Thursday, April 02, 2009

Questions of Space and Time: Sue Guiney talks about Tangled Roots

I love physics. You say "physics" to me and I get a thrill. It's not that I want to do physics - I tried that, it didn't work. But I think the endeavour of physicists is magical, they are asking the biggest "What if...?" questions in the universe, of the universe: "What if 90% of the universe was made of stuff we can't see?" (dark matter). "What if fundamentally we are all made of tiny vibrating strings?" (string theory). Physicists are creative, imaginative, seeing the world in ways no-one else has seen it before, and dreaming up experiments to test their theories. Thrilling!

So when I heard that someone called Sue Guiney was writing a novel with a main character who was a physicist (and who might just resemble John Cusack), I couldn't wait to read it. Novels I'd read with scientists in the title role had generally been written by scientists, who are not necessarily writers. Let's leave it at that. The ultimate book of "science-inspired fiction" for me is Einstein's Dreams, by Alan Lightman, who is a scientist, a collection of beautiful and moving fictions imagining what Einstein might have dreamed about while coming up with his theory of relativity.

Sue Guiney, an American poet, playwright and novelist living in London now for almost twenty years, has done what I've been waiting for , combining science and fiction, integrate physics into her writing smoothly and effortless, so that it is a part of the plot and not a "gimmick" in any way.

John, the 40-something single physicist, tells half the story, alternating with his late mother, Grace. The two stories, the two people, are entangled in a similar way to the idea of "quantum entanglement", which, very simplistically, says that a pair of particles are split apart are still related, can still have an effect on each other over a distance. And, in John and Grace's case, over time as well as space. Tangled Roots (published by Bluechrome and now out in paperback) is a very fitting title. This wonderful book, which reveals more layers with each reading, deals with so many themes and topics: parenthood, childhood, tragedy, disappointment, depression, infidelity, the question of happiness, and the nature of reality itself.

I'm delighted to be the Middle East stop on Sue's Space-Time Virtual Book Tour. Welcome, Sue!
Here is my first question: John is a wonderful and well-rounded character, a physicist and a man. You step into his shoes and into his head, showing us how physics informs his view of the world as well as his work. How did you, a non-scientist, do this?

To be honest, I haven’t spent a great deal of time around scientists, but I’ve always had a vague notion of what it might be like to have a mind filled with numbers rather than words. The first step in my research was (very luckily) to be able to take out to dinner a rather remarkable, insightful, brilliant and maverick young physicist called Joao Magueijo, who wrote a booked called “Faster than the Speed of Light.” He allowed me to probe into his world for several hours which was incredibly helpful. But after that, and after reading and re-reading a great deal of “physics for laymen” texts by people like Brian Greene, Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking, my imagination was able to take over and the personality of John became more and more real to me. But that’s one of the wonders of doing this sort of writing, isn’t it? These moments of insight, of “metaphorical clarity”, just happen, somehow coalescing from the myriad of images, thoughts, ideas that jumble around in your head. It’s the magic of it, really, I think!

I have read Faster Than the Speed of Light, in which Magueijo discusses his pretty controversial theory and is not too polite about academia. Did you pick him because he was quite controversial? Is he (as well as John Cusack!) a model for John? And what did you learn about the way a physicist thinks, the way they see the world, from talking to Joao?

In a word, yes— I did pick him because he was controversial and because I had an inkling he might be open-minded enough to talk honestly to an unknown novelist about his work and his world (and also because he lives in London!). But I don’t think the character of John is based on Joao. I don’t know Joao nearly well enough to make such a presumption. But he was able to tell me everything from the most banal facts about how many students he teaches, how long are his lectures, what are these professional conferences like, to the more interesting ideas such as what it is like to see the world via numbers rather than words, what are some of the problems with string theory as it stands and what are some important areas of future research, the importance of computers in his work, a scientist’s approach to questions of religion and spirituality. How does a scientist react to ideas that can not be proven? What does “proof” mean anyway? Plus, he led me to further reading, and filled me in on what research is happening Russia, the Lebdev Institue, Moscow University etc and so helped me plot out my research trip to Moscow. He then was also kind enough to flip through a draft to see whether any of the science was terribly off. Once he saw that the science was used mainly metaphorically, he said he got the picture and thought it would be fine. So, his help was really invaluable.

