Emma and I originally connected IRL (if Zoom counts) thanks to—what else?—Instagram, where I had started following them after reading and admiring Instructions from Light. Even though I felt this book to be a bit beyond my capacities as a reviewer—and I mean that in the most positive sense, as I genuinely believe that a text’s ideal reader is not always one who immediately “gets” it—its author’s feed suggested that we shared a taste for fancy cocktails and an affinity for bulldog clips and were therefore (as far as I was concerned) kindred spirits. So when I realized, through some serendipitous story or post, that we had a mutual friend in Berlin, I was not above asking for a personal introduction. Emma and I exchanged numerous emails between September 2023 and February 2024 before finally managing a real-time conversation in early March. It was as delightful as I’d imagined, and absolutely worth pursuing despite busy schedules and the five-hour time difference between the UK and the East Coast. We talked at length about writing, art-making, and the meaning(s) of lucidity. It could only have been improved (and then but barely) if accompanied by the buoyant properties of a parma violet or marmalade martini. I hope readers will find it sufficiently effervescent nevertheless!

Elizabeth Brogden: To be totally honest, I originally intended to review Instructions from Light, but I eventually realized that I’d much rather just talk to you about it! There is a line in the book that perfectly encapsulates my experience as a reader: “You do not need to understand the instructions in order to follow the instructions” (107), and I want to begin with the question of legibility because this is such a challenging text. To what extent can Instructions from Light be read in a conventional sense?

Emma Bolland: I think first of all it depends on what kind of writing or reading background you might come from. Because I’m an artist as well, I didn’t arrive at writing from a literature background. I don’t read a huge amount of novels because I find the conventional linear narrative, with some exceptions, quite difficult. I guess I mean that both my grounding as a visual artist and personal experience informs how I read. I read “fragmentedly.” I’m not a very good reader, actually, in that I read a few lines and then I’m annotating, so it takes me a long time to work through a book. 

We do tend to think of “good” reading as linear and comprehension-based, but Instructions from Light resists this approach. There are certainly glimmers of conventional plot: the mise-en-abyme quality of its storylines—the story of Z. interrupts or departs from the story of “Le Silence,” which is contained within the larger framework of the act of translation itself—sort of suggests or gestures toward longer versions of any of those nested narratives. But there is not really an “arc,” per se. How would you describe the alternative it offers?

I do think that it could be read in bits, as a series of short fictions. The fact that the form keeps changing reflects my own way of thinking, because I’m an assembler. Actually, I just got back from my studio about ten minutes ago, and the way I make visual work is assembling. So I begin with elements, rather than a vision of the finished whole. And this mirrors the way I write. I think one of the reasons I’m not a novelist is because I can’t imagine myself into the space of being able to see the whole. I’m not saying that wouldn’t ever happen, but I would struggle, I think, because I tend to see in patchwork. And that may be because my own life’s not had a normative trajectory. Suppose I were to write a memoir (which I have no desire to do!), I have no idea how I would structure it. When I was researching screenplays, there’s the kind of traditional Hollywood paradigm where you have a narrative arc and an inciting incident that propels it. But keep in mind that films are not shot in the order of the screenplay itself. And some screenplays published post-production for a public readership will include the timing of each scene, for example, but that only comes at the editing phase: that’s not the screenplay that the team would have worked with to make the film. Where’s the footage that was left on the cutting room floor? Where’s the annotations? Where are the Post-It notes? Where are the conversations and the emails and the discussions and the fights, which are all part of that text? I think what I’m saying is I can’t help writing like this because I think in assemblage, rather than a discrete canvas or narrative arc with a frame around it. 

This idea of parts and whole seems very relevant to the ways that light functions as a dual metaphor in the text, representing identity as both continuum (wave) and fragmentation (particle). Pronouns are such a preoccupation in this book, both vis-à-vis the translation process (the narrator is always trying to figure out their referents) and in terms of POV: the narrator sometimes speaks in the first person, sometimes in the third-person singular, and sometimes in the third-person plural. 

