First Draft, Ep. 107: Emily Ziff Griffin - Transcript
Date: September 12, 2017
The original post for this episode can be found here.
[Theme music plays]
Sarah ENNI: Welcome to First Draft with me Sarah Enni. This episode is brought to you by THE QUEEN’S THIEF Series by Megan Whalen Turner, which I cannot stop reading. Today I’m talking to Emily Ziff Griffin debut author of LIGHT YEARS. I met Emily this summer at an event for Julie Buxbaum and she proved to be one of my favorite types of people. The type who bypasses small talk and gets right to the deep stuff. Emily has a rich history of storytelling through dance, and from her many years producing movies with the late, very great Philip Seymour Hoffman.
And she does all of this with unflappable calm, which I saw first-hand when our interview at the Los Angeles Athletic Club was briefly delayed after she was rear-ended on the freeway. No stranger to adverse circumstances, Emily showed up looking poised and thoroughly unflustered. And, as you’ll hear, she was more than ready to keep our conversation squarely in the deep end. So, get some coffee and settle in to a plush couch surrounded by rich mahogany, and enjoy the conversation.
ENNI: Okay, hi Emily, how are you?
Emily GRIFFIN: I’m so great, how are you?
ENNI: I’m doing well. Thank you so much for meeting with me.
GRIFFIN: It’s so my pleasure.
ENNI: I like to start these interviews right at the very beginning, which is where were you born and raised?
GRIFFIN: Hm. That is the beginning. Or, one beginning, I guess, depending on your view of death and the afterlife.
ENNI: Ooh, we’re gonna get to that!
GRIFFIN: I was born in New York City, and I grew up in New York City, and I lived in New York City until college. And then I went away to college and came right back to New York City. I always resisted leaving. Even when I went to college, I would come home on the weekends all the time, because I really felt my identity was so wrapped up in being a New York City kid. And the energy of the city was so critical to everything that I was doing and thinking. It was really hard for me to be away.
ENNI: Where did you go to college?
GRIFFIN: I went to Brown.
ENNI: Okay, so that’s a lot quieter.
GRIFFIN: Yes. I remember getting there and looking around Providence and very snidely – as an eighteen-year-old – saying [disdainfully], “They call this a city? This is not a city.” But of course, over time, I grew to love it. I spent less and less time going back to New York.
ENNI: I like that you identified that it’s the energy. It’s so unique to New York. Anywhere you go, when it’s a city that big, it has its own energy. Very specific. And if that’s what you were used to and then amping down is harder than amping up, I think.
GRIFFIN: I think that that’s probably true. I don’t have the reverse experience. Although actually I do now in some ways since moving to Los Angeles. That was a downshift and a very welcome and necessary one. But when I was younger, and even throughout my early career in the movie business, there was this question of like, “Are you gonna move to LA? Are you gonna move to LA?” And I radically opposed even the thought of that because I felt that I would be uninspired here. I really felt that the input from being in New York; being on the subway, being up against people physically and also just the density of a place like New York, was so critical to my artistic thinking. Even just as a producer before I started writing.
I used to talk about all of the product coming out of Hollywood being so disconnected from real life. It always felt like such a fabrication in certain ways. Not all films obviously, but some of the bigger studio products always seemed disconnected because I imagined that the people making it were not in the mix of real life. And it’s funny, when I came here I would say – due to where I was in life and what I was ready for and what I was needing – the exact opposite turned out to be true. And it was the most inspiring place that I could have imagined at that point.
ENNI: It almost sounds like you were a little bit scared that New York was somehow responsible for your creativity.
GRIFFIN: That’s right.
ENNI: And so, leaving is an act of trust.
GRIFFIN: That’s right. That’s a great observation. You’re exactly right, I think there was a real dovetail in terms of surrender and of letting go and of fearlessness on so many different levels. And the cities act as a great metaphor, a kind of window into that for me.
ENNI: Growing up in New York, how was reading or writing or creative stuff, how was that a part of your childhood?
GRIFFIN: That’s a great question. I was just answering that in another context and I was thinking about the fact that my parents were really not readers, and I have this suspicion that my dad may have been mildly dyslexic, which I don’t know for a fact. I actually wonder if I’m mildly dyslexic, only because I find reading – I can’t say challenging, I don’t have a hard time with it – but it’s not my favorite thing in the world. I don’t know if that’s [because] the influence wasn’t there from my parents, but I much more gravitate toward film and television and other media… visual media. There may be some argument for that. My parents had an advertising agency that serviced the arts. So, they represented dance companies, opera companies – New York Philharmonic – museums.
ENNI: So that was always in your house.
GRIFFIN: That was always in my house. I was taken to see things a lot. Particularly dance. I had a really rich relationship to modern dance growing up.
ENNI: Were you a dancer?
GRIFFIN: I was actually. And that was, at one time, my path. My mom always talks about how I wanted to be a dancing lawyer [laughs]. Which actually is what I think a producer is. So, we can get to my theories about that, but going to see dance with my father was a really seminal. An important formative artistic activity for us.
ENNI: Was he a dancer? Were either of your parents?
ENNI: It’s interesting, the advertising of a creative art, it’s a little bit on the business side of enabling artists to be.
GRIFFIN: Yes, and it’s interesting, because at some point I realized as a producer that my job was to make artists work possible. And I realized that that’s what my father did.
ENNI: You were in the family business.
GRIFFIN: Yeah, exactly. It was a touching moment for me to make that connection many years after he had passed away. His mother was also in advertising and she was an incredible one-of-a-kind kind of success. In the Mad Men era, literally one of the only women at the top of her field.
ENNI: She was Peggy.
GRIFFIN: She was Peggy. She was one-hundred percent Peggy. She created the Charmin campaign that you may remember. She was really exceptional and really a trailblazer as a woman in that business. So, there is this lineage. I think her influence [was] on my father. He talked a lot about the more time I spend with the artists, the more I understand how to sell their work. And I really internalized that. Working with Philip Seymour Hoffman for the years that I did, a lot of what I would do is get him going, and talking, and that would help me figure out how to move something forward.
The language in advertising is really just a distillation. It’s big idea. He [her father] started his career at a dance company and then he went to the Brooklyn Academy of Music and actually coined the term BAM. BAM was his idea.
ENNI: Really? Which is now the BAM Center in Brooklyn.