That is so interesting! You are obviously a person who soaks up new knowledge, curious about the world, as are so many writers. It must have been fascinating to look at the world through both your characters' eyes, a man and a woman, a single physicist and a woman dealing with motherhood and marital issues. I feel I learn from my characters whenever I write a story, that I certainly don't "write what I know". What did you learn from your characters?

Now this is a hard one, not because I didn’t (or don’t) learn, but because I don’t know where to start. By inhabiting the mind of a scientist, I learned about a new world. I grew to recognize the beauty of numbers and see that mathematics is actually just another language — and I have always been a bit math phobic. Also, as a mother, I would have ordinarily found it difficult to understand how a mother can emotionally detach herself from her children. But Grace opened my eyes to the origins and consequences of depression and to the way that love can be expressed and experienced in many different and surprising ways.

If you could ask someone who has read your book one question, what would it be? And if you had the chance to ask an author whose book you loved one question, what would that be?

Again, terrific though difficult! From the reader, I suppose I might want to know which specific event described was the most moving. On an emotional level, there are certain chapters that were especially difficult for me to write, but these may not be what readers felt moved by. I’d be interested to know how a reader reacts to the most intensely emotionally or psychologically difficult episodes, but I suspect each reader may have his/her own specific answer. And I suppose that’s a good thing! And for the author: I’d love to go back to Victorian times and have a good old chin wag with Anthony Trollope. I have loved his books — especially the Barchester ones — he has a way of inhabiting the voices of his characters while still retaining his own avuncular narrative tone. I believe every word his narrator says. As someone who finds herself, even against her own wishes, continually writing in 1st person, I’d love to know how he does that. Not to mention, how he found the energy to work such a time-consuming job and write something like 47 novels!

And now, I’d love to have you take me to your favourite Jerusalem tea shop, maybe for a bit of halvah as well, or even.....a rum baba. I’ve been thinking about those since I had them when I was 18 in Natanya. I’ve never found anything like it anywhere else!

Sue and I are off for a slice of halvah and a cup of mint tea. Feel free to ask questions and we'll pop back later to check in. Visit Sue's blog to find out more about the Space-Time virtual book tour. For more about science-inspired fiction, visit the Fiction and Science page of my website.


Gay Degani said...

Great discussion!! I live close to Cal Tech and feel the shadow of Feynman everywhere. Einstein too who visited there on occasion. I've eaten lunch on the same patio as STEVEN HAWKIN at the same time!!! Sooo if I could start over, I'd pay a heck of a lot more attention to dark holes while still loving Trollope and Thomas Hardy.

Lauri said...

What a lovely interview Ladies!
As soon as I get money at Amazon Sue your book is first on my list. It sounds fascinating.

Tania Hershman said...

Gay, Feynman is one of my favourite scientists, him and Einstein, I would have loved to meet both of them. Ah well...! And I don't see any contradiction between black holes, Trollope and Hardy...sounds intriguing!

Lauri, it's definitely worth it! And free shipping from the Book Depository.

BT said...

What an amazing interview and what fascinating questions and soemtimes surprising answers. I am the Irish section of this tour and now am in trepidation, having read this erudite interview!

nmj said...

Hey Tania, Your interview has reminded me that Tangled Roots is a book I must read soon, it has been on my list for ages... interesting you refer (very diplomatically!) to scientists who write fiction... I wonder if you meant Intuition by Allegra Goodman, I was *so* disappointed in it, I read it a couple of years ago (ordered from library), mainly because Lionel Shriver had raved about it, but I had to skip most of it, the characters were exasperating, so cliched, and limited in their emotional responses (I blogged about it, I was so mad!). Anyway, I just saw it reviewed in newspaper here last weekend, I think the UK version is now out. Each to their own, I guess. (Apologies if you have read it and loved it!)

annie clarkson said...

Very interesting interview.. I was really fascinated by what Sue says about the research she did as a non-scientist to understand how a scientist might feel about numbers etc. Very insightful questions and answers, thanks