by Alex Burack
I don’t automatically start on a new book as soon as I’ve finished the previous one. There are some writers who can – they’re like chain smokers, and I’m not a chain smoker. I want an idea to simmer and stew for a long period of time.
Writer and photographer Alex Burack recently spent time with bestselling author and scientist Alan Lightman.
Alex Burack: I thought we could discuss your influences, some of your experiences as an artist and scientist, some stylistic choices in your novels and get into your upcoming book. To begin, who are some of the largest influences on your work?
Alan Lightman: I’ll speak about my fiction writing. I assume that’s what you’re most interested in?
AB: Well, I’m also curious how you classify yourself as a writer?
AL: I consider myself an essayist and a fiction writer. In the essays, I certainly have been influenced by some of the leading science essayists. Like Loren Eiseley, Stephen Jay Gould, Lewis Thomas. But I would say more generally, E.B. White is someone that I’ve read all of. I think he’s the greatest essayist the U.S. has produced. And there was a time in the 1980’s where I was really trying to learn all the tricks of E.B. White. Of course you can never learn everything.
AB: How did you go about studying a particular author whom you respected so much?
AL: Well you read them a lot. And you start trying to write sentences that sound like their sentences. Of course, once you’re able to do that, you stop doing it and you just file it away as a tool in your tool box. You’re not going to be trying to write every sentence like an E.B. White sentence, but you learn their cadences and the presence of mind of that particular essayist. I think every essay – the subject matter of every essay – is ultimately about the essayist; him or herself. That ultimately, every essayist is writing about his or her view of the world.
In fiction writing, I would say there are several different strands that have been woven through my own writing, and each influenced by a different group of writers. I read a lot of writers to learn how they do certain things, I mean not because I like everything that they do, but every writer has something that he or she does really well. But in terms of the more imaginative dimension of my writing, to the degree that it is imaginative, some of the Magic Realist writers have been influential, and I would include: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Borges, Italo Calvino, Dino Buzzati who”s a lesser know Italian writer, but absolutely superb. And Mikhail Bulgakov, the author of the masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, a Russian writer. Those are some people that I have read very closely, and really appreciate the way that they distort reality, in order to see reality more clearly.
Another strand of my writing is the importance of the idea. If you think about fiction writing as a spectrum, where at one end of the spectrum in the infrared, are the story tellers, and the people for whom creation of wonderful characters and telling a good story is the most important thing. You know, you would put Charles Dickens on that end. And among very contemporary writers, I just read a wonderful book, The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai, which is the most recent Booker Prize winner, and she’s a master story teller and character creator. The other end of the spectrum – the blue and ultra violet – the ideas are the important thing. And I would put people like Franz Kafka at that end of the spectrum. Or Jose Saramago, who wrote Blindness. At this end of the spectrum, creating very memorable characters is not the most important thing. The important thing is to have some kind of an idea that you start with, and of course, you can put your character in a position where they have to confront the idea. I mean, even when you’re an idea person, you still have to give your characters life and spontaneity; you can’t control them. And I would put myself more at the idea end of the spectrum; I generally start a book with an idea. But I just read Kiran Desai’s book and I have learned from her things about creating character.
AB: What about her characters resonates with you?
AL: She takes a character and goes into the backstory, and tries to give you enough scenes with the character so that you really know where they’ve come from. This is the opposite of some of Hemingway’s short stories, where there’s no backstory, there’s no in-the-head of the characters, no internal dialogue, it’s all what happens right there at that moment. What the characters say. It’s like the stage, the theater. Kiran Desai’s characters are very rich and she really creates the world that they live in. And she keeps coming back to the characters, you know, she might have a half a dozen main characters and she comes back to them and back to them and back to them. Whereas if you’re an idea person, you might have a character that only appears once or twice. It’s not really necessary to flesh them out totally; you just need to make them believable.
The third strand of my writing that is important to me is language, and poetry, the use of words. In fact, I think that every good fiction writer should study poetry for the ability to choose words that create pictures; that have a sensual content. They should study poetry for its rhythms and cadences, which are important in prose, as well as poetry. In terms of language, I think that I have been influenced by Michael Ondaatje; he’s the author of The English Patient, among many other books. And possibly Annie Proulx, who I think uses language in very unusual ways, I mean, she has a much harder edge to her than Ondaatje does, but she’s also very good at choosing unusual words.
Originality is also very important to me as a writer. And all of the writers I’ve mentioned, of course, are original, but it’s important to me that every book that I do be really a completely fresh and new look at the world. And of course, that makes it frightening to start a new book because you can’t really depend upon what you’ve done with previous books.
AB: Does that fear and apprehension help to push you further and motivate you to generate more developed ideas?
AL: It does push me further. It also means that I don’t automatically start on a new book as soon as I’ve finished the previous one. There are some writers who can – they’re like chain smokers, and I’m not a chain smoker. I want an idea to simmer and stew for a long period of time before I feel like I’m compelled to write about it.
AB: How long do you typically sit on an idea?
