Why did you write the fictitious scene for your entry in your
30th reunion yearbook?
I wanted to do something creative to entertain myself.
About a year later, I was thinking of ideas for my next novel,
and I remembered that I had written that. I began wondering about
the letter that my younger self was reading because I didn't say
too much about it in the yearbook. I began wondering who was that
woman who wrote the letter. I was interested in her story. This
is often the way that novels get written the author creates
a character and begins exploring it.
Tell me about the novel.
I've always been interested in time and memory how we construct
our self identity from memory, how that memory is unreliable, how
we add and subtract and store and twist our memories to become the
person we would like to be, and to shape the world the way we would
like it to be.
There's a gap between the world as it actually is and the world
the way we would like it to be. That was the intellectual theme
of the book. The rest of it was my fascination and curiosity about
the young woman who wrote the letter.
There are a couple places in the novel where Charles recalls
two versions of an event, but the reader doesn't know which really
I intended to suggest that we don't really know what actually
happened in the past. You can have several people witness the same
event and have different accounts of what happened. Our memories
are even less reliable than that.
Did you have a relationship in college similar to the one Charles
had with the dancer Juliana?
I certainly had love affairs in college. Who didn't? There's a
sense in which all novels are autobiographical. You cannot fake
an emotional experience, you can change the circumstances, you can
change the scene and the time and the place, you can change the
people involved, but you cannot fake the emotional truth. I think
every novelist draws upon their emotional history if not their actual
Your mom was a dancing teacher. Is that how you learned about
the life of dancers?
She was a ballroom dancer, and at an early age I was exposed to
bodily movement. I've always been interested in the arts, and from
a young age I've been fascinated by using the human body as an art
form itself to express ideas and emotions .
I found your novel a very sad story. Did you?
I felt very sorry for Charles. I had a lot of sympathy with him
as someone who has led a life that did not turn out the way he had
hoped. He developed a lot of self-hatred in later life because of
What did you like about Juliana and Charles?
I admired Juliana's toughness and her determination to survive.
She overcame a terrible childhood and found something that was beautiful
and real in her life her dancing. With Charles, I liked his
younger self. I liked his sensitivity and his artistic instincts,
At the end of the book there's a scene where the older Charles
meets and talks to his younger, college self the younger
Charles doesn't want to know what will happen to him in later life.
In that scene, were you trying to say that it's good that younger
people are willing to go into the future and not worry too much
even if disappointment lies ahead?
I think the reader has to come to his or her own conclusions about
what it says. I don't think an author should be speaking about what
something means or doesn't mean. I think the great strength of a
novel is that individual readers bring their own interpretations
When you return to campus do you remember your younger self
as you walk around campus?
I certainly look back to remember the atmosphere of the campus.
Of course it's changed a lot. I imagine I'm not that different from
anyone else at reunions. For me one of the greatest pleasures of
being a student at Princeton was the physical beauty of the campus.
The novel was set in the late 1960s. Can you describe that
That period of time was much more ambiguous and confusing than
some historians write about. There was a confusion about the meaning
of the Vietnam war and what a person's personal stance should be.
It wasn't just right wing versus left wing, or revolution versus
status quo. Most things were in a gray area, and I try to depict
that in book.
How long did it take to write Reunion?
About two years. I do a lot of drafts. I probably went through
10 or 12 drafts. This novel was much easier to write than my last
one, Diagnosis, which I spent five years on and had a terrible struggle
What is your next book about?
I'm writing a book about landmark discoveries in physics, biology,
and chemistry in the 20th century. I picked 20 great discoveries
in physics, biology, and chemistry. I will have an anthology of
the original discovery papers and then write a 5,000 word introductory
essay to each paper, placing it in a historical context and giving
the reader a guided tour through the paper.
You've said that you write about the human side of science
what do you mean by that?
The realization that science is not only about the physical world
around us but it is also about ourselves. Some of what we learn
from science profoundly affect us psychologically and our understanding
of who we are.
For example, Copernicus's proposal that the Earth was not the
center of the solar system had profound implications about humankind's
place in the cosmos. Or Darwin's theory of evolution, Watson and
Crick's discovery of DNA.
You've written about how the arts and science enrich each other
can you talk a little bit about that?
In terms of science enriching art: The arts have always looked
for new ideas, emerging ideas. There's nothing that excites an artist
more than a new idea about anything. And they put it in their minds
and slosh it around with their understanding of the whole culture
they live in and then try to have something come out that's very
There's no subject in human culture that produces new ideas at
a faster rate than science. So art is looking for new ideas and
science provides new ideas.
In terms of the arts affecting science: Scientists are always
trying to describe what they are observing, their new pictures of
the world as a result of their work. The arts provide the vocabulary,
written and pictorial, to describe things.
You've talked about how the creative moment in science is similar
to the creative moment in writing. Could you describe the similarities?
The creative moment is a moment in which you lose all sense of
yourself. You lose all sense of ego, your body, your physical surroundings,
and sense of time. It's a marvelous experience, which I have had
both as a physicist and a novelist.
You've called your summer house in Maine your spiritual center.
I do a lot of writing there, and it seems to come from a deeper
place when I'm there. I'm able to get into a deeper place because
I don't have the distractions of this crazy, frantic world that
we live in. The house has no telephone. It does have electricity.
The island doesn't have ferry service or bridges. There are six
houses on 30 acres total so each house has about five acres. All
of the residents of the island have their own small boats.
It's a place where you can hear yourself think. When you get by
yourself in a quiet place (some people can do this on vacation,
but you need at least two weeks), you find that your mind thinks
about things it normally doesn't think about. It's thinking about
what it wants to think about. And that's a very rare experience
for most Americans.
It's an enormous privilege and luxury. I'm truly grateful I can
go to this place in the summer for few months and get into a state
of consciousness where my mind can think about what it wants to