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Explaining the world

Author and scientist Karl Iagnemma

Amy Charles 16 November 2008

Cover detail from On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction

I view research and the creative act of writing as essentially surrogates, because to me they feel almost identical, as processes

Karl Iagnemma is the author of a book of short stories, On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction, and a novel, The Expeditions. His stories have received the The Paris Review Plimpton Prize, first place in the Playboy college fiction contest, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and Massachusetts Cultural Council. His writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Zoetrope, and SEED, and been anthologized in the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize collections. Karl holds a PhD in mechanical engineering from MIT, where he is currently the principal investigator of the Robotic Mobility Group. He has published over fifty research papers in robotics journals and conference proceedings, and currently serves as an associate editor of the IEEE Transactions on Robotics and Journal of Field Robotics.

That is, of course, the official line. Karl Iagnemma is also an unusually tall, quiet and personable writer, black-haired, hollow-eyed, older than he looks. He maintains a discipline of promotion while remaining relaxed and genuinely interested in what might happen next, as if his real home is the time between school and supper. A fan of Robert Stone and the wartime spy writer Alan Furst, Karl writes characters who would be scientists regardless of what work they did, what posts they held, whether or not they were recognized. Here is one such, in a 19th-century mining town, from his story “The Ore Miner’s Wife”:

Construct a square, equal in area to a given circle.

At times he imagined the solution as a brilliant orb, gleaming like native silver. When he closed his fist around the orb it disappeared, yet Niklas did not feel disappointed; instead he felt a curiously pleasant hunger.

He felt he understood the problem’s point of weakness, and although it might require months of struggle, Niklas knew the problem was assailable. For that was how he viewed mathematics: as a war of attrition between the problem and his will, a long, tranquil siege.

And another, more abjectly, from “Kingdom, Order, Species”:

“The second man I read Woody Plants to was Pavel.”

This interview took place at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, on October 10th, 2008.

Karl, in your stories, I see scientists who are really marginal, and in fact their fields may be marginal, or not even quite fields. And yet they won’t let go of what they’re doing, even when they’re miserable. You yourself are a fairly successful guy. Why these kinds of characters? What is it in their stories that interests you?

Well, those types of characters have some innately sympathetic qualities. I guess by definition, someone who’s working at the fringes of a field, or hasn’t found success in their field, is undergoing some sort of conflict, and that often makes for good material. Frank O’Connor said something to the effect that the short story is about outsiders; I don’t know why that is, but I think it points to the fact that you can usually find an element of conflict in a story about a character like that. And I think it’s no different in science.

I also think it casts light on an aspect of science that isn’t acknowledged as often as it should be, which is the fact that scientific research is hard, and so you have characters who are struggling in the pursuit of some research goal. That’s a very realistic depiction, in my experience, of the research process. And it doesn’t mean that eventually their work might not lead to success, but successful work often has failure along the way.

I don’t know if this is just a function of the fact that stories – especially short stories – tend to be pretty interior affairs for the characters, but these characters, when they are dealing with failure or the sense of maybe having drifted away from their field unintentionally – some dismal current has taken them away – there’s a real sense of isolation. Do you think this is also a realistic thing or do people go through that on their own or more together?

Well, it’s hard to generalize, but research is inherently a solitary act. For me, the parallels between research and writing are uncannily similar. You’re often alone in an empty room, so it’s easy to get a feeling of isolation. And when you’re presenting an interior view of a character, ah…I think it pops up, maybe, repeatedly in my fiction because I feel it’s a natural emotion for these characters to be experiencing in the pursuit of a problem. It doesn’t mean that the isolation can’t be combined with optimism or excitement when they’re on to something, but, you know, research can be a pretty lonely pursuit.

You know, I talk mostly to bioscientists about things like this, and one thing that comes up frequently is the difference in how writing fiction and science are funded, and how that changes the nature of the work, because generally, if you’re writing fiction, nobody knows, and nobody cares. After you’ve done something you can go and try to sell it. But if you’re doing science, somebody presumably is already paying for it, which means you’ve persuaded somebody to shell out for it first. Do you feel the same?

It does create – it can create a different type of feeling, and in some way shape the nature of the creative work – potentially overconstrain it, in the scientific world. But it’s not always that way. I mean a lot of writers are writing under contract, and a lot of researchers, even if they have funding in a particular area, are doing exploratory research that they hope will lead to funding in another area – or, even setting that aside – that they hope will be interesting research. So again, it’s hard to generalize. There may be a bit more pressure to perform in science, especially in the modern scientific world. One of the things I’m interested in is writing historical fiction that deals with science. In the 19th century, for example, you feel some of these pressures that are the constructs of contemporary science didn’t exist. The scientific pursuit, at least from a backwards-looking, probably idealized view, could arguably be seen as a purer pursuit.

What kind of research do you do for the 19th century science?

Oh, I just read a lot of books. There’s the basic 19th-century aspect, the social history and the details. But on the science side, the 19th century marked the very beginnings of a structured scientific community in the US, so there aren’t issues of journals to read, in most cases. But you can almost always find monographs or writings by people who were doing something similar to what your character was interested in.

A lot of times, writing from the 19th century is more revelatory than what you’d find if you were setting something in the late 20th century, because scientific writing hadn’t yet been sterilized by a third-person passive voice. The personal was allowed to creep in much more to the scientific writing, and it really gives you a window onto the character. Or it can, at least.

