One of the most interesting and unique books I've read as of late is Elizabeth Gonzalez's The Universal Physics of Escape from Press 53. The short story collection is tied together by tales richly infused with science which, of course, is right up my alley (being the huge Sam Kean and other science writers fan that I am....). You can read my full account of the book over at Small Press Book Review, but today I bring you an interview with Gonzalez herself. Enjoy!
Steph Post: All of the stories in The Universal Physics of Escape contain some reference to science. Additionally, the themes of loneliness, death and religion are prevalent in most works and overall this collection appears to be a cohesive body of work. I’m interested in how this collection came about. Did you write these stories intending for them to one day be compiled in a book or did you see the common threads running through afterwards and then decide to develop a collection?
Elizabeth Gonzalez: Basically, to create the collection, I pulled together all of the stories I had that had worked out. I’m not a prolific writer and it was a feat for me to assemble enough finished work to create a collection at all. I had gathered some of the stories for my master’s thesis seven years ago, and I was surprised then to see then how connected they were. Collecting stories gives you a new, larger perspective on what’s eating you, what makes you write.
I was working on the final story, "Universal Physics," as I assembled the collection. I was struck by the line connecting the titles of the short shorts – "0 = 1," "Here," "Departure," "Trajectories." That was just weird, an artifact of something. "Here" and "Departure" formed their own sort of line of thinking that came together very concretely in the final story. That moment—when those threads of very disparate stories came together in a handful of lines—is the one that told me the collection was done. It’s the same way it works in a story—you have that line on which the whole matter hinges. You hit it and know you have a story.
By far, that is the most exciting aspect of writing for me. The work really does write back, if you work through it long enough, and give it enough time to resolve.
SP: As a lover of science writing in its own right, I was excited to see a short story collection built upon themes of astronomy, physics and the natural sciences. What drew you to incorporating scientific formulas, images and concepts into your fiction work? While I certainly appreciated the motif, do you think there is a risk of alienating some readers?
EG: I think it’s a case of writing what you read and think about. I love lay science. It reveals reality to me. I read science to try to understand on a very fundamental level what I am, what to make of my time on the planet, what life is. Sometimes, something happens that bounces into a story. I see a line between something I’m obsessing over and a character, and I start writing.
I do think there’s a huge risk of alienating people. I guess I feel about it generally the way I feel about my hair: it’s unfortunate, but I’m stuck with it. But I am very aware of that possibility. This is a challenging market, and just on a sort of hostess level, you never want to abuse a ready reader. So the fact that it’s in there means I have no other choice. It is how it has to be said. When someone like you reads it and likes it, I have to say, I choke up. No exaggeration. When someone reads it at all, I am amazed.
SP: Oftentimes, religion and scientific thought are seen as being odds with one another. In your stories, however, I found these themes flowing together seamlessly. How do you think science and religion are connected? Is this something that you deliberately set out to explore in your writing?
EG: I think religion and science are absolutely, intimately, inextricably connected. It is one of the great sorrows of our time that their discussions are so polarized and mutually deaf. I think endlessly, tirelessly, about what it means to be here. So I think endlessly about religion and origins and ends and science. They’re all the same question, the same quest, to me. I hate partisanship of all stripes, and this sort especially. Because it prevents people from hearing one another. And it prevents some of the most interesting discussions, I think, that people could have.
Richard Dawkins writes beautifully about the incredible privilege of seeing a day on the planet. About the overwhelming odds against having that experience at any given moment in the universe. He happens to be an atheist, and has become a champion of that world view. But he’s probing the same questions that writers like C.S. Lewis and Soren Kierkegaard wrestled with. And the jury’s still out, right? We have to answer these questions for ourselves.
SP: Most of the pieces in The Universal Physics of Escape fit the structure of what readers would easily recognize as stories. I wanted to ask you about “Departure,” though. For me, this is the piece that borders on the abstract. It’s not a prose poem, but it doesn’t necessarily have all of the elements of a story. How would you describe this work? Is there a story somewhere buried somewhere beneath the reflective layers that I’ve missed? And does it even matter if “Departure” is a traditional story or not?
EG: It’s funny, the version of this story in the collection is one I fleshed out from a story I wrote for my thesis. The original had even less character and plot resolution, and the very smart people I went to school with said it needed more of that traditional “story.” I resisted for years, then finally, after a couple of editors made similar comments in rejections, I fleshed out some of those elements. I sold it shortly after. It’s my personal case study for when to listen to editorial suggestions (consensus is a good sign). Probably part of my resistance is personal. Maybe it could be more resolved. I guess I quit when I sold it.
SP: I’ve already mentioned that the themes of loneliness and death pervade your work. There is also a haunting sense of isolation in many of your stories. Is all of your work infused with some form of melancholia? Or are your stories not sad, but something else entirely?
EG: There is a tremendous isolation in the stories. That was something that really struck me when I pulled them together, how alone the characters are, down to the last. That was definitely a case of self-revelation. I wish it were not so. You don’t pick your themes. At least, that’s my experience.
When I was a kid, I always assumed I was isolated from moving around all the time. When I got older, I viewed this as a problem to solve and moved to the suburbs. I guess my work revealed to me the issue may go beyond where I live, as I’ve been in the same place now for 22 years. I’d probably have to write for ten more years to figure out the next glaringly obvious thing about my life that anyone on the street could see in five minutes. Apparently this is how it works.
SP: One of the things I found most interesting about your stories is the use of animals. I found their inclusion not to be typically symbolic, however, but rather a way of giving voice to emotions and ideas otherwise inexpressible. Can you explain how you intended animals to function in The Universal Physics of Escape?
EG: Honestly, you had a line in your review that really struck me, about the elements of the stories working as “voices.” I’d never seen it in quite that light, and I really like that terminology. The octopuses and herons and crows aren’t things I put in to enhance the stories, or to signify for someone else. They are the stories. The story "Universal Physics" is as much about real living octopuses in the depths of the ocean as it is about middle-aged mothers in the depths of suburbia. The collection is all about bats that will dive for a stone, and moths that fry themselves because they thought they saw the moon, and the weather coming unhinged, and arms that can run away when severed. This is a wondrous and terrible planet.
SP: And finally, I have to ask: why the octopus?
EG: I met a little white octopus in a science museum on Tybee Island, South Carolina about ten years ago. It latched onto the glass and followed my hand wherever I moved it, and that made me sad. That little guy prompted years of reading and exploration, and the more I read, the more I was struck by the similarities between the octopus and myself, or my kind. And—and here’s the part I don’t think maybe people understand—it wasn’t a case of making a case for connection, of writing to create a parallel. It was a case of seeing the connections that exist, of taking down evidence—of writing, very simply, what is.
So many thanks to Elizabeth Gonzalez. Be sure to order and read The Universal Physics of Escape- and while you're at, check out some of the other great collections from Press 53. There's quite a lot of talent coming from that direction.... Cheers!