AL: I usually sit on ideas for a couple of years or longer. I keep a journal – like all writers do -and I have a list of ideas and situations, and characters. I believe in survival of the fittest of the ideas: if an idea has survived for a few years within the jungle of my mind, then I feel like it’s worth pursuing and writing a book. Because of course, when you choose to write a book and you sit down to write a book, you’re making a really serious commitment. It’s like shelling out fifty thousand dollars a year to go to a first class University for four years, or a Law School. You’re making a big commitment of your time – anywhere from two to five or six years, or whatever it is. And you really need to feel like this book is under your skin, and is part of you. So you want to be really committed to the idea of the book, or whatever is the nugget of the book – the core of the book for you. It could be a character, it could be an idea, it could be a story that you want to tell, but you need to be really committed to that idea, or character, or story.
AB: In terms of style, your writing often strikes me as somewhat cinematic – the way you juxtapose and align details reads almost script-like to me. Do you think of your writing in that way? Is it an intentional stylistic choice?
Listen to Alan Lightman on “movies”
AL: Well, I don’t know whether it’s intentional. I think at one point, it was probably intentional. But certainly the creation of a scene in its full sensuality is important to me. Where you describe the scene visually, you describe what the sounds are, what the smells are – that is very important to me. I went to a lot of movies when I was growing up. My father owned a movie theater and I saw a lot of movies. And I was very impressed by the way that scenes are created. Of course there you don’t have the smells, but you’ve got the sounds and the visuals. And I was impressed with the way the camera angle could change. And of course, a writer can change the camera angle too: you can zoom in, you can shift your viewing position, you can do all that as a writer too; you can describe sounds from the street. So I think that seeing a lot of films when I was growing up must have had some impact on my cinematic sensibility… I do feel that is an important element of my writing.
AB: You’ve touched on characters, language, and ideas, but didn’t specifically mention form, which I think is particularly of interest in regards to Einstein’s Dreams, which employs a somewhat less conventional style. What were you trying to do with the structure of that book and when did the style take form?
AL: Well the structure was there from the beginning. The very initial concept of the book was to have a series of short vignettes. And in my opinion, I think that if those vignettes had gone on much longer, that I wouldn’t have been able to have so many of them. I wanted to have a large enough number of vignettes so that the reader would really be taken on a journey – would really get a sense of the many, many possibilities of time. But not just the possibilities of time, but the many different dimensions and aspects of human behavior with this particular literary device. So if you want a lot of vignettes, each one can’t be very long. I wanted them to be like little dream-like snatches; when we dream, each dream doesn’t really occupy that long a period, I mean, it doesn’t seem to. The part of the structure that came a little bit later in that book was the Interludes. That was not part of the initial concept. But after I had gotten most of the way through the book, I realized that there was no narrative glue. The dreams themselves take place in a dream world – in a sense each one was a separate little story – there wasn’t that much connection between the stories, except for the place where most of them occurred; most of them occurred in Bern, Switzerland, where Einstein was at the time. So, to make the book feel like the reader was going somewhere, I needed some kind of narrative structure, but of course, as you say, the whole thing was an unconventional piece of fiction, almost like a prose poem. So I realized that by putting in interludes that had Einstein in his waking moments, that I could provide a narrative. I could have a beginning, middle, and an end. I could show him working his way towards some theory of time. I could have him interact with a few other people in his waking world. It provided a narrative glue to hold the vignettes together, so that came later in the process.
AB: How do you see the difference between the identity of a scientist and that of a writer? And how did the switch from one to the other alter your self conception?
AL: I think that all of us, from a young age, have both scientific and artistic dimensions to ourselves. That is, the rational side and the intuitive side. And it’s easier to go through life being either more of the rational kind of person or the intuitive kind of person. You know, it’s easier to identify a group of friends who are the artists or a group of friends who are the scientists. When I use scientist and artist here in large categories – by scientist, I mean, anyone who takes a reductionist attitude towards the world and expects to always find answers to questions, etcetera. And by artist, I mean the large category of person who is more intuitive, for whom the question is sometimes more important than the answer, and so on. I think that at a young age, that there are pressures and forces from parents, friends, teachers to go one direction or the other. And it’s just easier to go through life if you are identified as one or the other. I myself, in terms of my own career, had a very strong interest in both writing and in science, from a young age, and really wanted to pursue both of them but I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t have any role models. I did know that there a few scientists that later become writers, like C.P. Snow, or like Rachel Carson, but I didn’t know of any writers, who later in life became scientists. It doesn’t work in that direction. I did have that recognition when I was in High School that that was the natural order of things. I also recognized that I did not want to shut off part of my life either. So I decided while I would keep writing, I would get my degrees in science and I would get myself set up in a scientific career, and after I felt established as a scientist, then I would start spending more time on my writing. That was sort of my plan, and that’s what I did. Somewhere around my mid-thirties or so, I began putting more time into my writing, and eventually in my mid-forties, I stopped doing research and science. For many years I taught Physics and Astronomy at Harvard and at MIT, and now I don’t teach it anymore. It’s still very much a part of me, but I don’t actively work in it anymore; now I am almost a full-time writer.