Q and A with Chrissy Kolaya, CHARMED PARTICLES
1. Tell us a little about your new novel.
Short: It’s about high-energy particle physics, gentlemen explorers, gifted and talented teenage girls, Mary Kay ladies, and one South Asian woman’s assimilation to 1980s suburban Chicago, with a special focus on her fascination with American novelty convenience foods.
Long: Rural Nicolet, Illinois, is a city anchored between two opposing forces, a living history museum devoted to the American frontier and a laboratory for experiments in high-energy particle physics. When a proposal to build the Superconducting Super Collider under the town sparks debate between the scientists and the locals, two families find themselves on opposite sides of a controversy that fractures the community, exposing deep cultural rifts between longtime friends.
Abhijat, a scientist from India now working at the National Accelerator Research Laboratory, has a sole obsession: making a name for himself as one of history’s great theoretical physicists. The search for answers to questions about the creation of the universe blinds him to the burgeoning distance between him and his wife, Sarala, who devotes herself to their daughter, Meena, and to assimilating into suburban America. In the same neighborhood, Rose Winchester strives to raise precocious Lily, stitching together an unconventional marriage from the brief visits and vibrant letters of her husband Randolph, who fancies himself the last great gentleman explorer.
Based on real events surrounding the Superconducting Super Collider, a facility begun in the U.S. but never completed, Charmed Particles traces the collisions of past and progress, science and tradition.
2. You must have had to do quite a bit of research for this book - what were the rewards and challenges of the research experience? I know you made a visit to the FermiLab, for example.
Yes, this project involved a lot of research, which I loved getting to do. I spent time at Fermilab in 2010—it’s the inspiration for the book’s fictional National Accelerator Research Lab. There, I interviewed theoretical physicists, tagged along on a field trip, and worked in their archives. I also got to tour a living history facility in the area and read lots and lots of books, articles, and government documents (Environmental Impact Statements, transcripts of public hearings, etc.). While the latter may seem like they’d be dry, they really helped bring the conflict over the Superconducting Super Collider to life for me. Here were the actual voices of the people whose lives were being impacted by this potential project. Here were the things they worried about, the things they hoped for. It felt like I was listening in on a conversation my own characters were having.
Re: the rewards of the research--well, first of all, it’s fun! I love getting to read books, watch documentaries, talk to fascinating people, and call it all part of an honest day’s work. People were incredibly kind along the way, taking me under their wing and allowing me to pepper them with questions. I’m especially grateful to Jennifer Bridge of Naper Settlement and Adrienne Kolb of Fermilab.
The challenges are, of course, related. Because it’s fun, it can be tempting to keep right on researching without ever doing the hard work of writing—putting your butt in the seat and putting words on the page. There’s also the persistent worry that you’ve gotten something wrong—I asked a few particle physicists to read for egregious science errors and some South Asian friends to read for spots where I may have made a wrong turn in terms of culture—so I suppose that’s all you can do—do the best research you can, do your best to check and double check it, and then hope to God you’ve gotten it right!
3. You write about a number of characters who I'm guessing are quite different from you - e.g. an Indian physicist, the American wife of a world explorer, a young Indian woman who moves from India to suburban Chicago after her marriage - how did you manage to assume their POVs with such sympathy and insight?
First of all, thank you for the kind words. In writing this book and in taking on characters whose backgrounds are in many ways very different from my own, what was most important to me was to render them as multidimensional, complex, and fully-developed characters rather than as sociological stand-ins or a “representative types” in the way Meena notices and critiques in The Secret Museum of Mankind. I think it was important that while writing the book (and even now) I very much think of these characters as real people I know and love.
I worry, of course, about a reader feeling that it’s not my place to write characters outside my own cultural experience (my own cultural background is Slovak and Italian, by way of American suburbia), that by doing so I’m appropriating another culture. I hope it doesn’t feel to readers like that’s what I’ve done, though I can understand the critique. But this question of how writers tackle material outside their lived experience is an important one. I suppose the only real answer I have is that you do your best to read and talk to people and learn about what the worlds and daily lives of your characters might be like, and then you make that leap—both terrifying and exciting--into the realm of making stuff up, of writing fiction.
4. In Charmed Particles, you explore the themes of immigration, identity, community, progress and technology - did you know that you were going to write about these themes when you began C.P., or did they evolve as you were working on the manuscript?
I don’t know that I ever have a sense, early on in a project, what its themes will ultimately be. Rather, it seems to me that themes begin to reveal themselves as the project comes together. I realized that immigration, identity, and community were going to be important as I watched Sarala wrestle with these on the page and in her life. I realized that progress and technology were going to be important as soon as I began learning about the story of the U.S.’s failed bid to construct the Superconducting Super Collider.
5. You also write poetry and published a collection, Any Anxious Body, in 2014. How does your poetry inform your fiction, and vice-versa?
Training as a poet prepared me for close attention to the line and the musicality of language; however, studying poetry rather than fiction meant that I felt like I had to teach myself many of the basics of writing a short story, a novel. This was difficult, and for me required a lot of heartbreaking trial and error.
It’s funny--when I’m frustrated with my work, I sometimes feel like I write poetry like a fiction writer and fiction like a poet. When a piece seems to be working well, though, it feels like those two types of writing are playing nicely together.
6. What are you working on now, if you don't mind telling us?
I’m sending around a new collection of poems to publishers, called We Didn’t Come to Have a Good Time, We Came to See You, and I’m finishing up my next novel project, which is about cryptozoology and is called The Second Voyage of Audley Worthington.