We were talking last night about the sterility of the voice in journals, and I think you brought up the idea that it could be a problem if opinion or personal sentiment were to color fact.

In contemporary scientific writing, right.

Do you think that there is, potentially, a way for scientists to be able to write in a freer manner without running into trouble professionally?

It’s hard to imagine, just because everything…Well, there’s at least two types of scientific writing these days. There’s professional writing, which is published in academic journals which are usually very narrowly focused, and which almost uniformly have a particular style. But then there’s writing for a popular audience, which doesn’t necessarily have to be any less rigorous, and in those cases, when you’re writing for a popular audience, I think you’re allowed more freedom, and personal, oh, style can much more easily get into the work. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better – it could potentially make things worse, if you start introducing ambiguity or otherwise coloring the facts, but from a fiction writer’s point of view, looking for material and sources, it makes for more lively reading.

I want to go back again to the 19th-century preoccupation, and in particular the regionality of your work, because so much of it is so Midwestern. I have a couple of questions about that. First of all, you’ve been in Boston now for quite a while.

Yeah. Fifteen years.

How has that affected your ability to place things in the Midwest?

Well, in one sense I think it becomes easier, because I think mentally you tend to compress things to the essentials, and somehow it’s easier to draw on those flattened or compressed memories, at least when you’re looking for fictional material. In other words, you’re not so close to the experience – you’re not living it on a daily basis – that you become blind to it. You’ve had years to filter and compost the material, to understand what’s interesting and essential about a particular place or a particular point in your own history. So in that sense I think it becomes easier to write about the Midwest the longer I’ve been away.

On the other hand, you don’t know what you’re really forgetting or losing track of, and I’m sure there’s a substantial amount of stuff that I’ve completely forgotten, and maybe what feels authentic to me today wouldn’t seem authentic to a local. But you do the best you can.

The other question…the recurring Indian stories in your work, and stories of Indian cosmology – it struck me, partly because I’ve now read enough fiction written by guys from the Midwest – to see that this seems to come up over and over again.

Just guys?

Just guys, yeah. All white guys, too. I grew up in eastern Pennsylvania, and while there were certainly plenty of Indians there back in William Penn’s day, they don’t really figure in the big fiction from there. I mean there’s no Indians running around in John Updike’s stories.

That’s true.

So I began to wonder, is this a matter of guilt, or a sense of having missed a time when there was some action going on, or what?

Well, I don’t think it’s either of those things. I think it’s really just more a matter of working with the material that you’re given. It’s not that writing about Indians represents any absence of American history – I mean that is the American history of the Midwest. You know, when you move eastward, the history is dominated – it’s the present history. What you see when you walk around cities is colonial history – really white American history. In the Midwest – I mean the Midwest wasn’t even heavily settled until the mid-19th century, but the Indian history is still there very strongly. Any Midwestern kid worth his salt’s found an arrowhead a fifteen-minute walk away from his house. So there’s this sense that this is a living history, still. And when you catch that spark, and you start thinking about it, it becomes almost unbelievable that there’s not more written about the Indian story. I mean there’s what, really only three great stories in American history. There’s the Indian story, slavery, and the Revolution. Of those three, you sure don’t read much about the Indian story. I mean it’s almost unbelievable. At least, it struck me as unbelievable as I read about Native American history and realized how little I – and this may be personal ignorance – how little I knew, how little I’d been exposed to. It’s incredible history. It’s horrifying, and it’s such an important part of the American story. But there seems to be so little written about it.

So I think, as a writer, you’re always looking for what strikes you as new, and you want to transmit that through your fiction because you assume that readers will also find it new and interesting. And even though some people might not agree – they might feel it’s the stodgiest thing to write about – to me, writing about Native Americans felt like a new story, or at least an underreported one.

I want to go back for a second to the marginal scientist and the ways in which they do not leave science. I’m thinking of the story about the phrenologist you started reading this morning...

“The Phrenologist’s Dream.” [unzips backpack]

Karl is hauling out a giant bound manuscript...

Titled The Phrenologist’s Dream. Working title.

So in this story, at the point at which he’s most disappointed, he hauls himself back up and he wraps his hands around his science. And there is an element of…not faith, but there’s need, and familiarity, and some sort of abiding belief in the value of the facts that the work he’s seen is based on, and the tangibility of it. And I think of that because I think that’s some of the strongest stuff in your stories. And it happens recurringly.


And then I also think of the bits of Indian cosmology that come up repeatedly. I wonder if you have looked to see if there are connections between the two in your work.

I don’t know that there are, other than the fact that I’m just deeply interested in both subjects. I think the connection to the science, and the description you just gave of falling back on science, even when there seems to be no hope in whatever the particular character is pursuing, connects for me more closely to my own experience with writing. I view research and the creative act of writing as essentially surrogates, because to me they feel almost identical, as processes. Fundamentally, writing and scientific research are just different ways of interpreting the world, explaining the world. You could also argue that religion is a way of coming to grips with the world when times get difficult. So, you fall back on whatever mechanism you have in order to proceed, to continue your struggle on whatever you’re trying to understand. In the scientist’s case, in the researcher’s case, that’s the scientific perspective; in the writer’s case – anyone who’s ever written has experienced some kind of block, or disappointment in the work. Rarely do you give up writing. You just take out a blank page and start fresh. So, that’s the connection that I feel in my work. My novel The Expeditions draws an explicit parallel between the act of doing research and the act of creating art.