Alan Lightman is the author of Einstein’s Dreams, The Good Benito and his latest novel, The Diagnosis, which was a finalist in 2000 for the National Book Award for Fiction. He was also the guest editor of The Best American Essays (2000), and his own essays, short fiction and reviews have appeared in a wide variety of publications including The New Yorker, Granta, Harper’s, Story, The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Review of Books.
Lightman was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1948. He attended Princeton University, where he received an AB in physics; The California Institute of Technology, where he received a Ph.D. in theoretical physics; as well as attending Cornell University as a postdoctoral fellow in astrophysics. Currently, he is John Burchar Humanities and senior lecturer in Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This is the only joint appointment in humanities and science at MIT.
In The Diagnosis, Lightman concerns himself, with Kafka-esque precision, with our culture’s compulsion for accelerating life and its attendant obsessions with information and money. As the main character, Bill Chalmers is taking a train to work one day, he realizes that he can’t remember where he is going or who he is. All he can remember is his company’s motto, “The maximum information in the minimum time.” As Chalmers’ nightmarish search for a diagnosis continues, Lightman weaves in the Greek philosopher Socrates’ story with deft parallels and a harrowing conclusion.
Professor Lightman has won numerous awards and distinctions and is fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters.
Robert Birnbaum: I was very charmed by your introduction to the Best Essays [of 2000] because you framed it in a very humane setting. I wondered if the publisher took note of your discomfort at calling these the ‘best’?
Alan Lightman: No, they didn’t. They are enlightened people. Janet Silver, an outstanding editor and a very sensible and totally unpretentious person, would never claim that any of the best — they have six different ”the Bests” — she would never claim any of those are the ‘best.’ And Robert Atwan, the series editor, he’s a wonderful man. They both felt my essay was unusual, a little more down-home than what they usually get — but they didn’t take me to task for saying that. I felt that I had to say it.
RB: My recollection of past introductions in this series usually includes talk of the selection process and highlights from the edition. You didn’t do that. In a way your introduction is an additional essay exemplifying your appreciation of an essay as a presentation of a writer’s voice.
AL: It was more important to me…I picked such seemingly disparate essays, I thought it was important to say what was the guiding principle in the selection rather than focus on any one essay. I reached for some principle that had been subconscious in me and lifted it into consciousness. Authenticity and sincerity were the most important unifying principles of all these apparently different essays.
RB: Jamaica Kincaid seems to be in many of the 10 or 11 of these ”Best Essays.” It seems they would be incomplete without her…
AL: She’s marvelous, and I would include Cynthia Ozick [who] I feel is one of the best essayists in this country. Cynthia writes other kinds of things — she just won a Lannan Prize for fiction. The essay is where she shines the most…and I agree about Jamaica Kincaid. Those two people — you would have to try hard not to include them as long as they are writing each year — they are so good.
RB: I am fascinated with the fact that publishers keep publishing things that they claim don’t sell. More short-story collections but seemingly not profitable and then one step further down the profit ladder…
AL: Poetry, no one ever expects poetry to sell…
AL: It’s wonderful. It’s really a voice of protest in this atmosphere of all these multi-national conglomerates… in another few years there will be only two or three companies running everything. I love the fact publishers are still publishing unprofitable material. It’s a challenge to the powers that be. It’s saying there is a real literature in this country and we will keep publishing it.
RB: Who is reading short stories and essays? Other writers, aspiring writers or students or very, very serious readers…? And essays?
AL: It’s the same thing. Writers read essays and serious thinkers and serious readers… that is a small population.
RB: Are these forms of literature and narrative having any affect on our culture?
AL: Yes, they are. It’s not necessarily a large number of people that affect the culture. You don’t count the number of influential voices, you weigh them. A hundred people can affect the culture…
RB: Rather elitist isn’t it?
AL: Yes, it’s the Platonic philosophy in The Republic that philosophers should lead the country…
RB: But not the poets… who is leading this country? Can you identify some voices that are carrying some weight or influence?