GRIFFIN: Which is an amazing cultural powerhouse, but at the time it was like, “How do you get the people to take the train to this sketchy part of Brooklyn that nobody’s ever heard of?” And he was a big part of putting it on the map and making it a destination. And then went from there to founding his own agency. There weren’t a lot of people doing that at the time, and I think he saw the value and importance of it.
ENNI: Another trailblazer. So obviously, I do want to talk about your dad because I know he passed away when you were fourteen. It sounds like you have these really rich memories with him but how long was he sick? Or, to whatever extent you feel comfortable talking about it.
GRIFFIN: So, my parents separated when I was two years old because my father realized he was gay, which I think he always knew, but I think there was a lot of confusion. At that time people were not always comfortable accepting themselves as we know. Eventually that became undeniable and so they separated. They actually started their company after that, so they really remained very close, which is something I’m very grateful for because I really had them both in my life. I don’t have memories of them together, so my life was just the way it was with them in…
ENNI: Like a partnership.
GRIFFIN: Exactly. I was about eight years old when he was diagnosed with AIDS and he was sick off-and-on for about five years before he died, which was crazy.
ENNI: Yeah, well it was in the eighties. It’s really difficult now, as I’m sure you know, especially when we’re talking about a teen audience. I don’t have memories of living through that. So, it’s difficult to contextualize what was going on at the time.
GRIFFIN: It was really stigmatized. I didn’t talk about it. None of my friends knew that he was sick. None of my friends even knew that he was gay. I think it is hard for people to imagine a time when that would be the case, and where that kind of bigotry and fear and really intense stigmatization could occur. We have versions of that now - I don’t think we live in a post-racial or post-sexual orientation world - but it was pretty intense to feel that. I carried a lot of shame about it, and I carried a lot of fear about people finding out and what they would think [draws in a long breath] … it was tough. It was really tough.
ENNI: On top of your dad being sick you couldn’t even talk about it.
ENNI: That’s awful. I think a lot of people have been thinking recently about the activism happening on behalf of the gay community and people suffering from AIDS in the eighties. Because the resistance movements that are happening now are harkening back to this. And there’s a lot of respect being paid to those efforts.
GRIFFIN: It was massive and I think that, for me, was a real touchstone. I did the AIDS Walk every year, I did the AIDS Dance-A-Thon every year, I marched, I did things and even though - I mean, I was a child -but I did feel a real gratitude even then. Although, I wouldn’t have expressed it that way, but I can identify it now as that. For all of the people that were really aggressively fighting and making things happen. I think that’s definitely something which, when I wrote this book, I was thinking a lot about the nature of the way the world dealt with what was happening.
ENNI: Or didn’t.
GRIFFIN: Or didn’t. There was a sense for me of like, “My father didn’t have to die.” If things had been done differently, he might not have, right? So, that idea and just this idea that certain people are dying, and that people didn’t care, or were actually maybe glad about that. Those were all ideas I was working with in this book, and the idea of the amount of creativity that the world lost with the people that passed away. You can’t underestimate that. Of course, you can flip it over and say the amount of creativity that was generated as a result is pretty staggering. And I think that’s another theme in this book, is the idea of this “two sides to every coin.” And the gifts that come out of darkness and the light that comes out of darkness. I really believe that.
So, in the broader sense, we can look at that time period and know what we wouldn’t have had if it hadn’t gone the way that it did. But I still feel there’s something that needs to be acknowledged there, you know?
ENNI: Yeah, yeah. I had that after my dad died. It was the first time I had really been like, “Oh!” I had the overwhelming sense of the timeline, the multiple universes, and I was like, “Oh, I’m in the wrong one.” Like, “This is the one that’s not as good.” It was the sense where I was like, “My life isn’t as good as it would have been.” But also changed in fundamental ways.
GRIFFIN: Right, but it’s better in certain ways that you can’t even… yeah. I think we have to come to terms with that somehow. I did an interview recently where it was a question like, “What’s your greatest personal disappointment?” And I was like [pauses] I always struggle with those questions. Like, “What are your regrets?” And in the moment, I can experience disappointment, and I can experience regret, and I will. I will eat a box of cookies, or whatever I’ll do, over it.
But I really do move pretty quickly, especially the older I get and the more examples I have in my life of when the thing that went badly, turned out to be the gift. The more references I have to draw on, the stronger my faith in that idea becomes. Even before I had really done a lot of deep healing around my dad’s death, I’ve always had the sense of like, “Well, I like who I am and I like my life overall, and those two things wouldn’t be what they are if he were still here.”
I can still play the game of wondering what it would be [like] if he were here, but it would all be different. Everything would be different. My kids wouldn’t be my kids. My husband wouldn’t be [my husband]. I wouldn’t have written this book. You can go on and on and on.
ENNI: It sounds like your life is always filled with expression and creativity, and knowing that the arts were this important part of being a person, basically.
ENNI: So, in the wake of your dad’s death, to what extent was there art as escapism? Did it become a refuge for you? How did that play into your process?
GRIFFIN: That’s a great question too. I feel like in the short term - maybe the two years that followed - I dove into film, actually. I have very vivid memories of those two years going to the Angelika. It was a hot moment for independent film. It was 1993, 1994 and I have vague but also vivid memories of seeing all of these European cinema, and Asian cinema, and Australian cinema. Hiding out in the dark a little bit.
ENNI: And going into other worlds.
GRIFFIN: Yeah, and going into other worlds. I really rejected my social world at school. It was like a hibernation. I’m obsessed with the author and theorist Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Do you know her?
GRIFFIN: There’s a piece of hers about creativity and the myth of Persephone [The CREATIVE FIRE]. And how Persephone is basically kidnapped and dragged down into the underworld and held there as a prisoner. [That] is one version of the myth. And she has this other take on it, and I guess maybe previous versions of it, involve her going willingly. That it really is about a kind of rejuvenation process before she’s ready to come back and create.
ENNI: Because she’s the goddess of Spring so when she comes back…
GRIFFIN: Yeah. And she talks about how there’s a retreat that has to do with the wound and the psyche, and a fear that’s not the kind of retreat that we seek to have. When it’s coming from that place, we have reparation to do. But then there’s another kind of retreat, which is very much in the cycle of life, and it’s necessary for us to then create again.
So, I would say those two years were somewhere in between. There was a certain wound to my psyche. But I think there was also something really restorative, and there was a choice around filling back up and taking time away in a sense.
