At Milwaukee High School, where she teaches physics, Elin, the protagonist of Krista Foss’s new novel, Half life (M&S), often uses unorthodox methods to explain principles such as nuclear fission and chain reactions to her students. However much more complex, and sometimes less explicable, are the reactions occurring in Elin’s own family after the sudden death of her father, a respected Danish-born furniture maker.
Foss has twice been a finalist for the Travel Award for her short fiction. Her previous novel, Smoky River (2014), won the Hamilton Literary Prize. She lives in Hamilton.
This novel is a remarkable departure from your previous one, at least in terms of subject matter. How did it come to you?
I spent four years writing something else – a completely different book that I would continue to spread and reorganize if my daughter, whose judgment I believe is implicit, found the courage to tell me it didn’t work and not likely. As for moments, that was devastating. And not an easy message for her to convey. On an intestinal level, I knew she was right – just like her when she showed this other story, sniffing around the edges of the unchangeable manuscript, suggesting I delve deeper into that. It scared the bejees away from me. But my other option was to get depressed about being stripped for four years with nothing to show for it.
Do, Half life was written in a faint of fear, with equal parts humiliation and humility, but also a lot of love for mothers, daughters, the complications of family. And those really brave moments when someone has to say something real and destructive.
The funny note was that the first draft appeared quickly; it seemed to be there all the time. And because Half life is a close-knit personality studio, narrated in a single voice, it makes me feel completely different than my first novel, which had 12 views. I have to stretch myself in a new way.
The specificity of its scenes and characters is one of the most interesting things Half life. Why did you set it up in Milwaukee?
Milwaukee was the whim that became the premeditated choice. I wanted Elin to live in a medium-sized city for which she felt in the middle of another place, namely the larger cities that her smarter siblings had left Milwaukee for.
I also mistakenly thought that Milwaukee has a large Danish-American population, so when I landed there during a January snowstorm, I thought I would stumble upon Scandinavians. But the more I discovered about Milwaukee, the more it felt like a relative of mine, a stubborn Hamiltonian: its ugliness and beauty and other critical contradictions. It is the largest city in the United States with elected socialist mayors. Yet it remains racially segregated, divided by money, full of industrial pride, yet abandoned by many industries.
And then I discovered the curious, not-so-familiar role that Milwaukee played in The Manhattan Project, and it worked so perfectly with the novel that I began to believe that I had chosen the city on purpose, rather than acting by gut. a feeling that led to productive serendipity.
The patriarch in the novel, Tig, is a famous Danish mid-century furniture designer. How much did you know about such things before you started writing?
My children’s home was originally filled with modern furniture from the middle of the Scandinavian century, but it did not withstand the onslaught of me and my siblings: five very large, unruly children born in rapid succession. It was replaced by rough-hewn pine benches and homemade durable sofas. However, I never shook the impression of the corners and curves of the earlier furniture, the dimly lit briefcase, the dark striped curl, all recording as birdy, strange and beautiful.
So, my knowledge of Danish mid-century modern design begins with an old thrill complemented by some later book learning, BBC documentaries and hours spent looking at the offerings of online auction houses. Also, if a chair is unadorned physics – it has to hold itself under the forces of gravity, and then it has to hold you – the Dane made it look cool to my eyes.
For much of my life, it was about my level of work in physics – that, and a disastrous first year of university engineering.
And yet physics and physicists also play an important role in the novel, so I guess you had to research a lot in that sphere as well?
I supported theoretical physics for this book by a leisurely reading of what is called “the difficult problem of consciousness” and stumbling upon how neurology, philosophy, computer science, and physics all occupied territory in this debate (and territories within territories). It’s loud, and sometimes turns to controversy. And going down that rabbit hole, I read more about theoretical physics than I expected. At the simplest level, I was fascinated by how much we do in this world that reflects an underlying paradox: science works even when its practitioners do not fully understand or agree on how or why. The conscious question did not appear in my book, but physics did appear.
Finally research has a conflict with hybrid. I could not become an expert on subjects that others have dedicated their lives to dominating. In an early project, my main character had a long conversation with Niels Bohr about the epistemological questions arising from quantum mechanics. That’s not great fiction – or at least not the way I wrote it. And it taught me another lesson: resist using most of your research.
Ultimately, I needed to understand so much of the physics that interested my character and which she would use in the context of her storyline. That allowed me to address the issue with more astonishment. What does she consider walking through busy lounges holding a full cup of coffee? How does Schrodinger’s cat appear in his dreams? Who are the physicists she wants to know?
So did you come out of it with a favorite physicist, or a theorem?
Physicists fascinate me – how often disorderly lives produce a brilliant, elegant science. But it was the female physicists in the period between the basics of quantum mechanics and the beginnings of nuclear physics who left the deepest impressions, because apart from Marie Curie and her daughter, they were largely closed for recognition and rewards – a reality that is only recently changing. with the Nobel Prizes in Physics 2018 and 2020. Among them was Lise Meitner, exiled from her beloved Berlin, walking in the snow with her nephew to sit in a Swedish forest and scribble calculations on the back of a stationery store that confirmed nuclear fission. For the man who would betray her. She had that trifle of emotional complexity, deep humanity and complete brilliance.
People like to say that things don’t matter, and yet objects in this novel have weight and power. Can you talk about that?
Things matter how important they are in this novel. Which is Elin’s central dilemma. Her memory is analogous to quantum physics: she cannot produce visible tangible proofs. It is stubborn with uncertainty. And yet, it is an underlying reality.
The other reality is material, the realm of classical physics – dealing with the insults of time to her body and home, seeing her daughter bruised, a branch falling on her path. Even the bombs dropped in the past have macroscopic traces.
So, the objects in the book – a beautiful chair or food, a collection of smoky Danish glass – reflect the dilemma. They have their own classic reality, the substances from which they are made, and their touching aesthetics. But these are covered with narrative layers: who projected them, how they are made and where the wear came from. And finally, that invisible coding of memory: the laughter, meals, singing, comfort, and wounds they hold. The secrets.
The paradoxes we cannot see – joy coexisting with pain – according to those we can – aesthetic joy contemporaneous with ugliness, with stain – can all be the reality of something as useful, yet intimate, as a chair or table or drinking a glass .
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