanting to lose myself in my work and forget the world, even as I remembered the feeling of being forgotten. There was a lot of peace in that for me.
Marigold’s grief is complex and mutable, and she feels alone in her sadness a lot of the time. What did you hope readers will take away from this aspect of her story?
I think the biggest message in Catch the Light is that grief is messy. When I lost my father, there was a lot of shame in feeling like I was doing it wrong, that I wasn’t feeling enough or showing enough. But it’s not something that we really have control over; the only thing to do is just to make space for it however you can. I hope that readers can feel validated in whatever their own experiences might be, no matter how imperfect.
There are more than a few secrets bubbling around in Catch the Light, which makes for some delicious suspense and dramatic conflict. What drew you to exploring the consequences of secrecy in this story?
This is actually pretty funny, because I really hate this kind of suspense! Often when I’m reading a book and the main character keeps making bad decisions and telling lies that are going to ruin everything, I can’t even finish it. I think it’s because I’m a huge perfectionist and grew up really afraid to ever do the wrong thing. But maybe this book is a wish for my younger self, that when everything fell apart in my own family, I would have just been able to mess things up like that. I think there’s something healthy about making huge mistakes, especially as part of the grieving process.
Marigold has to adapt to not only a new home but also new ground and sky. You did a wonderful job conveying what it was like for Marigold to long for beautiful “pollution-bright sunsets” even as she grows to appreciate a sky that’s “inky black and covered in stars.” How did you work to craft such grounded senses of place in Marigold’s story?
Growing up, I lived in a lot of different places: Athens, Georgia; Los Angeles; Cambridge, New York; Salt Lake City; and New York City. In a way, it always felt like I was longing for somewhere I’d left behind. The idea of place became very important to me, especially in all of the physical sensations that make a place what it is. I’m always thinking about what the air felt like somewhere or what color the flowers were. I’m just incredibly nostalgic in that way, so when I was writing Catch the Light, I wanted to convey the feeling of longing that I’d always felt.
“There are so many fascinating connections and parallels between photographs and memory, from our desperation to capture moments as they happen to the way we obsess over photographs when someone leaves us.”
Marigold’s long-distance sorta-boyfriend Bennett is a kind, hunky California surfer she’s known forever—and then she meets sensitive, dreamy New York photographer Jesse, with whom she feels an instant connection. What was most fun about writing those romantic storylines?
While many parts of this book were biographical, the boyfriend part was definitely not. I was not cool in high school and people did not want to date me. I didn’t have a real relationship with reciprocated feelings until I was in my 20s.
I’m also a huge romantic. When I’m out in public and I see two people who might be on a date, I can’t help but make up a whole story in my head about what’s happening there. I just love romance, so creating romantic characters and storylines is one of my favorite parts of writing.
The level of detail about film photography you included was impressive and fascinating, from technical considerations to the characters’ favorite shutterbugs. Did you research that element of the book? Are you perhaps also a photographer yourself?
In my early 20s, I was an avid film photographer. When I was writing Catch the Light, I wanted Marigold to be a photographer too, because of what’s happening with her memory. There are so many fascinating connections and parallels between photographs and memory, from our desperation to capture moments as they happen to the way we obsess over photographs when someone leaves us. My older sister, Sarah, is a digital media artist, and her work has really inspired me to think about the ways that images can help us remember while simultaneously degrading the lived experience of our pasts.
You’ve been writing songs, singing and playing music with your band, Magic Magic Roses, for the past 10 years. What is it like for you to transition between creating songs to writing a novel? Do Kate the musician and Kate the author have a lot in common?
Songwriting and novel writing are very similar experiences for me. There is a lot of self-discipline involved for both: You have to keep showing up, day after day. I’m an early riser and a compulsive journaler, and I wrote both my music and Catch the Light by making use of tiny scraps of time I found in between working, being a partner and taking care of a small child.
For me, the other secret to both is a certain level of truth telling. You have to be willing to put it all out there, to embarrass yourself a little. In my songs and stories, I tell things about myself that I would never reveal to a person that I know in real life.
I love the playlist on your website with songs and artists mentioned in the book. Can you share a little bit about a few of them and why they’re special to the characters—and to you?
A lot of the music in the book is from my own childhood. My dad really loved bands like Talking Heads and the Doors, so mentioning those felt like they were for him. The Violent Femmes makes me think of my sister and her roller-coaster teen years, of how amazingly honest and authentic she’s always been.
In general, when I think of memories from being young, music is always at the forefront. It’s what keeps me feeling connected to that time and those people.
As you’re answering these questions, there’s a month to go before Catch the Light will be published. How do you feel? What’s something you hope for this book as it makes its way into the world and into the hands and hearts of readers? How do you hope you’ll feel a year from now?
At this moment, everything feels very surreal. I’m new to publishing, so it’s all a little mystifying. My hopes are very basic. Even just how you describe it, that the book “makes its way into the world and into the hands and hearts of readers,” is such an exciting idea and really all I hope for.
I have another book that I’m editing now and a baby book that I’m working on a little bit every day, and so a year from now, I hope I can just keep feeling this push to create and the magic of getting to share my books with the world.
Author photo © Kari Orvik