ENNI: And also, when people at that age, only get more interested in how much we are the people we are when we’re that young already. So, you just gave yourself a film school education, basically.
GRIFFIN: That’s right.
ENNI: You went to see hundreds of movies.
GRIFFIN: Yeah, it was a really interesting time in that way. And yeah, of course I didn’t think about it as that, but I can really feel, when I look back to it, it was exactly that. And my dance was in there. I started doing dance in ninth grade, the year after my dad died. And choreography was really making dances that appealed to me. And it’s also something that I was writing toward in this book, which is this idea of like, “How do we come to recognize ourselves as creative or as artistic?” And I think for some people that’s an obvious path. They have a gift and it’s nurtured and it’s rocketed into a lifetime of making. And then for other people, it comes in more of a fragmented way, and it’s not obvious that that’s what it is.
So, I think this idea of not seeing yourself as an artist, but then realizing that you have the capacity to create and to move and to change through your artistic… and I even hate that word. I really think it’s creative. Because it’s just about putting something forward.
ENNI: Let’s take a side step, because I want to ask about Luisa and how you explore that in the book. But before we get too much into the book, I want you to pitch it… give us the spiel so that we can talk about it more in-depth.
GRIFFIN: I have a really hard time talking about this book in a concise way. And it’s funny because I have spent my whole career pitching material and trying to figure out how to talk about things in a concise way, and in an exciting way. And this book, it defies that for me. I don’t know if that’s because I wrote it or what. I like to say, and I feel like this also puts me into dangerous territory, but I really do think about it as a teenage girl Messiah story, disguised as a pandemic thriller.
ENNI: I love that.
GRIFFIN: That’s my one-sentence answer. Now that gets me into dangerous territory because you used the word Messiah and that has so much baggage. I need to find a better word. But I haven’t thus far. But there’s something very specific that I mean about that and that’s not, I think, what people think.
ENNI: Like taking it out of religious context. That’s very difficult.
GRIFFIN: That’s right. And I think it’s a short-hand for me to express the idea of a person who has the capacity to lead others in a way that can transform everything. I see Luisa in that way and there’s an exalted quality about that but there’s also a way in which I see her as not different from anybody else. When I think about Jesus Christ, let’s say as a figure - as a person in the world not as everything that’s been piled on top of him as a figure – I imagine someone who exemplified certain things that the world desperately needed at a certain moment. And [he] was able to lead people accordingly.
People talk about a “Christ Consciousness” as just a way of being. If you really think about what his teachings were trying to inspire… most of us can get on board with that. There’s not a lot of controversy. When I sat down to conceive of this character I really started to talk to myself about, “Well what does the world need?” And if there were somebody capable of leading, what would they be leading us toward? Why would their leadership be necessary? In what regard would it be necessary?” And that’s where she came from on a certain level. She came from a lot of places, but how I see her as a special person came from that line of inquiry.
And those themes came a good ways in. The very initial genesis was my own story, and my own experience. And wanting to tell the story of a father and a daughter and a mysterious illness that nobody understood. Because that really was also part of my experience with my dad. The incredible uncertainty and mystery about it. That was really where the terrorizing nature of it came into play, and I really wanted to get into that. Just to write from my own experience.
And again, when I look at, “What does the world need?” and “What would we want to be lead toward by somebody if that person were to appear and present themselves in that way?” To me it is empathy. It is compassion. It is love. It is creativity. It is inclusion. It is all of the things that really are, in my view, the unique province of the teenage girl.
ENNI: I am gonna press you to give a little bit more. If you had to boil it down and give a book-seller pitch?
GRIFFIN: Okay. So, the story is centered on Luisa, who is a sixteen-year-old girl living in New York City, and plagued by a strange condition wherein she experiences her emotional state through her five senses. And that tends to be very overwhelming and challenging. Because instead of just feeling anxious or just feeling excited, she will be bombarded by waves of color or strange sounds. Physical sensations across her whole body. And when we meet her, she is under the impression that this condition is a liability and something she has to manage.
She’s very smart. She’s a gifted computer coder and a math and science person. Her mother is as well, a scientist, and has instilled in her the idea that that is her ticket. Her rational mind, her intellectual mind, her skill set. Math and science is her path. In fact, when we meet her she is having the interview for this very prestigious fellowship with this mysterious, mercurial tech entrepreneur. That’s how things kick off, is this strange meeting with this strange man who is very dismissive of her work, and really doesn’t seem at all interested in who she is, or what she has done up until that point.
So, she begins the book with this perceived failure. And a mysterious virus starts to spread across America and then steadily over the globe. Nobody knows what it is. Nobody knows where its came from. Nobody knows how to stop it. As she’s going through her life, it starts to become more and more frightening and eventually her father is struck by it, and she has to decide what’s she’s gonna do. Is she going to surrender to that and allow him to die? Or, is she going to take some form of action?
Fortunately, she receives these mysterious messages that suggest there may be hope for a cure. So, she sets off on this very dangerous, and in some ways unwise, journey with her older brother, his best friend - whom she has a very painful crush on - and a girl that the brother’s best friend has met at college. And the four of them begin this cross-country journey to California with the hope that they may be able to save her father.
ENNI: I love that. What made me want to have you do that, so we could talk about it, is… I relate a lot to her being raised to prioritize the rational and the logic[al] part of her mind. And then through this journey, she opens up to these other empathies, and the creative and this emotional side. Learning that that’s okay too. I feel like that was a big part of my journey after my large life events. Was being like, “Oh, I need to accept that this is a part of me, and be more okay with it.” Basically.
GRIFFIN: Yeah, that feel about it. I think that’s a big thing for me and it’s something I’ve been writing about around the book coming out, is the extent to which I really didn’t allow myself to have feelings about my dad’s death. I think part of that was survival mechanism, but part of it is also cultural. I think it’s really time for that to stop. And we’re sort of seeing it. And I feel honestly, I’m noticing with my daughter, who is five, and the films that are being made for her. Starting with Frozen, but then Moana and now Wonder Woman. We are seeing stories that really are about, for lack of a better word, the return of the feminine. Or the idea that how we feel is a super power. It is magic. It is like a way to transform our world.
You see in these three stories these girls, these women… Wonder Woman is taking a leap because she doesn’t start with the assumption that her feelings are bad. It feels like a real big leap to me to see a story about a woman who’s just like, “No. My feelings are my thing. That’s it!” And I think the reason so many women have such a strong reaction, and particularly to the battle scene when she goes out there after all of the men tell her, “It’s impossible. Don’t do it.” But it’s when another woman says to her, “They’re killing babies.” And she’s like, “We have to do something.” It gives me chills right now to say that. To remember that moment.