AL: Yeah, I think Joe Leiberman has been one of the leaders of the country…people have such a broad respect for him as a moral force. I think Henry Louis Gates is one of the leaders of the country. There are important writers who are listened to…Simon Schama at Columbia University…
RB: Even as Schama concentrates on Art History…although he has recently published a new history of Britain…
AL: People pay attention to him. I think Susan Sontag is an influential voice. It’s a good question. I haven’t thought about it before…
RB: How much of your time did the Best Essay book take?
AL: It took about six months. It was not a huge project. Robert Atwan…he screens hundreds of publications and I also give him a list of 50 essayists that I know and he does a computer search of everything they’ve written and then he gets it down to about 150 essays or so. Over a period of several months he sends me, in groups of 30 or 40, up to about 150, and then I read those and make a selection and write the introduction. It’s all wrapped up in six months.
RB: Had you completed The Diagnosis?
AL: I had mostly finished it and was doing the last round of revisions. I worked on that book for five years altogether but the last year was very fine revisions. I was on my fifteenth draft by that time, making very small changes. And it didn’t interfere with the essay work.
RB: And you also teach regularly at MIT?
AL: Yes. Twice a week, both semesters.
RB: Are there other projects?
AL: Not too many. I have a family, and you know very well the time that that takes. That’s good time. I have a couple hobbies. I’m a runner and play tennis. In the summer my family and I uproot ourselves and go live in Maine for the summer. We have a house on a very tiny island in Maine. Which is really my spiritual center. We’ve been going there for ten years, and it has no ferry service, no bridges, no telephone service. It’s really isolated.
AL: It has electricity. We ran an underwater cable. There are six houses on the island…six people who live there. When I’m there I am out on the water a lot. I spend a lot of time just listening to the ospreys. We have an osprey family which about five years ago made a nest in a tree about a hundred feet from our house. And every summer I watch them go through their life cycle. They spend the winter in South America. The mother and father osprey stay together. It’s a monogamous relationship. And every summer they raise a new brood of children. They came back to the nest in the middle of April. They take separate vacations in the winter — the mother and father…
RB: How do you know that?
AL: Because ornithologists have tagged them. Within 24 hours, after being thousands of miles apart, they come back and land on this nest.
RB: Truly monogamy…
AL: Total, it’s almost sick. Then they lay the eggs at the end of April. The mother starts sitting on the nest. The father catches fishes for the family. The eggs hatch at the beginning of June and the babies start growing — there are usually two in the brood — they’re huge birds. Around the middle of August the babies start trying to fly. The mother gives them flying lessons, which is the most incredible thing to watch.
RB: Because they are very high up in the tree?
AL: Because they have never left the tree. They’ve been in the nest their whole lives. Most birds, particularly ospreys, you think of as graceful flyers, but on their first practice flight when they are adolescents they crash into trees, they have trouble landing. What we’ve done — we have a big truck picture window where we almost feel at home with these birds and we have been watching their life cycles for five years now — I feel really connected to them. One day I’m going to write a book about them. It has really gotten deep into my bloodstream. So when you ask what else I do, I feel like this is part of what I do….is to watch these birds.
RB: This may be an absurd question, but what appliances do you have in Maine?
AL: Since we ran electricity we have the modern appliances. We have a stove and a refrigerator…
AL: Uh, yeah we’ve got a toaster.
AL: No, no television.
AL: No computer, and without the telephone service we are mercifully without the faxes and e-mails. So it’s really about two and a half months that I’ll feel like I can recover some silence in my life…which is so hard to find.
RB: You stated that The Diagnosis took you five years. The references to it have described it as very funny. Do you think this a funny book?
AL: Well, I wouldn’t overall say that it’s a funny book. I would say that it has comic moments. It’s a modern tragedy. I think all tragedies are best told with some humor. You have to relieve the darkness to let the reader get through it. Also, that life has happiness and sadness mixed together. If you told a story that was all darkness, it wouldn’t be real.
RB: Was it painful to write this book?
