Chrissy Kolaya – Charmed Particles
Abhijat Mital accepted the position at the National Accelerator Research Lab with great pride. The offer itself was the realization of his greatest dream, now made concrete by the desk he would sit behind, the nameplate on his door, the drive every morning through the gates, where he would present his pass to the security guard who would, after a matter of weeks, begin to wave him through, recognizing Abhijat as one among the parade of scientists he’d been waving through those gates for years, and on that day, Abhijat would feel, at last, like he belonged.
He had written Sarala with the news that he’d accepted a position at the premier particle accelerator and research facility in the U.S., some argued in the world. The job would begin at the end of the semester, after he had fulfilled his academic commitments to the university.
In the evenings, he took the short, quiet walk from his office on campus to the small set of rooms he rented in the house of an emeritus professor of philosophy, with whom he sometimes enjoyed an evening game of chess before returning to his desk to pore over his work. As he walked, snow falling quietly around him as was common on those dark midwinter nights, he often caught himself peering into the lit-up windows of the houses he passed, imagining the life he and Sarala would make for themselves.
–Except from Charmed Particles (Dzanc Books)
EVAN MORGAN WILLIAMS: You’re a poet with a published collection (Any Anxious Body, Broadstone Books), and you’re a fiction writer (Charmed Particles, Dzanc Books); I’ve read that you move from one form to the other pretty easily. I’m curious, though, how you brought a poetic sensibility to a novel where much of the action concerns an impending supercollider in a small Midwest town. Of course, Charmed Particles isn’t a “science novel”–it’s about people–and the supercollider is just the agent that inflames more intimate conflicts. Still, the main characters would probably consider themselves a sensible lot, so I want to ask for your thoughts about bringing the poetic to this project.
CHRISSY KOLAYA: What a great question! I think that for me this is always about caring about language on a deep, particular level. My graduate education was in poetry, so I suppose for me that’s always the starting point—the poetic. It was only later that I began to look to fiction writers to teach me how to wield the tools of narrative. In this book, I was fortunate to be writing characters who are the sort of folks who are aware of imagery, especially the characters of Sarala and Dr. Cardiff. And so much of the language of subatomic physics is uniquely lovely: scientists talk about a particle’s flavor—its charm or strangeness, its truth or beauty. Even at moments where I lost the thread of understanding the physics at hand, I found the language so captivating and evocative.
EMW: Charmed Particles uses a lot of ephemera to tell its story. Recipes, letters in the mail, letters in the bin, lawn signs, a child’s notes for a research paper, even a Mary Kay Cosmetics order form–they’re all in there, and they fit wonderfully into the story. I’ve read that you used ephemera to inspire your poetry, too, so this is obviously an important aspect of your writing. How did this device develop for you, and what does it bring to the story for you as a writer? How does it tell a story that no other device could tell?
CK: I love ephemera—this strange stuff of life we leave lying around. For me, it provides a layer of detail I enjoy when reading and wanted to provide for readers of this book. When done clunkily, using this kind of stuff can seem random and can make a piece feel unfocused, but when done well, it gives a piece of writing such texture and depth, which, for me, is key to making it feel real and believable. Here’s hoping I’ve pulled it off in the latter manner!
I’ve always loved writing that plays with incorporating this stuff into the text, especially visually. My editor and the book designer at Dzanc (as well as the editor and book designer for my poetry collection) were incredibly indulgent in experimenting with how this stuff might be rendered on the page. I sometimes wonder if, for me, this ephemera is a crutch—a poet saying “Jeez, so much narrative! I need an image I can stick in here to carry some of the load!” But I think it also comes from how appealing I find writing that’s visually playful on the page.
EMW: Well, the ephemera in Charmed Particles certainly captures some of the most poignant moments in the characters’ lives. Speaking of which, almost every character in Charmed Particles is struggling with cultural barriers. An Indian scientist in America. An English explorer among pre-industrial tribes. A woman reconciling the town of her youth with the town of today. A gifted student who struggles to understand her mundane classmates. Do you see these barriers as something you had planned to write about, or were these barriers something that your characters found as a result of your writing?