But that’s a huge leap for us, culturally, and for girls to see a story where she starts out from that place. But Frozen and Moana, and I’m gonna put LIGHT YEARS in the same camp as these stories, because it feels like there is a connection. And for me it was like, “That’s what I’m writing about.” Is how our culture doesn’t really want us to operate that way and the time for that to end has come.
ENNI: Yeah. Where were we in the process of [this interview]? Because I cannot not ask you about what you studied in college which is… Art-Semiotics. Please talk to me about this forever!
GRIFFIN: [laughs] I’m actually fairly well practiced in this because my mom pushed me, always, to have an explanation that she could tell other people, because it was so mysterious. She’s like, “What do I tell people? What does that mean?” I always say semiotics is the study of how images make meaning. So, that program at Brown is really amazing and really unique. And has both the cultural theory component and then an art making component.
The theory part was like a huge “Ah-ha!” moment for me in my life. Really starting to study art and cinema from that point of view was absolutely thrilling to me. In some ways, very simple stuff. It’s like looking at a sequence from a Hitchcock film and saying, “Okay he put this close-up next to this long shot and that creates a sense of distance for the viewer and that echoes what’s happening in the scene.” It’s all about how we’re experiencing ourselves through the way the camera frames things. And what you choose to put next to each other.
And again, going back to my father and to advertising, there’s so much in that too. I think there’s an inherent interest for me in the way words and images combine to create meaning. I absorbed it in a way that just becomes part of my intuitive view of the world now. And I love that. I’m obsessed with GIFs right now. And this movie that I was just producing, the first AD – the first Assistant Director – started sending me GIFs on texts.
ENNI: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I wasn’t sure if you were saying “gifts” or…?
GRIFFIN: No, GIFs G-I-F. Some people say “Jiff”. I don’t like “Jiff”. I like “Gif”. I don’t know.
ENNI: I was a “Jiff” for a long time and I made the change.
GRIFFIN: I need GIF.
ENNI: I thought you were saying gifts.
GRIFFIN: No. So, I’m obsessed with GIFs because I feel like they are really a new language, and they kind of play perfectly to these things. Even going back to talking about my father and the essence of something. They force you to distill what you want to say, and the moment you’re having with somebody else, into this incredibly pristine essence of visual - and sometimes textual - communication. And I just love that. I think it is revolutionary. I really do. I think people are going to start writing cultural critiques about GIF’s and there’s a lot to talk about.
ENNI: There was an article about emoji’s - it was a linguistic study – and it was saying that older people who didn’t grow up using this form of communication, literally couldn’t follow a conversation. Because the subtleties inherent in each emoji, and the way they were using it, was literally a different language to someone who wasn’t used to it. It really [has] this most subtle nuance within it.
GRIFFIN: Yes, it’s so hard to articulate. I know there are gonna be people who can do it. I feel like Virginia Heffernan should write about it if she hasn’t. She would probably nail it. But I am obsessed by it. And it’s fascinating to me too, to see this one person who introduced me to it, he and I have an amazing GIF language, and then I’ll try to do that with somebody else… and it is just kind of dead. It doesn’t have the magic. What I think sometimes gets lost in those conversations is there’s also a little piece of the unknowable, magical. And I think that’s what great art does. There’s something considered, there’s something intellectual, there’s something sensor-ily amazing and resonant. And then there’s a quotient of fairy dust or whatever it is.
So, I start the book with an Albert Einstein quote about the mysterious and that that’s the source of all true art and all true science. There’s that piece too. That’s movies. That’s why nobody can predict what movies are successful because there’s just that thing that we can’t define, quantify, plan for, inject with. It’s something intangible that is added to the thoughtfulness and the creative beauty and the emotional piece that then makes it transcend.
ENNI: What I think is so interesting about that is – I mean, everything – but also, I love your example of Hitchcock. Of not only understanding what is happening in the scene, but how you can best make the audience feel that. Because to me it seems like you were studying, right from the beginning, art from an audience perspective.
I think a lot of artists fall down in there thinking. They just forget the audience. It’s about what you want to express and then people have to do the work to get to you. I think that can be a real downfall when you don’t think about the experience of your art. You risk no one giving a shit basically [chuckles]. So, I love that right from the beginning you’re concept of art was, “How am I gonna best express what I want people to feel?”
GRIFFIN: Right, well that also is my dad’s influence because as an advertiser, as a marketer, you are thinking about that. You are thinking about, “How is this going to connect with people? How do I make people see the value in it?” In the film world, that’s central. They won’t let you make a movie unless you can answer that question.
And I think that was also a real part of the process of writing the book and rewriting the book many, many, many times. Because there were things that made sense to me early on, or that I felt were really important, and then I would get feedback that you have to find a different way to communicate that because you will either alienate or not connect [and] it won’t make sense. I don’t think you have to, you can make the choice that you’re making something that’s just for you, and it just is what it is. In some ways, I think I started with that. When I started writing the book I was like, “If I finish the book then I’ve done it!” Like, “That’s my only goal.”
And then at some point that shifts from a very egocentric headspace to, “Oh, wait a second. I have the capacity to influence other people with this.” And that is not only an opportunity, or even a responsibility. I’ve actually come to view it as an obligation, if you ask yourself, “Why am I here?” My answer to that is, “To communicate and to share myself, and my point of view, with as many people as possible.” So, then the book becomes not about your own, “Can I actually write a book? Can I finish it?” It becomes this act of service.
ENNI: Yeah, “Can I share these ideas? Can I start these conversations?” Yes. I love that. I would agree with you. I feel like I don’t ever want to lose the audience or assume that people… because I think what you’re getting at, is art can so easily be the most selfish thing. And whatever we can do to make it more humanistic and about you relating to everyone else, and not just your experience of your own mind.
GRIFFIN: Well, it’s less a way to really shy away from literal storytelling, and it’s a big thing that I like to talk about around this book. It’s something I hope to get to teach a lot. I have a whole class that I’ve developed around that idea. The compulsion too when you have had a really intense life story is to tell it. And to tell what happened. And then you have to stop and go like, “Okay, is that relevant to anybody but me?” Probably not. Maybe. Maybe if you write a memoir. But if you’re gonna write fiction you have to expand beyond that in order to make it resonant for as many people.
