Web Exclusives: PawPlus



September 10, 2003:

The Lightman interview

See his book review by clicking here.

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 happened.

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 history.

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 his failures.

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, his innocence.

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 to it.

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 time?

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 with.

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 expressive.

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. Why?

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 think about.