YA author Harriet Reuter Hapgood explores the multitude of ways people process grief in her new novel, How to be Luminous. In the book, 17-year-old artist Minnie loses the ability to see color after the death of her mother. Here, Reuter Hapgood offers insight into her research process for the novel and shares the ways writing it made her rethink her own relationship with color.
Where would YA be without color? I can’t start drafting a dreamboat boy until I know what color his eyes are, and my scenes only come to life once I’ve run them in my head a few times like a movie, deciding whether a kiss should be set against a sultry pink sunset, dramatic bruised-purple thunderclouds, or the clear blue sky of a spring day. I’m all about the visual.
And let’s face it: We live in an Instagram world. Hands up if you’ve bought a rainbow bagel, a Funfetti cupcake, a unicorn anything; or have the sprinkles-filled Museum of Ice Cream on your bucket list. That’s not to mention the gorgeous photos curated under the hashtag #bookstagram, where you’ll find beautiful and colorful covers creatively showcased by bright flowers or candy.
But my new YA novel How to be Luminous takes place predominantly in black-and-white: After her mother’s disappearance, 17-year-old Minnie Sloe loses her ability to see in color. I didn’t set out to write it this way. The initial idea was a trio of siblings dealing with the aftermath of a tragedy. I knew that the Sloe sisters would be redheads, living in neon-lit South London, and they would have an artist mother, famous for her rainbow-glazed ceramics. So while I plotted, I signed up for some research: art lessons.
It was a true back-to-basics-for-beginners course, beginning with a color wheel. All we needed was three tubes of paint: red, blue and yellow. From these primary colors, you can not only make orange, green and purple, but brown too and, astonishingly, black. Throw in a tube of white and you introduce pastels: lavender, mint, cream, grey. Four colors can make an entire universe.
Once a week, I would walk along the seafront to the other side of the city, carrying my brushes and palette. And over that summer, something funny happened. I began truly seeing the sea for the first time. It wasn’t blue, or green, or brown after a storm, but all of those colors at once, and more. It held sunlight, and reflections from the funfair on the pier; deep navy blues on the horizon, streaks of clear eau-de-nil in the shallows, patches of gold from wave-swirled sand. How had I never noticed before?
I felt like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, when she goes over the rainbow from black-and-white Kansas to Munchkinland and discovers a world of glorious Technicolor. But that’s a happier journey than Minnie Sloe’s. It was only when I remembered another favorite movie, A Matter of Life or Death, where Earth is colorful and the afterlife is monochromatic, that the book truly began to click.
Because however colorful or Instagrammable your life is—and I have a rose-pink sitting room with a sky-blue sofa and rainbow bookshelves—when you’re grieving, or depressed, or (ironically) blue, the colors fade away. The same way food loses its flavor, clothes become just a way to keep warm, or it becomes hard to take pleasure in music, TV, or even books. There’s a barrier between you and your senses.
This is how it is for Minnie when her mother disappears, leaving a suicide note. Drawing on my uncle’s color-blindness and my mother’s synesthesia—a sensory perception phenomenon where numbers can have colors, words have taste, or scent has sound—How to be Luminous became an exploration of color, the lack of it, and how, ultimately, Minnie gets her rainbow back.
It was also an exercise in learning to write without using color. I mean, there are two dreamboat boys, and I had to write them both in black-and-white…
Author’s Note: Although it’s ultimately a hopeful book, I do urge caution and a trigger warning for discussion of suicide and mental health issues.
Harriet Reuter Hapgood is a freelance journalist who has worked with Marie Claire, ELLE, and InStyle in the U.K. Her debut novel, The Square Root of Summer, was inspired by her German mathematician grandfather and her lifelong obsession with YA romance, which includes an MA thesis on Dawson’s Creek from London College of Fashion, and a dissertation on romantic comedies at Newcastle University. She lives in Brighton, England.