ENNI: I really want to talk about the creative work that you did before you were writing the book. Which you started, from what I can tell, very young and with a partner. Part of a collaborative environment. I would love for you to guide me through after college. Where’d you go? What did you do?
GRIFFIN: Moved right back to New York as we’ve established. I was desperately connected to New York City. I thought, “Oh, I just graduated from this nice college and everyone in the New York City film world is going to be dying to hire me.” To do what? I didn’t even really know. And that was not the case. This was in the days where you would fax your resume. I would send twelve faxes every day with my resume and nobody would call me. It was very, very demoralizing. I eventually got a job answering phones at a hedge fund a friend of mine worked at.
The president of the hedge fund really liked me because I did a good job. This is always my career advice to twenty-two-year-olds is no matter what you’re doing, do it well. Because I did a good job and he liked me. And one day he strode past my desk and he was like, “You want to produce movies?” And I was like, “Yeah!” He’s like, “My cousin does that. I’m gonna call him about you.” And that was my first job. I got my first job that way.
So, I was a producer’s assistant to this awesome, real indie - New York indie film-making had a great moment for that in New York - and the first movie I worked on was Wet Hot American Summer.
ENNI: Really? That’s amazing!
GRIFFIN: Mm-hmm. I worked on the post-production but it was amazing. Then I went to work for a talent agent and one of her clients was Phillip Seymour Hoffman. She introduced me to him. And after about a year of being with her, I went to become his assistant. And everybody said to me, “Why are you going to work for an actor? You don’t want to be an actor.” And I was like, “Well, cause he’s really smart and he’s starting to direct.” I used to literally joke, “Well, I’m sure someday we’re gonna start a production company.” And it was like my joke.
But we really had a great bond. And about a year into working together, I think it was a combination of he had been acting a lot - just doing movie, after movie, after movie and being offered a lot of the same kinds of characters that were starting to be less appealing for him - and so, there was this idea of like “How can I find other ways to be creative? And to participate in films that I might not get offered as an actor but that I want to see get made?” I think he also, very generously, wanted to empower me to do what I wanted to do. It was definitely the attitude of like, “Okay, you want to be a producer? Do it!” Pushing me out onto the end of the diving board, or whatever.
So, we started a production company and the goal was to make movies that he would not act in. And over the next ten years we made three movies – all of which he acted in [both laughing]. So, that was harder than it sounded. It was harder for various reasons. It would have ultimately, I think, demanded more of him to really make that happen than he was able to give.
ENNI: I’m thinking about people who don’t know how this works. If he was gonna act in it… it’s more likely to get made.
GRIFFIN: That’s right. There was always the hope and expectation… There are actors - and Reese Witherspoon is a great example – there are celebrity producers who have built companies that have made films without them staring. And they’ve done a really good job of that. But yes, that was always the challenge was, we want him to be in something. If he’s not in it, why isn’t he in it? What does that mean about it? Does that mean he doesn’t care if he’s not involved? Those were difficult hurdles to overcome. But… we developed a lot of amazing material. We actually really focused on books. We developed a lot of books which was also easier said than done at the end of the day. But it was a great way for me to learn and to think about how to evolve a story from one medium to another.
ENNI: Yeah, and again, boiling down the essence.
GRIFFIN: That’s right.
ENNI: Every time it goes to a new medium you have to really get to the nut.
GRIFFIN: That’s right, what is it about? And that was a huge thing. It’s funny cause that’s what I always talk about when I talk to people about how do you choose material? I always say, “Well, you have to ask what is it really about? What’s the story within the story?” There’s a narrative. I always use Capote as the example, which is the first film that we produced. The narrative of Capote is very straight forward. It’s this writer who becomes fascinated with a story that takes place in a very different world from the one he occupies. And he goes in search of what actually happened, and he has this very complicated relationship with these two criminals and he essentially uses them to create a work of fiction that really changed the world, in a sense. That’s what happens in the story.
But what is the story really about? The story is about ambition and the nature of what we do to get what we want. And what we do to get the love that we aren’t getting elsewhere. And that’s why I think that story connected with critics so strongly, and with audiences. We all have a part of ourselves that has felt that way and that would have done whatever it takes to get the thing that we desperately need. And that’s why that story is successful as a film.
So, I’m always looking. And that’s something that Phil taught me to do. How does this connect to our big human experience? What it is to be a human on this earth. How does the story play into that big picture? And then also into our own individual picture. Because he never took a project that didn’t relate to himself personally on some level. It was not always overt. If he’s playing the bad guy in Mission Impossible 3, there’s not that much in common on the surface. But there was something he could find to connect to otherwise he wouldn’t do it. And I feel the same way. Everything we do has to come from a personal connection.
ENNI: I think you were twenty-five when you guys started working together?
GRIFFIN: I was not yet twenty-four.
ENNI: It’s just so cool. I love it when teams come together and it seems like you guys were really on the same page, but also, he’s a mentor. I’ve heard a few interviews with you and it seems that’s something you really think about a lot. Of mentorship and how creativity is this group thing. It’s interesting coming from a novel writing perspective and you look outside and you’re like, “Oh! Doing things together.”
GRIFFIN: It’s very interesting that you bring that up because I’ve just been thinking about that a lot, and part of why I wanted to write a book was that I didn’t need anyone’s permission to do it. I was so sick of the incredible rejection that you experience trying to get a movie made. It’s really crippling. And I was like, “You know what? I can just do this and no matter what happens at the end of it, there will be a work of art. It will exist. Even if nobody else reads it, it will exist in the world.” And that was so enticing.
But of course, ultimately, I found it incredibly necessary to involve dozens of people. I got notes on this book from dozens of insanely generous souls. I’m still like, “God, how do I repay all of the people that gave me notes on this book?” So, it’s not collaborative in the same way. I think the difference with film is you’re really handing it over at different points. I’m experiencing this right now. I have this film in production and the writer/director said to me the other day, he’s like, “The editor really needs to know the script. Whoever the editor ends up being, he needs to know the script.” And I was like, “No. The editor really needs to know the footage. He should actually read the script once and forget it.” Because it doesn’t matter what’s on the script. All that matters is what we have to now make the film with.
ENNI: It matters to the director.
