"Like combing through tangled hair"

An interview with Chrissy Kolaya, author of Charmed Particles

In mid-November, on a blustery Saturday afternoon, Chrissy and I spoke about her novel Charmed Particles. We talked over Skype about the Superconducting Super Collider (which plays a central role in the novel), linear vs. nonlinear writing, capturing the experience of a character who's heritage is different than one's own, and more. Below is the transcription of our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.

Can you tell us a bit about the research process for Charmed Particles?

I started by reading some books about the history of Fermilab, which is the facility that’s the inspiration for the lab in the novel. One book in particular was co-written by a woman named Adrienne Kolb who, as it turns out, is one of the archivists for Fermilab.

So, at one point in the process, I applied for a grant through the Jerome Foundation called the Travel and Study Grant, which is for writers from Minnesota or New York who are working on a project that requires travel and research. My pitch to them was that I wanted to write this book, so I wanted to go to Fermilab to explore their archives and interview some of the theoretical physicists who had been there during the Superconducting Super Collider controversy back in the late 1980s. I lucked into getting the grant, and part of the funding covered a trip there.

On the same trip, I got to visit one of those “living history” facilities that Heritage Village is modeled after, a place called Naper Settlement. One of my friends from high school works there, and she gave me a really interesting behind-the-scenes tour. Both Naper Settlement and Fermilab are close to the town where my family moved just before I started high school – my parents still live there. So it was kind of like coming home, but coming home to do research on this place I had lived for many years, which was both strange and fascinating.

How did you become interested in the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC)?

For me, it came out of a real life experience. My family moved every four years when I was growing up, and when I was just starting high school we moved to a Chicago suburb. I was fourteen, and unlike the other moves – where you just get drug along and you’re like “Okay, this is where I live now” – I was more curious about this place intellectually.

I have this really strong memory of one of my first days at my new high school. Picture me: a gawky fourteen-year-old, nervous to start school, don’t have any friends. I walk in, and there are all these protesters inside and outside the school with signs and tee-shirts saying “No SSC!” and shouting at each other. I remember being like, “What is this about? Why are they protesting?” I had no idea. I don’t know if my parents even knew – I assume they had heard something about it while buying a house in the area, but I had no idea what was going on. I found out later that it was one of the public forums being held to discuss the possibility of the SSC being built in this community.

So I had this memory, and when I went to Fermilab to do the research I was digging around in the archives, and Adrienne – the archivist, who took me under her wing in the kindest, most generous way – she hands me this old sign announcing that the public hearing would be held at Waubonsie Valley High School, and I was like “Oh my gosh, that’s what that was!” It was like going back in time.

One of the interesting things about writing this book has been that, for many of my contemporaries who had lived in the area all their lives, this whole controversy hardly registered with them at all. I kept thinking, why did this stick in my head so much? I think partially it was me trying to make sense of a new place, and this was one of the first impressions I had, which tend to stick in a particularly sticky way. It was also interesting for me because it was one of the only times I’d experienced adults being so publicly angry with one another. You hear about protests, or you watch them on TV, or read about them, but seeing one was a really different experience.

Was that your first day of school?

I went back and read the transcripts, and I think it was sometime in October. Another interesting thing is the public hearing was being held in our high school theater, and I was a theater geek growing up. So this was a space – I’d spend hours and hours and hours in this space and now it was being used for this thing.

Sarala, who’s one of the novel’s most compelling protagonists, starts the story with her first days as an immigrant in the United States. What was it like looking at the US through her eyes? How difficult was it to capture the discovery she’s going through on paper?

This is the work of writing that I’ve been thinking the most about lately. The opportunity it gives us to peer through the eyes of characters who may be very different from us and to experience the world from their POV – like the old saying about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. It’s also a big responsibility and easy to get wrong. For this section, I drew on family and friends who’d shared their own first-days-in-a-new-country experiences. I read a lot. And I thought about moments when I’d experienced a similar sense of getting my bearings in a new place.

I felt like there was a big possibility of getting it wrong. This question gets at something that’s really important to think about, which is permission to write about characters who are different than ourselves, and how we do that in a way that doesn’t feel exploitative but renders them as fully developed characters on the page. It was something I was nervous about, but I was also so curious about what the United States would look like through her eyes. And because I came to know her, and love her, and care about her as a person, I felt comfortable slipping in there. But it’s something I always wonder – did I get that right? I’ll never know for sure, but I hope I did.

This topic is particularly interesting given recent current events: this character comes to the US as an immigrant and is just so taken by everything it’s scary but it’s also really, really exciting for her. Do you think if you were writing this novel in light of current events you may have conceived of Sarala differently?

Certainly, we’re watching many of our Muslim friends, our friends of color, our immigrant friends, and we’re seeing how fearful they feel – and reasonably so, given the results of our election. [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted in mid-November, before these concerns became policy]. I think no matter what, Sarala was a character living in the 1970s and 80s, so her experiences reflect that era. But it raises an interesting question: what would Sarala’s life be like today? People have asked me “Will you revisit these characters? What are Lily and Meena doing?” and my answer had always been “Oh, I don’t know, nothing is really speaking to me right now.” But it does make me curious to think about what Sarala’s daily life would be like now, or what it will be like.

With a wide cast of interesting characters crossing paths, it’s hard not to compare them to the particles being studied in this story. How did the concept of the particle accelerator influence the form of the novel?