The title also plays with the idea of a film’s screenplay (instructions) being informed by the materiality of the medium (light). It’s interesting what you said about light as a particle, because there is something about the idea of things being particulate that reminds me of being in a science class—this was a long time ago, so you could do things like chuck lumps of sodium in the sink and watch them catch fire and handle mercury—and observing precipitation in a test tube: liquids seeming to magically conjure particles to form a solid: snow, for example. What interests me is the active space of the particulation, when it’s neither one thing nor another. 

Studio View, June 2024

I’m very interested in the role that this intermediate space—in the sense of morphological or ontological ambiguity—plays in your work, especially as it pertains to genre. Formally, Instructions from Light is impossible to categorize: it begins with the disclaimer that “this is a book that will always be a speculative draft,” and proceeds to draw on a dizzying array of norms and conventions: translation, bitext, screenplay, epistolary novel, romance, pharmaceutical manual, meta-fiction, memoir. What kind of audience did you have in mind when you were writing?

I don’t know! Good question. I began with an interest in the idea of pathologized speech, which led me to silence: either not being allowed to speak, or being misinterpreted. In psychiatric institutions you can be diagnosed on the basis of speech, and there’s a whole field of research devoted to speech as a symptom, and I remember one example where a patient ended up being diagnosed as schizophrenic because he called a pen a “paper skater.” And it’s like: why wasn’t he diagnosed as a poet? And I had an experience many years ago of being in a psychiatric institution, and it was before mobile phones, and there was a payphone that patients could use on the wall right by the nurses’ station, so that they could always hear what you were saying. And a friend had rung me up—Jake Arnott, a fantastic novelist and writer who actually blurbed the back of the book. At the time, we were among a group of cash-strapped young artists sharing a house—he hadn’t been published yet—and we had a long conversation about the etymology of words. And I was called into the psychiatrist’s office the next day, and he tried to get me to admit that there’d been no one else on the other end of the line, that I’d been enacting some fantasy or—I don’t know what they thought.


Yes. Jake and I now call each other “my beloved imaginary friend.” So, I was thinking about silence and I was also researching screenplays and theories of screenplays and thinking about the pathologization of speech, and I was attempting to make a video that dealt with all that, and I couldn’t quite make it work. And then somehow, completely accidentally, I found a reference to the film Le Silence and I started looking up stuff. . . . And then I was googling books about the director, Louis Delluc, because I couldn’t find any in the university library, and Amazon (which I know I shouldn’t use!) had a book of his collected screenplays, which included “Le Silence.” And I thought the book was in English, but when it arrived it was in French, which I couldn’t read. 

Ha! I do want to talk about that. There is a tonal lightness to the book that centers around the act of translation, which is constantly being portrayed as incompetent or subpar. And this disavowal of ability or expertise has elements of humor in and of itself; but on top of it, there is the fact that the caliber of the translation is actually quite high, which adds to the joke. 

I have to say screenplays are the easiest thing to translate. They are written in the present tense, which is quite important to the book, I think, because everything is happening now. And this is different from a novelistic structure, because the reader isn’t taken through time. Everything’s happening at once. My previous monograph, Over, In, and Under (Dostoevsky Wannabe, 2019), contains a long “psychotic translation without a dictionary” of Freud’s essay, “Über Deckerinnerungen,” and it’s translated purely on the basis of what the syllables suggest phonically. So it’s actually a long, fairly bonkers poem that I didn’t revise. I would call it a dense, free-associative prose poem whose content has no relation to the original essay. So I already had an interest in grappling with a language you don’t understand, which also plays out in medicalized situations when you’re talking to a psychiatric or medical professional: there are two different sets of languages being spoken, even if they’re both in the same tongue. You’re navigating a really opaque, problematic discourse. (Someone I know who’s interested in patients’ rights calls it “epistemological injustice.”) Anyway, when I realized Delluc’s screenplay was in French, I decided I wanted to translate it into English and to make the struggle of that process evident in the writing. Evident but crafted, obviously.

Yes. For me, the levity that’s generated around the (misleadingly) insinuated shoddiness of the translation serves as a counterpoint to some of the heavier aspects of the book: psychological distress, mental health crises, neurodivergence, etc.