GRIFFIN: That’s right. But it’s really hard to hand it over in that way over and over again. From actors to designers and then ultimately editors etc. Your book remains yours from start to finish no matter how much influence you get or input you get from other people. And there’s something wonderful about that. But I definitely don’t see it as an isolated enterprise.
There was a lot of great, good stuff that I took out of having that relationship with Phil, but at the end of the day, it was never a true partnership. It couldn’t be with somebody who had already achieved that much and was already operating at that point in their creative evolution. And so, we tried hard to keep making it that… but it really wasn’t ultimately. I think the truth is that even had he not passed away, it was already moving in the direction of me needing to find my own footing and have my own agency over my creative self.
ENNI: Yeah, but after having learned from him and gotten the chance to…
GRIFFIN: One-hundred percent! I mean, that education? You could spend a hundred years in school and never get close to it.
ENNI: That’s really amazing. You have talked a lot before, in other places, about what you learned from Phil, but in this interview – even approaching it – I was like, “I don’t want to just talk to you about how you enabled someone else’s work to come into the world.” That’s not the point of this conversation. So, I’m interested in if you’ve thought at all about… you know, Phil chose you. So obviously there was something that you were bringing to him. So how do you think you pushed him or enabled something in him?
GRIFFIN: That’s a great question [pauses]. That’s a great question especially because I can feel him listening in on this [laughs]. And he’s like, “Oh? How are you going to answer that one?” That’s a good question. I don’t know if I’ve stopped to think about it. I think you’re wise to ask me to stop and think about it.
I think a couple of things. I think that I had faith in him beyond what a lot of the business expected. And Capote was a really good example because that movie took a long time to get made because people didn’t think he could do it. People really were like, “Oh… he’s big. Truman was little.” There was a lot of very superficial…
ENNI: The voice.
GRIFFIN: The voice. There was a lot of superficial questioning about it. There was also the sense of like, “Who wants to see a story about a gay writer in the fifties.” There was that whole piece too. But there was a lot of skepticism. And that is one hundred percent what attracted him to it, was that challenge and the desire to really surprise and subvert people’s expectations.
I never questioned whether he could do it. I think I had a desire for him to succeed. I really had a deep, deep desire for him to succeed beyond his wildest dreams. I really wanted that for him. And I really believed that that was possible. But I also knew that it was about certain choices, and I think he trusted me to help make those choices. I think he trusted my taste but also my knowledge of him. My understanding of him, my respect for him, what I saw of him which a lot of people didn’t see. We all like to put people into categories and I didn’t. I really didn’t.
ENNI: So, you were a very useful mirror for him.
GRIFFIN: Yeah, that’s a great way to describe it.
ENNI: We all have people in our lives that we trust them to see clearly, and to communicate back to us like, “Do you really want to be making this choice?” I’m thinking of in my own life recently, about telling someone I love, “I think this decision is coming from an insecure place.” And they’re like, “Oh.”
GRIFFIN: Right, it’s hard to do that. I don’t think I did that perfectly with him. Sometimes I could tell that he didn’t really want to hear something. I also didn’t push him that way. His choices were his. I always understood that but I think there was enough trust there that it was nice for him to have somebody to help make some of those decisions. Push him in different directions and to have faith in him. That he could do the things that were scary and hard.
ENNI: So, this was all the production level stuff. It’s interesting to me that you’ve gone from that side, which truly is so much of the enabling art to happen, and logistics, and on the floor stuff. Then moving into the realm of creating from the ground up your own very personal story. Those are two extremes. So, it sounds like even when you were getting into producing, you were really looking forward to when you could have something that has more of your mark on it. Is that how you think of it?
GRIFFIN: I think that it’s actually the opposite. I think that I went towards producing because I was absolutely terrified of making something that had my mark on it. And I think that somehow between finishing high school as a very confident, creative person, and graduating college, I really lost that confidence. It’s hard to pinpoint why. I think that my high school life was very nurturing and I had been at the same school since preschool. I was known and beloved and revered in a way by my teachers. And I had a really strong identity. And I think when you go to college, you’re with thousands of other people that were all that person. And nobody gives a shit if you were great at dance choreography or you were a great photographer. Everybody was that in some form. And you have to start from the ground to reestablish that. And I don’t think I had the guts to do that effectively.
So, producing kind of felt like the safe way, and in some ways, it’s the dancing lawyer too. It’s creative, but you’re not on the hook for the end results in the same way. I think if I go back to that point, I didn’t have enough to say. I did not come out of college with twelve stories that I was ready to tell, or ten ideas of films I could write or direct. There was a really kind of deadened quality almost to my creative self. I really feel that. So, producing was like, “Oh, I can have a safe distance and not be the one responsible.”
I think the truth is… this same director I’m working with, he talked at one point about how he has had a long career as a writer and somebody at some point said to him, “You’re a frustrated director. You desperately want to be doing this other thing, and so every time you write something for someone else to do that thing it doesn’t work, you get into these loggerheads.”
I feel like eventually, if that’s in you to make your own work, it will come out. It’s like the weeds that grow through concrete. It will find a way.
ENNI: And will demand to be known.
GRIFFIN: It will demand that you stop fucking hiding. And it was very easy to hide with Phil because it was like, “Well, you’re the artist. And I’m here to do that. I’m leaning so much and I’m part of so much. And I have access to so much. And I have all of this autonomy to take on great projects and to do these things.” But again, whether he had passed away or not, that moment was coming. It was coming. The concrete was starting to crack. It would have come anyway.
ENNI: I would like you to lead me through the idea of - because I think you started writing before he died - but lead me through coming to that idea, starting the book, and I can only imagine how your process was shaped by that experience in your life.
GRIFFIN: I’d really always wanted to tell some version of my story. I didn’t really have a great plan for it. I had tried it as a pilot but more literal, set in the eighties. I never found a way to create the distance that I needed. And then - I don’t know when it was - I met these two women, Carey and Saira who have what is now a literary packaging company called In This Together. I approached them thinking, “Oh, they might have interesting books that I could option as a producer.” Their whole thing at the time was smart stories about real girls, or real stories about smart girls. Which was very much in my [wheelhouse] like, “Let’s not have everything be princesses.”
So, I really responded to their mission, and we had this meeting and it was one of those great meetings where you talk for two hours. I ended up telling them my whole life story and it was a great conversation. I knew that they were very receptive to new writers and they also hire people to write their own ideas. So, very typical of me in this very tentative place, I was like, “Well, if you guys have an idea maybe I could write something for you.” Because even then the idea of owning the whole thing was a little too much [says with a distressed emphasis].