CK: So of course, any writer learns that to create narrative tension, we have to put our characters somewhere interesting with something interesting happening to them. We can’t just sit there and admire them—much as we may enjoy this, it’s rarely satisfying for a reader. So with these characters, I tried to imagine what about their lives would feel challenging and how each of them would take up that challenge. This cultural barrier issue is really what I think the book is about—how do we successfully or unsuccessfully communicate in the face of these types of cultural differences, which can manifest in terms of education, cultural background, class, race, gender—the list goes on and on.
As I wrote, the challenges produced by these cultural barriers allowed me to get at some of the other themes I was interested in exploring: for Rose, her response to the differences between the town of her youth and the town as it exists when she moves back allowed me to explore changing land use, an issue I’ve been curious about for a long time.
For Lily, her responses to the differences that exist between her and her fellow classmates provided opportunities for humor, but also a chance to write about how folks find their way to “their people,” to a kind of life that feels comfortable and familiar, and how important that can be.
EMW: I would like to ask about how you structured the novel, because I see something distinctive at play here. Forget about Freytag’s Pyramid—it’s there, if one cared to diagram it—but I strongly suspect that a very different structure was guiding your composition. How early were the colliding particles showing you the way?
CK: I had a really hard time with the structure of the novel. Perhaps because I studied as a poet, that whole rising action, conflict, resolution stuff doesn’t come naturally to me. My agent, Eleanor Jackson, really helped me to identify the conflict and narrative drive in the book. Initially, I was taking a big wrong turn. She had to point out that what I thought would be the narrative drive (whether the collider would be built or not) wasn’t in fact effective, mainly because people could just do a quick Google search and find out what had happened with the collider in reality. She helped me to see that the real conflict existed within the characters and the way they responded to the things in their lives that were changing. In terms of pacing, my editor, Michelle Dotter, was great about helping with that. In early edits, she suggested moving around a few chapters so readers could get to that narrative tension a bit earlier than was happening in early drafts of the book. It feels to me like this was a book in which, with much assistance from my editor and agent, I finally learned how to make sensible decisions in terms of structure, to be attentive to it.
EMW: Speaking of structure, I picked up on a thousand tiny acts of violence between the characters. I’m talking about the simplest times when the characters fail to fulfill each other’s expectations. Accumulated, these tiny moments are heartbreaking. An example would be when Abhijat runs his hand over Sarala’s saris, then puts his own tie properly on its hook. How did these smallest of details figure into your structuring process?
CK: It’s interesting to think of those moments as acts of violence—when writing, I felt them as disappointments, as missed opportunities for connections between the characters. As I mentioned earlier, I struggled with the structure of this novel, so while writing these scenes, I was thinking more about who these characters were and what they would do than I was about the book’s structure. This is perhaps why I struggled so much with this issue of structure, but at the time, I was thinking more in terms of what felt like real, believable decisions these characters would make. Even in the drafting stage of the writing process, these characters felt very real to me, so it was a matter of asking—would Sarala do this? I think when you know your characters well, when they live for you, you know as clearly as you might know about a friend or family member, “Oh, she would never do that!” So each of these decisions on the part of the characters became the plot points around which the structure grew.
EMW: Charmed Particles features an omniscient narrator with exquisitely good grammar. Perhaps because we’ve all lapsed so far, your narrator’s grammar is standout amazing.
CK: That’s funny! (And also super-nice of you to say! Thank you!) Perhaps it’s all those hours spent teaching grammar to freshman composition students. Perhaps it’s years spent working as a copy editor. But more likely, it’s thanks to the careful eyes of my editor, Michelle Dotter, and copy editor, Mary Gillis, who saved me (and my narrator) from a thousand grammatical embarrassments!
EMW: But I think the narrator’s grammar doing important work for the novel.
CK: I suppose part of the narrator’s voice and style, grammatically, likely grew out of the types of writing I was reading for research. Lots of accounts of Victorian-era gentleman explorers. Lots of government-produced documents related to the Superconducting Super Collider. I imagine the distinctive sentence patterns of the type of work I was reading got stuck in my ear and can account for some of that.
EMW: Charmed Particles is being published by Dzanc. What a great publisher! You’ve already given us some glimpses of what it was like to work with them, but I’ve got to ask straight out: how does it feel to see your work landing at such a well-regarded press? I admit this is an envy question.