I wanted switches in pace and switches in tone. I also worked on this book for a long time—I began it in 2017 and finished it in late 2021—I was also writing lots of other things during this time, which I guess contributed to these fluctuations.

The question of code-switching or double speak within the context of modern psychiatric treatment is so fascinating: i.e., the patient learns to articulate the experience of illness in a certain way in order to get relief from it. Instructions from Light is defined by a multiplicity of voices, which manifests primarily on the graphic plane of the text. (And this is perhaps a twist on the first question because the variety of fonts is constantly drawing attention to literal legibility.) Could you talk a little about how typography contributes to the polyphonic nature of Instructions from Light

I think the typography’s important because visually it functions a bit like stage directions. I’m quite a typography nerd. There’s a wonderful essay by the Australian filmmaker Kathryn Millard in which she talks about her very different philosophy of screenplay composition to that of the industry norm. Screenplays are traditionally written in Courier New, and she talks about why this is: because, when electronic typewriters were introduced in the 1960s, they had one font and it was Courier New. And then when the first home computers arrived, they had it as well. And that’s because Courier is what’s called “fixed width,” meaning that every character takes up the same amount of space: so a comma would take up the same amount of space as an “M.” Fixed width takes up much less computer memory than a subtly kerned font like Baskerville, or even the dreaded Arial. I wrote my screenplay translations of the Delluc in Courier New both to signal them as screenplay and also because memory is a large part of what Instructions from Light is about: how much space does memory take? The rest of the text is in Baskerville, which was designed by John Baskerville in Birmingham in the mid-eighteenth century because smoother, lighter paper had been developed that required a more precise font. And Baskerville has more nuanced kerning, which makes it appear to flow.

There’s a point at which you tell the reader that you are writing the text in Perpetua but have been informed that the publisher will set it in a different font for publication. I’m always drawn to writing that consciously plays with the aesthetics of composition.

I was at a reading by H. Gareth Gavin, who was reading from his novel Never Was, and at one point in the book it switches from having a single column with a wide gutter and margin, to two narrower columns that asymmetrically stagger each other, and this technique is used to differentiate between two voices. Each of the three sections of the novel has different margins. The first thing I do when I get a new book is to look to see if it has a narrow gutter (interior margin) or a ragged edge (unjustified on one side but with no hyphenation). InDesign, which is the industry standard software for book design, auto-hyphenates unjustified text unless the person laying it out adjusts the settings. So it’s a pet peeve of mine if this hasn’t been done—I mean, why hyphenate a ragged edge? 

You do so much with blank space in this book. The density of the pages varies pretty dramatically. I’ve heard your work compared to kintsugi, the Japanese art of mending broken pottery using strips of lacquer.  

That’s lovely. It’s really important for the reader to have spaces to pause, to put the book down.

Gaps have played a big role in your own life and career: gaps in productivity, gaps in employment as a contingent academic, gaps in psychological well-being (psychosis itself is a sort of interstitial space in the sense that the patient’s reality doesn’t align with conventional reality). Could you talk a bit about the role of “white space” in your own life and writing?

Just to digress a little (see, I’m doing gaps already!), this is the book that brought me back to painting. I did my Fine Art undergraduate degree from 1983–1986, and then almost immediately—within two years—I was doing solo shows in civic art galleries. And I had no idea what a big deal it was to do that so quickly. And then for various reasons, I stopped painting because I thought I was shit at it, etc. It’s been a pattern for me that, from an early age, I “stop” and at the same time get very ill when feeling ashamed at how shit I perceive my work to be (what order these things happen I can’t unpick, but they are definitely a toxic cluster). An early example is when I was about nine, deciding I was going to write books. I got hold of six of those school exercise books, and I started writing six books all at once (so maybe even at that point I was writing kind of parallel text). And then I got about ten pages into each, and my older sisters found them and just, sort of, mocked me, and I didn’t write again until I was about twenty. And I wrote some poems. But again, they were sort of like fragmented prose poems. And then, years later, I wrote some fragmented essays. And so gaps do have an autobiographical component. I mean, I wish they hadn’t happened, right—and I’m not a believer in the idea that they make you a genius or more creative because my experience is you don’t work, can’t work when you are ill, the whole Van Gogh thing is kind of bullshit, I’ve always thought—but in terms of this narrative in this book, it wouldn’t work without gaps. I use the first-person not as a memoiristic device, but in order to speak directly to the reader; and in conversation there are always gaps (unless you’re talking to someone who just won’t be quiet!). I think maybe the gaps in this book are where the reader is being asked to actively participate.