A couple of weeks went by and I started thinking about it and I was like, “No, no, no. I can do this as my own story.” I got this snapshot of the girl. I basically went to them and I was like, “I want to do a book about a girl and her father who go on this road-trip together because there’s this virus that breaks out, and she’s trying to save him and they go on this journey together.” That was as much as I had figured out. And then I wrote them a page or two in her voice and they were like, “Oh, that’s great.” There must have been more to it, I can’t remember exactly what I presented to them. But anyway, we had a meeting and they were like, “We actually had a story that we tried to develop that had some similar elements that didn’t work. But maybe you could introduce a couple of those elements. Would that be interesting?”
So, we started to talk about that. And then we started evolving it and figuring it out and coming up with ideas. They were like producers. They were like great, creative partners in developing what the book was gonna become. That whole time was crazy. The year 2014, which was really when I started writing this book, was the craziest year of my life.
Phil died at the beginning of that year and by the end of that year [laughs] I go through that year… January, I had a miscarriage; February, Phil died; March, I got pregnant with my now son, my second child; April, my husband turned fifty; May, I graduated a Yoga Teacher Training that I started the fall before just because I needed a spiritual home while the things that were happening with Phil were happening. I was like, “I need to be a student and I need to be a student of things that have to do with existence.” It was a really helpful thing.
So that was May. June, we started talking about moving to LA. I don’t think anything crazy happened in July. August, we came out here and decided to move here. September, my husband’s mother came down with this very mysterious illness call Guillain-Barre. She basically went to the doctor because she was having some numbness and within twenty-four hours was paralyzed from head to toe except for one eye. She spent six weeks in the ICU and almost died. She’s fine now, it reversed itself, and now she’s fine. So, that was in September. Two weeks later we moved here, that was October. November, my husband finally got a job out here. We came out here with no jobs – nothing. And then in December my son was born. So, it was a crazy year and the whole time I was like, “I need to be writing this book. I’m not writing enough of this book!” I was feeling all of this anxiety about it. There was only so much I could do. I will say, by April of the following year, I turned in the first draft.
ENNI: That’s pretty aggressive.
GRIFFIN: I wrote most of the book while all of that was happening and then with a newborn [laughs]. And the first draft was not great, but it was done. And that was very important to me, just to be through it. The influence of Phil’s death really had mostly to do with my own spiritual development. The things I started thinking about and grappling with, with his death, are very present in the book. And were really ultimately a kind of conclusion, in some ways, of grieving my father. There was a weird way in which I was able to go through the experience of losing Phil in a way that I didn’t with my dad. I was able to be present with it in a way that I wasn’t [with my dad]. And that really helped me close the book with both of them in a way that was really important.
ENNI: That something awful was a catalyst to heal both at once, in a way. Did you consciously think of writing the book as a way of coping?
GRIFFIN: No. I wasn’t that in-tune with myself. I think there was in the beginning with the book, also a very practical fear-based motivation which was like, “What now? What is next or me? And if I don’t do this, I’m fucked.” Partially because I knew that I didn’t want to go back to producing full-time and get a job as a studio executive, or running some other company. I was just terrified of that. And so, this was like a ticket to my freedom, is how I saw it. The pressure of that was very real. That whole “Failure is not an Option” kind of thing. That was my mentality.
ENNI: That’s both wonderful and very intense for the work itself to put that much on it.
GRIFFIN: Yeah, kind of the enemy of art to be thinking in that way.
ENNI: A little bit!
GRIFFIN: Yeah, it definitely was. And then at a certain point, maybe at various points, it would ebb and flow. I would come to terms with the investment I was making and be like, “Now, this is a choice that I’m making, this investment in myself and this book. And I can do this.” And then the pressure would kind of recede and I wouldn’t feel it. And then I would let it bubble back up like, “No, but if you don’t do this, if it doesn’t work…” you know? Then it would bubble up and I would have to talk myself down from that again.
ENNI: And it strikes me that what you said at the very beginning, was the fear of leaving New York and this trust. So, it’s happening at the same time that you’re trying this first creative expression of your own so everything was happening at one time. That’s intense.
GRIFFIN: Yeah, sometimes that’s how it goes. I think Luisa benefited from that experience of mine, and it’s not an accident that she takes a cross country trip and finds something really major in Los Angeles and finds the birth of her real self in Los Angeles. And that is my experience, it was my experience. And it’s funny because I had her taking that trip way before I planned to take it. It’s interesting. Who influenced who? I don’t know.
ENNI: I love that what came out of it was this very true-to-you piece of art. Because, god, without something…
GRIFFIN: Yeah, again, it’s like you go back to… what would your life be if your dad hadn’t died? And what would the book be if Phil hadn’t died? It’s harder for me to ask that question. Because the loss of Phil is not mine primarily, it’s his three children, and his girlfriend, and his parents, and his siblings. The devastation of that belongs most squarely to them. So, for me to say, “Oh, well it’s a gift.” I can’t even go there. I can go there with my own father but I would never presume to say that about his death. But the book would be very different.
ENNI: Last thing about LIGHT YEARS and then I want to get to advice. This ties in to you talking about teen girls and their power. When you describe her synesthesia - how she experiences the world and getting a rush of sensory overload when she has these feelings – there’s a quote that when you were fourteen and your dad passed, you say that, “At that age I had no bigger perspective other than just fear and a kind of inability to even process what was happening.” And synesthesia and these overwhelming feelings, it read so true to me. And someone who is that young, and has all those feelings anyway, and then also when the real world comes in, it’s impossible to separate truth from fiction in some ways.
GRIFFING: Right. I think that’s right. And a lot of what this story is to me, is real stuff that most of us have experienced or can relate to. And then just kind of writ large, you know? My smaller real-life experience that mirrors that is anxiety panic. I don’t have a debilitating panic disorder, but I have had periods of my life where that really became challenging. And I know that’s true for a lot of people and I think it’s increasingly true for teenagers because this world does not like to let anybody fucking relax for five minutes.
So, that’s where I drew a lot of the inspiration from. Because I know what it’s like to even know that something is not real, and yet be unable to talk yourself out of the realness of the feeling. So again, her version of that is much more dynamic, and in some ways debilitating, than it would be for the rest of us who just have a panic attack here and there. But I think that was my way into it.