CK: So having Dzanc bring this book into the world is a dream come true for me. Dan Wickett and Steve Gillis, the founders of Dzanc, have, for years, been two of my literary heroes. I’ve long been a fan of Dan’s Emerging Writer’s Network (EWN) [link below]—I think of that project as one of the best examples of good literary citizenship out there. (I also have a vivid, embarrassing memory of fangirling out over Allison Amend one year in an elevator at AWP after reading something on EWN about her work!). EWN gave me hope that there was a place and an audience for the kind of work I was interested in making.
Having my book land at Dzanc, a press I’ve so long admired, felt like a fantastic stroke of luck. I especially admire their model of foregrounding outreach and service as part of our roles as writers. What Dzanc and many other independent presses are doing for literature is so important—thank goodness for these presses who are committed to focusing on the work over the bottom line. Please, everyone, do what you can to help support our independent presses: readers buying their books are what make it possible for them to continue to do this good and important work.
EMW: Who have been some of your influences? I’m talking about books that you’ve read, writers with whom you’ve studied. What lessons from them did you bring to writing Charmed Particles?
CK: As I mentioned before, I’m very drawn to the playful in literature (and film, and music, and television, etc.), so I’ve been grateful to writers whose work gave me permission to be playful in my own work. I’m thinking here of writers like George Saunders, James Tate, Lynda Barry, Maira Kalman, whose work showed me how powerful and full of meaning moments of playfulness can become when juxtaposed against some of the more difficult moments in life.
EMW: What are you reading now?
CK: This time of year, mainly student work, but this summer I found time—finally!—for some pleasure reading and loved Christine Sneed’s Paris, He Said, Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees and A Little Life, and Bob Shacochis’s The Woman Who Lost Her Soul.
EMW: You and I first met on a street corner in Minneapolis at AWP 2015. We were each heading to the same off-site event, a quadruple gig hosted by Tin House, Guernica, Tumblr, and Coffee House. As I’m sure you recall, it was off the hook. Can we expect your release party to be as awesome? Will there be ephemera, of course?
CK: That story of how you and I met is a great example of everything I love about AWP—that for a few days a year in some city, nearly every person within a few block radius is as geeked-out about writing as you are, star-struck at crossing paths with their literary heroes both well-known and obscure, and generally thrilled to meet and connect with everyone. A friend described it best as “Homecoming for Writers.”
But back to your question. Re: the release parties—we’re doing a few—one in the small town in Minnesota where I live and teach, one in Minneapolis at the fabulous Boneshaker Books, one in Chicago in Andersonville (the neighborhood where I lived for many years) at Women and Children First, and one in the Chicago suburbs (Naperville, where I grew up, and upon which the fictional Nicolet is loosely based) at Anderson’s Bookshop [see below for links to their websites]. For all, I can promise that you’ll find me stupidly, deliriously happy that this book now exists outside my computer’s hard drive, and beyond thrilled to get to talk to folks about it. But perhaps most important, all release parties will feature a high likelihood of beer and revelry to follow (or perhaps during)! And maybe even a few of these.
EMW: That’s what I’m talking about!
CK: Thank you so much, Evan and Late Night Library for giving me a chance to talk with you!
Purchase a copy of Charmed Particles at IndieBound and a portion of the purchase price will support Late Night Library.
Find out more about the Emerging Writer’s Network
Independent bookstores mentioned in this interview: Boneshaker Books, Women and Children First, and Anderson’s Bookshop
Check out our Late Night Interview with Evan Morgan Williams here.
Chrissy Kolaya is a poet and fiction writer. Her work has been included in the anthologies New Sudden Fiction (Norton), Fiction on a Stick (Milkweed Editions), and Stone, River, Sky: An Anthology of Georgia Poems, as well as in a number of literary journals. She has received a Norman Mailer Writers Colony summer scholarship, an Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies fellowship, a Loft Mentor Series Award in Poetry, and grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Lake Region Arts Council, and the University of Minnesota. She teaches writing at the University of Minnesota Morris, where she’s one of the co-founders of the Prairie Gate Literary Festival.
Evan Morgan Williams‘ collection of stories, Thorn, won the Chandra Prize at BkMk Press (University of Missouri-Kansas City). The judge was Al Young. Williams has published over forty stories in such magazines as Witness, Antioch Review, (The) Kenyon Review, and ZYZZYVA. He has an MFA from the University of Montana, and he has taught in a public school for over twenty years. Most recently, he has held a Writers in the Schools residency and an AWP Writer to Writer mentorship. His most current work appears in Phantom Drift, The Timberline Review, and Weber: the Contemporary West.