Norfolk author Lydia Netzer’s books don’t fit neatly into a single box. But then neither do love or science, both of which are themes she explores through her writing. Set in Norfolk and outer space, Netzer’s debut novel, Shine, Shine, Shine, tells the story of Sunny and Maxon, along with their son, Bubber. Maxon is an astronaut on a mission to the moon, while back on earth Sunny and Bubber struggle to fit imperfect lives into what seems to be a perfect world. Deep, dark secrets bubble to the surface, and over time, Sunny learns there’s no such thing as perfect.
The book was Netzer’s way of working through the many emotions she felt during a time of turbulent transitions. A native Midwesterner, making the move from Chicago to Norfolk was difficult for her. Seven months pregnant with her and her husband’s first child, she grappled with the shock of leaving a big city for residential life in Ghent. Netzer mined that deep well of personal experiences as she wrote Shine, Shine, Shine, published in 2012. “The main character, Sunny, goes from perfect mom to chaos, and she has to figure out who she really is,” says Netzer. “I was going through a huge transition, too, from being my own person to being in charge of my kids. It felt like everyone around me was dancing a perfectly synchronized dance. Everything looked good from the outside, but as I got to know people and started peeling back the layers, I realized everyone has struggles.”
Shine, Shine, Shine was named a New York Times Notable Book and was also a Target Book Club pick. Netzer meets fans through speaking engagements and book clubs and has been amazed by the response she has received from readers. “You toil on your own for years to write a book, and then it goes out into the world,” she says. “Other humans read and internalize it. It’s a public document; it’s not a secret. You can’t hold anything back for your story to be what it needs to be, and because of that, strangers are able to see your deepest fears and desires in the writing.”
Readers have responded most strongly to the characters in Netzer’s first book, including Maxon, an adult on the autism spectrum. “People really appreciate the fact Maxon is a fully realized character,” says Netzer. “I wanted the book to show his personality and his brain chemistry. He is more than his autism.”
Netzer’s goal is to write the type of books she would like to read: smart books with a strong central love story where science collides with human emotions. Her second novel, How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky, hit bookstores in 2014. In the book Netzer once again tackles the topics of love and destiny, with the Toledo Institute of Astronomy as the backdrop. A novella, Everybody’s Baby, was also published in 2014.
Living in Coastal Virginia feeds Netzer’s inspiration for her books. As her work often focuses on space, she enjoys being able to plug into the local science community. “My husband and I are space nerds,” she says. “We love going to Wallops Island to watch the rockets. Seeing that little shred of metal and encouraging it on its journey into space makes me feel so tiny and so enormous, all at the same time.”
At her home in Norfolk, Netzer is hard at work on a yet-to-be-named third novel about life in a rehab center for incorrigible fire setters. She has already discarded one version of the manuscript and started over. “As a writer, sometimes you have to endure the soul-shredding pain of throwing out words,” she says. “You have to stand by your book for the rest of your life. That’s easier to handle if you know it’s your best work. People will criticize and attack your work, and you need to defend the book. You look at the critical reviews, but you have to shut out those other voices and keep your compass fixed. Be who you are. Take risks.”