There are ten images in Instruction from Light: doorknobs, a ring, a clock, a bed, a lens, black emoji hearts, an inkwell, a camera shutter, a drawing, an Aubusson carpet. What role do you see images/visual art playing in this book?

I started to recognize the importance of a visual element when I started thinking about screenplay analysis head-on. Props play a crucial role in screenplays—there’s a thing called “the tell,” and it’s when a particular object—usually shot in close-up—will do a lot of narrative work. In Delluc’s scenario, hands are key objects. So he has this ring, and right early on you see the ring, and whenever you see the hand wearing the ring you know it’s him, and that’s the tell right at the beginning. That becomes the character’s visual signifier. So I’d been thinking about the visual details in Delluc that get a lot of mention: his clothes, for instance. And I started to think about both the objects that are mentioned and the apparatus of filmmaking: the lens, the camera shutter, etc. One of my favorite illustrations comes from the protagonist’s desk: the inkwell. I scoured auction house websites to find an image of a French early-twentieth-century, celluloid inkwell that might have been owned by Delluc’s modern European protagonist. When we watch moving image now, we never think twice about cuts and jumps because we are all fluent in the language and syntax of film. It’s become second nature to us. But in the 1920s it would be rare for someone to have fluency in that syntax. It was as if the theatre-going public was learning a different language. So the objects in Delluc—the attention to props and detail—are part of instructing the viewer in this new grammar. So the images I use are very intertwined with my thinking about the materiality of filmmaking, and it’s all part of the larger exploration of how the narrator might (re)make the film. Even without the illustrations, the typographic dimension alone already makes this a very visual book. This book took so long to write because there were so many layers of thinking that I had to work my way through.

Untitled (2024), watercolor, acrylic, and gouache on papers, paperclips and bulldog clips.

I’ve heard Instructions from Light described as “writing at its most lucid.” And I’d love to hear your own definition of “lucid” writing.

There’s an idea that if you’re writing something experimental, it’s the reader’s job to sort it out. Yes, but I also think it’s the writer’s job to embed some possible routes to “sortability.” I think lucid writing leaves space for misunderstanding, willful or inadvertent, but doesn’t set out to confuse. I never know who my ideal reader is, but I know that she / he / they exist, and lucid writing is in dialogue with her / him / them. Lucid writing offers the reader something to untangle, while also signposting. Screenplays themselves are particularly lucid in this respect; perhaps that’s why I like them so much. Writing is boring when it’s too clever or arrogant. We’re all standing on someone else’s shoulders, and lucid writing is kind, rather than clever for its own sake.

What are you working on now? Anything you want to share?

Four years ago, I was commissioned to write a short story in response to a Jorge Luis Borges short story, “El Zahir” (1949), that begins with the funeral of a society woman. The editor expected us to meditate on the talisman that the narrator carries around with him, and instead I wrote from the perspective of the woman’s ghost, who follows the narrator around Buenos Aires, and it is told in a linear way. My story “Am / Thought / Always” was then included in Best British Short Stories 2021, and for ages afterward I asked myself if I wanted to write a suite of stories from the perspective of Borges’s minor characters—and now I think yes, I definitely do, and in a more “normative” fiction form. I haven’t started doing that yet, but I am working on an essayistic book which explores ideas of “speaking out of turn,” and also on a more “experimental / hybrid” work (working title Three Building) that is written in the voice of a decommissioned asylum—writing as if the building is speaking, trying to write from the materiality of the architecture. And of course my visual practice—as usual, lots of different stuff at the same time.

Elizabeth Brogden is a writer and editor based in Cambridge, MA. Her essays and short fictions have appeared or are forthcoming in Bellevue Literary Review, Cleveland Review of Books, La Piccioletta Barca, and The Common. You can find her online at www.golightlyeditorial.com.

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