How to Find a Story and Write It: David Rocklin on his debut novel, THE LUMINIST

Friends, sometimes the most wonderful things come over the transom: it was a year ago when I was contacted by debut author David Rocklin, who asked me if would be willing to reading his novel, THE LUMINIST, and blurb it.  I was, after the first few sentences, not only willing--I was elated.  Set in colonial Ceylon, this beautiful, haunting story chronicles the unlikely relationship between a poor servant and the grieving woman of privilege who employs him, who struggle together to understand the mysterious and as yet "unfixed" art of photography, and so find a way to halt time, stop hurt, and capture the fleeting essence of life.  I asked David to share with us some of the background to this complex, wonderful book; read on, and then go and grab yourself a copy.  You will be, simply put, inspired.

David, there is a wonderful story behind the birth of THE LUMINIST. Can you share with our readers how you came to write the book?

In early 2004, my wife and I went to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. They were exhibiting photographs from the earliest days of the art, including a number from Julia Margaret Cameron. Now, I’m not a photographer – I’m the one most likely to stare at your camera, waiting for it to tell me how to use it, when you ask me to take a picture of you and your family. I’d never heard of Ms. Cameron, or her work. I am, though, very visual. Everything I’ve written had its start not as a theme or a character, but as an image that I could not shake, that hinted at a larger story in its peripheries.

The photographs I saw that day really moved me. Those faces were at once immediate and long-gone. They had a lost quality to them when viewed from a distance; here, after all, was a wall of people who died before I’d ever encountered them. Up close, though, I saw something else entirely: individual moments of whimsy, contemplation, mourning, a child’s exasperation at having to wear wings. The first image I encountered, of a woman half-shrouded in shadow, was stunning. Her face emerged from the dark into a muted light. She was unreadable. The model, as it turned out, was Julia Jackson, the mother of Virginia Woolf (I wrote a blog about that image, and the serendipity that caused it to become the cover of the novel:

After the Getty, I did a bit of research on Ms. Cameron. She was unique for her time, a Victorian woman who obsessively pursued this then-unknown art and science despite all societal expectations or barriers. She was ambitious and a skilled self-promoter unafraid to approach the great men of her era in furtherance of her portraiture. The likes of Charles Darwin, Lord Tennyson, Robert Carlisle and Sir John Herschel all sat for her, enduring the hours of stillness necessitated by the technology of the time. She expressed herself via recreation of biblical scenes and her time in Ceylon, when many who introduced themselves to this new medium did so mainly to preserve family in life or in death. She saw something like prayer in her work, and saw possibilities to rival painting.

I found a quote of hers: “I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me…” I read that she lost a child shortly after birth. Her quote took on a newly relentless, tragic meaning. An image of her started to form, but from a vantage point outside of her, as if she were observed from under the cloak of an old camera.

That’s where the story started. What transpired is completely fictionalized, but my jumping-off point began the day I met her at the Getty.

One of the things I love about THE LUMINIST is the sustained and, yes, luminous quality of the prose. I remember thinking when I first began reading the book: "There is no way he can keep this up--every sentence is a miracle." And yet you do keep it up. Writing being as difficult as it is, how do you keep yourself inspired, day after day, at the level of the sentence?

That means the world to me, coming from you. Other than a precious few, most of us who write do so in the nooks and crannies between jobs, children, spouses, commitments and overall sleep deprivation! It’s an enormous challenge to pick up the thread of the day before, to find that emotional level once again, when so much of life has likely intervened in the hours/days since the last time. If this novel works sentence to sentence, page to page (and I’m truly grateful that you feel the way you do about the novel), I think it’s because I really lived with this world for quite a while before starting the book. I realized early on that even if I travelled to India, I could not find the setting for the book. Ceylon no longer exists as it was. More importantly, the moment that really drives everything in “The Luminist” no longer exists: that moment before the first photographic image existed, before that instant of fast-passing life could be held still. And then, it could.

I realized that to make the story work as I hoped to, I needed to do my research, become as familiar as possible with the rims and borders of the world the characters inhabited, and then imagine the granular aspects of that world into existence. Once I was able to see it – being visual again – I could live with it day and night, even as I was reading a bedtime story to my little one, or paying the bills. It never left.

I know you are working on a new book. Can you talk about the process of transitioning from a first novel to a second? How have you found that process? What have you learned and carried forward into your new work, and what do you find must be discovered afresh?

The transition from “The Luminist” to the new one (tentatively “The Daylight Language”) is a bit unique, in that the story suggested itself from one of Ms. Cameron’s photographs. I found it during the research phase for Luminist and set it aside, because I knew right away that it was going to become something for me down the road. The photograph depicts an Abyssinian (now Ethiopa) boy of about 8, in traditional garb, seated in a manner that speaks of tribal royalty. Yet his is one of the most bereft expressions you can imagine. After I had completed “The Luminist” I went back to him. He was the son of Abyssinia’s emperor, and after England invaded in the late 1860’s, the boy was taken back to England, where he became a ward of Queen Victoria. I’m fictionalizing the hell out of it (as I did with Ms. Cameron in “The Luminist”), but that boy’s story is very evocative for me.

So much of what I learned from writing “The Luminist” is making the journey with me towards realizing the new one. Patience with the stops and starts of the first draft (the characters were really battling for dominance in voice, and I’ve re-started the book three times now). Immersion in the world, and once immersed, picking my battles. By this I mean picking from amongst so many possibilities in terms of historical backdrop. Queen Victoria, her court, her children (each with their own unique maladies and topography), life in England…where to start? Which of so many tapestry threads to use? That’s probably not going to sort itself out until a couple of drafts from now.

 To learn more about David Rocklin and his work, visit


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