I also think it does play into both the experience of loss, which is one that there’s waves and ocean imagery [for] in this book in a big way. And that’s not random. And I think grief functions that way so fully. It comes, and then it recedes, and it comes unexpectedly sometimes. The way that it reminds you or strikes you. And then also, just being that age - as you just said so eloquently - that is the experience of teen life is that it’s like everything hits you all at once and then suddenly you look around and nothing’s going on. And then it hits you all at once again, you know?
ENNI: Yeah. And it’s explored in YA a ton. The monotony of high school then filled with the existential drama of daily life as a teen, you know? It’s this hilarious…
GRIFFIN: Mm-hmm. But you don’t need a plague. You don’t need a war. You don’t even need a suicide. Real-life at that time… the stakes already feel so enormous. I think that’s why this genre is so compelling to people. It allows us to project those feelings that don’t seem like they should exist around you every day. And extrapolate them, or place them onto big, bigger events. But the truth is we feel it just from getting up in the morning and going to school.
ENNI: The way you’re saying that is really striking me, because it’s sort of like maybe YA is an indulgence. When you’re an adult, you do so much contextualizing of yourself and so much of like, “I understand now that my problems are small in the scope of what I now know the world to be.” And wouldn’t it be great if just for a day I could be like, “The only thing that matters is that I’m upset.” [laughs] Like, “This is literally the most important thing on earth right now.” And there’s no ego to it. It just all fills the frame.
GRIFFIN: Yeah, that’s a great image to that idea of filling the frame and also just our perception of time. I’m fascinated by that with my children. I was just away from them, and my son is two-and-a-half, and he really doesn’t understand time. He is in the present moment always. So, I could be coming back in a week or a month and it’s kind of all the same. And then I see my five-year-old, she has more of a sense. She knows that the day after tomorrow is in two days. She can do that. But there’s still an immediacy to her existence.
And there’s something tragic about losing that. And we lose it more, and more, and more. And again, when we reach a kind of an enlightened state, is when we can really remain squarely in the present moment completely. It’s very hard to do that. Adulthood really attempts to completely strip it away and keep us constantly in the past and the future. Constantly.
Teenagers still retain. And I think, again, you see the culture really pressing on them to focus outside of their present, but they still have the last tether to it which is that impulse for drama over nothing!
ENNI: Yeah, everything overwhelms. Oh, that’s so interesting. That’s perfect. Let’s segue from that. I would love to hear, especially as someone who has spent… you’re a debut novelist. But that’s not telling the whole story about your career and creativity. I’d love to hear, from your point of view, any advice you have for someone starting to write maybe if they are coming from another creative field and exploring books as an expression for the first time. What would you tell someone like that?
GRIFFIN: I mean, if I can do it, anyone can do it! I hear people say that but it’s really true. And I think it has mostly to do with willingness. That’s easier said than done. You also have to have like, “How do you do it? How do you find the time? How do you support yourself while you find the time?” It’s not as simple on the surface as that. But maybe it kind of is. Maybe it’s willingness is pretty powerful and you can make a lot of changes if the will is there.
I think it’s also like, “Why are you doing it? Why are you writing?” I think honesty is everything when you’re a creative person and it’s so hard sometimes to go there. But, why are you doing it? And is that reason enough? Because if it’s not, you will have half of a novel in a drawer.
ENNI: It sort of relates to you talking about the weed through the cracks. It seems like maybe there’s a difference between being creative naturally, and having a story to tell. I saw this in my own experience, I always thought like, “Well maybe I’ll write a book one day. I’d be sad if one day I didn’t write a book.” And then my dad died and I was like, “Well. The time is now!”
GRIFFIN: Good for you.
ENNI: So, it changed everything having a story to tell. But there’s got to be something propelling you.
GRIFFIN: That’s right. But you could also wait a lifetime to be struck with that and never feel it. So, again, that comes back to like, “Why are you writing?” And I think if it’s because you think it’s cool, or you think other people will think you’re cool.
ENNI: Or, you want to be rich and famous!
GRIFFIN: Definitely I would disabuse of that rationale, but I think you have to get honest about that. It’s not like we’re pure beings who only have pure impulses. I have those other impulses too. I want people to like this book. I want people to react to me in a certain way. And I want to make money. I want those things, I’m not gonna say I don’t. But, once I kind of strip down underneath that, there’s something else. And if I didn’t have the something else? There’s no way I would have finished it.
You can cultivate the something else. It’s not a question of you’re born with it or you’re not. But you have to get specific. You have to stay connected to that. You have to keep intentionally coming back to that. That’s why I’m doing this. I’m doing this because these ideas really matter to me, and they helped me. And I think other people can get something out of this story and be entertained by it, and have fun with it. But also think about things differently than they would have if they hadn’t read it.
And the moments where it’s really hard, and you don’t have time, or it doesn’t feel like it’s working, or somebody tells you it’s not good. Any one of those things. I think it’s important to identify what the thing is underneath the other stuff and figure out how you keep connecting to it.
ENNI: I love that, that’s so great. This has been so fun.
GRIFFIN: So fun!
ENNI: Thank you so much for taking the time.
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ENNI: Thank you so much to Emily. Follow her on Twitter @emilyziff and on Instagram @emilyziffgriffin. And follow me @sarahenni and the show @firstdraftpod. You can follow the show on Instagram and Facebook too, but for links to everything Emily and I talked about in this episode as well as searchable archives of previous interviews, and to sign up for the First Draft newsletter, be sure to check out FirstDraftPod.com. Please do check out the show notes for this episode, or the First Draft Twitter feed, or Facebook for a link to the First Draft listener survey. It’s just ten short questions and it goes a long way to helping me make the podcast better.
And, on Saturday September 23rd at noon, I will be at the Huntington Beach Barnes and Noble with the wonderful Ameriie to talk about BECAUSE YOU LOVE TO HATE ME the Anthology of Villainous stories that Ameriie contributed to, and edited, and for which I wrote a witchy short story. That’s Saturday, September 23rd at noon. Be there or be merely a figment of my imagination.
If you like what you heard in this episode please leave a rating or review on iTunes. Every five-star review gets me closer to embracing my feelings as a true superpower. Thanks to Hashbrown for the theme song and to Collin Keith and Maureen Goo for the logos. Thanks to super intern Carter Elwood, and transcriptionist-at-large Julie Anderson. And, as ever, thanks to you bright lights in the darkness for listening.