AL: It was. It was painful both because of the subject matter and also because for the first several years I was pretty sure that I had bitten off more than I could chew. It’s by far my most ambitious book. I such great hopes for it…there was so much I wanted to do with the book. I was extremely insecure about it for several years. Just didn’t know whether I would finish the book much less for it to come close to what I intended. I think that for any novel you never know exactly how the book is going to turn out…
RB: Doctorow has said something to the effect that you start a novel and it’s like driving beyond your headlights…
AL: You have to do that because if you over-plot your book you strangle your characters. Your characters have to have enough freedom and life to be able to surprise you. What that means is that they may take the book in a different direction that you had envisioned. So that’s the fine balance of a fiction writer…to be able to give your characters enough freedom to surprise you and yet still maintain some kind of artistic control. You are constantly balancing between those two opposing forces. But I like the way Doctorow put it, about “overdriving your headlights.”
RB: 15 drafts. Is that fine-tuning or making significant changes?
AL: Ten drafts of very significant changing, where I went through the whole book, wholesale and changed everything. Then the last year or so it was making small changes. I would do something and let it sit for three months…just brood about and decide I needed to slightly change something here or there. Or one character wasn’t quite right. But I think everybody goes through this.
RB: Do you look forward to writing? Are you eager to pick up the work?
AL: I am usually. Sometimes when it’s going badly, I am fearful. I never look at it as this is what I do. It’s always a compulsion. I feel like I can’t not do it. I think what gets you through a small writing project, is just one burst of inspiration. A book, especially a longer book, it’s a different kind of force that pushes you through it. It’s a vision of the whole thing. It’s also — you have write something somewhere in the beginning that has some magic in it — that will keep you going. When I used to play golf. It’s a terrible miserable game. It’s incredibly frustrating. In 18 holes you make 150 horrible shots off in the woods, in the water…You make one good shot and it brings you back the next time. With writing a long book there has to be at least one bit that has some magic in it that you can go back to…and you say, “Something important really happened here. I really had hold of something I was visited by the muse.” And that’s enough to make you continue the months and years to finish the whole book.
RB: Now that this book is out and you read it in public, are there things you discover you want to revise…in that sense is the work really finished?
AL: My second novel, Good Benito, was not finished. I wished that I had spent another year with it. This book, I don’t know yet. One thing that I do believe is: the book is finished by the reader. A good novel should invite the reader in and let the reader participate in the creative experience and bring their own life experiences to it, interpret with their own individual life experiences. Every reader gets something different from a book, and every reader, in a sense, completes it in a different way. Because every reader is different, the book is completed in a thousand different ways. That’s not quite the same as feeling that the book is flawed, that you could have improved a certain passage or a certain chapter or a certain character. Right now I feel happy with the book. I feel that it was close to the book that I intended to write. I don’t know how I’ll feel in a year of two.
RB: How do feel about Einstein’s Dreams?
AL: I’m still happy with the way it came out. That book came out of a single inspiration. I really felt like I was not creating the words, that I was hearing the words. That someone else was speaking the words to me and I was just writing them down. It was a very strange experience. That can happen with a short book. I don’t think it could happen with a long book.
RB: Do you find yourself rereading books?
AL: I reread a lot of books that I like a lot. There are some books that I try to reread every couple of years. A good book changes for you every few years because you are in a different place in your own life. That’s a sign of a good novel. Not only will two different readers get something different, but so will a single reader at different points in his life.
RB: Something in your introduction to the Best Essays led me to consider this. Doesn’t 1999 seem like a really long time ago?
AL: It does. It does. The world is moving faster and faster, but where are we going? Not exactly your question…I think one of the reasons why things are getting blurry is because there is not much meaning.
RB: It would seem that the symptom of that is that not many people are asking questions…or they are asking small questions not big questions…
AL: Yeah, that’s what I was hoping to get at in the deeper layers of my novel, The Diagnosis. That is, we’ve lost our way, we have lost our centeredness. We don’t have the time, literally, to think during the day. To listen to ourselves think. To think about where we are going, who we are, what’s important. I would bet most people don’t have 30 minutes in a day where they can just sit down and think. Or maybe they don’t have to be sitting, they can be walking. One metaphor for how we are living is that you see so many people with cell phones. In restaurants, walking, they have cell phones clamped to their to heads. When they are on their cell phones they are not where their bodies are…they are somewhere else in hyperspace. They are not grounded. We have become disembodied. By being always somewhere else we are nowhere.
RB: Early in the mobile-phone era, I was at a restaurant and at another table there were four young men, each talking on their cell phones…and it was one of the few times I was without a camera…
AL: It would have been a great picture.
RB: There is a minor backlash about all this…
AL: Yes, right. I think some people are becoming aware of this and speaking about it that it will spread to a larger number of people and more people will have an awareness and we will have a more of a national discussion of this malaise we are suffering …the widespread numbness and oblivion to the malaise is one of its most insidious features. So many of us are not even aware of the frantic pace we are living. We just sort of sped up incrementally over a period time.
RB: How far ahead do you look for the next thing you want to do? Are you at work on your next novel?
AL: I have a number of vague ideas where I just have the core or kernel of the idea. I already mentioned that I want to write about the ospreys sometime and what that means spiritually. I’m intentionally letting a year or so go by without starting any new projects. I feel like I need some time for my mind to fill up again. I feel empty. Right now.
RB: In this interim period, how involved are you in the literary scene?
AL: You know that writers are a loosely knit community — community is an overstated word. Writers don’t see each other very much. A writer is someone who has a one-man tent in the desert and occasionally he sees the footprint of an other writer — in the form of a review or something…and then knows that another writer has come near him. And then he goes back to his tent. I do have a correspondence with some writers, and I am going to some book festivals. I see some people there. But that’s about it. I value my correspondence with writers…I was in New York recently and had lunch with Oliver Sacks and compared notes with him — he is someone I really like. I love staying in written correspondence with some writers. That’s enough for me.
RB: What’s it like teaching writing at a institution like MIT which is heavily weighted towards the sciences?
AL: A good question. I find that it’s interesting and challenging. At the level of the students, they are not particularly well-read as compared to others. They are not used to being in touch with their feelings and expressing their emotional side. They are all analytical thinkers. They are enormously bright. And they are enormously imaginative. And they will come out with things in their writings that you won’t see anywhere else because they are creative and imaginative. And original. They are very original. That’s exciting. And it’s also exciting having a student who is not used to expressing their emotional side and bringing that out in them and see that developing and helping to nurture that. That’s an exciting thing. In a class of fifteen there are usually two very good writers, equal to good student writers anywhere in the country. Those two make the class wonderful. Institutionally, it is somewhat of an uphill battle. As you say, the dominant culture at MIT is scientific and technological. I think there is a genuine appreciation for the arts and humanities. MIT is a very interdisciplinary place. There is a respect for creativity in whatever form it appears. I think people all over the institution recognize that different ways of understanding are valuable. Artists may think in a different way than biologists or chemists, but you can learn something from that. It is true that the arts at MIT don’t have the same amount of funding or same status as the sciences or engineering.
RB: What do you think when your work is referred to as Kafka-esque?
AL: I’m humbled and enormously grateful to be connected to Kafka in a any way. He is one of the writers I admire. I think he has been a big influence on me. I appreciate the idea of the individual person battling the society — which is true in all his books. He is also an idea person. His books begin and end in ideas. Ideas have always been important to me in my writing. To the point that I have to be careful that they don’t take over. In fiction writing ideas have to be handled extremely carefully. You can’t let your characters just be mouthpieces for your ideas. They have to live and breathe on their own. But Kafka has been a big influence on me, as he has on many twentieth-century writers.
RB: What do you read in your writing classes?
AL: We reading Annie Proulx, Raymond Carver, Michael Ondaatje, Colette, Hemingway, Faulkner…
RB: No 19th-century writers?
AL: There’s a lot to learn from those writers, but I find it’s not that good for my writing students. It would be better for literature classes, but for my students who are trying to learn the craft of writing in a writing class — contemporary literature is what’s most useful.
RB: Could your books be made into movies?
AL: When I wrote them, I had only in mind trying to make them the best book possible. I had no thoughts of films. There have been a number of options on Einstein’s Dreams. I think it is always a long shot getting a book made into a film. Making that book into a film is going to be quite a challenge.
RB: That’s true about many novels, The English Patient for one.
AL: That has a very strong story line and it has the visual beauty of the Sahara. [Einstein’s Dreams] doesn’t have a continuing narrative. It’s chopped up into little pieces. The Diagnosis, maybe. It’s not an ambition of mine. If another artist is able to do something with it, I’m delighted.