What’s happening in a particle accelerator is that sub-atomic particles are being deliberately crashed into one another so that scientists can see what sorts of other particles, energy, and forces emerge out of that collision. It’s a great metaphor for life, in which we each go out into the world, and with each person we encounter, these interactions send us off in interesting directions, perhaps creating something positive, perhaps something negative, perhaps something new.

In thinking about the form of the novel, I suppose the place where that most clearly manifested was in the decision to write from the third person POV with close interior access to each of the six main characters. I wanted readers to have the chance to look at these events through many different sets of eyes.

I guess I wanted to have empathy for both sides of the argument in writing this. I’ve been talking to my students a lot about the importance of empathy, and its connection to why we write and what we can do with our writing. As an academic, it would have been really easy for me to come down of the side of, “This is crazy! Of course you should build this thing! These people are thoughtless yokels!” But then we don’t get a chance to understand other points of view, we don’t get a chance to have a conversation in hopes of coming closer together.

And gosh, as we’re talking about this, how are we not thinking about our current political situation? It feels like that’s what’s happened – we have these two sides that are just not conversing and not being empathetic to one another. I’m guilty of it myself. I see myself ready to write off people who don’t share my politics, and I think one of the great challenges of being human is not giving in to that.

I don’t know if it was a fully-formed thought at the beginning, but at the end when Randolph and Abhijat become friends, it’s this dramatic shift not in their inner character, but in a rebalancing of their priorities and it seemed to me like this shift came out of the collision of characters and of people in the novel.

I Skyped with a book club recently, and I was talking with them about how hard the end of this book was to write – especially for these two characters. They undergo some dramatic changes of priorities, and I worried about how it could feel too neatly wrapped up in a bow, too easy and clean of a transition. I don’t know how successful I was. I do know I thought an awful lot about how to avoid that, but I did feel like it was important – maybe not important, but right – that this is where these characters were headed.

This sounds artsy-fartsy, but I find myself thinking and talking about these characters in the same way I would about my friends. Like, “Oh, so-and-so would never do that, that’s just not who he is.” There’s a level of certainty I bring to these characters because I’ve been living with them for so long. But then there’s the craft issue: even if that does feel like what the character would do, how do you pull it off as a writer without it feeling hokey? I’ll never know whether it worked or it grates on people’s nerves, and I don’t know whether that’s a thing people will ever feel comfortable telling me directly.

Can you describe your writing process in three words?

I totally cheated and used hyphens. My words are: Non-Linear, Sometimes-Impossible-Feeling, Sometimes-an-Absolute-Joy.

So, Non-Linear. When I think about how to write a novel like this, I always imagine that if I were a smarter person I would write in a really linear way: I’d have the whole novel in my head, and then I would come to work and sit down and be like, “Welp, today’s job is blahblahblah,” and type that out, then move to the next thing and the next. I wish I wrote like that, but I don’t. I write all over the place, so everything’s a mess for a good long time. I’m teaching an advanced fiction writing class right now, and I was talking to my students about this because we’d Skyped with another author who writes in a really linear way, and I was saying “That’s totally a reasonable way to write, I wish I wrote like that, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t.” I was telling them how if I brought in the new book I’m working on and showed them, they’d cart me off to the loony bin. It doesn’t make any sense right now – it’s little snippets all over – and hopefully it’s going to come together, but who knows? I feel like my life would be easier if I were a linear writer.

This connects to Sometimes-Impossible-Feeling: what’s fun about writing in a nonlinear way is that you can go where your engagement takes you. If you’re interested in thinking about a particular character that day, you can noodle around with them, or jump over here, and that can be freeing and fun and creative. I remember talking to my husband while I was working on this novel, and I kept telling him that what I was doing was like combing through tangled hair: I had this mush of mangled stuff, and I had to go through and make sense of it. This part of it can feel difficult and impossible.

But then you get those moments where you get to think about something you’re obsessed with, and you get to go down that rabbit hole. This new book I’m writing is about cryptozoology – the study of mythical or imaginary animals. So last night I got to lay in bed and read this weird book about Bigfoot. And that’s the joyful part of it, the part when you’re like “This is super weird and interesting!” and you get to just geek out.

If you could meet one of the characters from Charmed Particles, who would it be and why?

I would definitely love to meet Sarala – I feel like she’s the character I’d most like to be friends with. But I can’t pretend I wouldn’t like to go out for a beer with Randolph. It’d be one of those nights out where you don’t have to say anything, you just kick back and take it all in. I would also love to know what happens to adult Lily and adult Meena – I don’t know if I want to hang out with them, but I kinda want to hear what they’re up to. I feel like it’d be something really interesting and impressive.

Writers can be superstitious about their process. Do you have any superstitions around your writing?

None at all. Time is at such a premium; superstition feels like an impossible luxury. Maybe when my kids are grown and I’m retired and have tons of time on my hands, then I’ll develop some superstitions. But for right now, I’m a “plop down and get to work any time I can find a spare minute” writer.

But I do like hearing about them. In my intro to creative writing class, we start the semester by talking about traditions you have in place or specific spots you need to write in, and it’s interesting because so many of my students are fixated on these things. I was probably more like that when I had more time on my hands. Right now, if I waited for a special, perfect moment…

I do wish I was able to have more of a stable routine. I think of my year as very connected to the academic calendar. During the academic year, I’m barely writing at all. All of that is happening over the summer or at a break time. What I can do during the academic year is revision – sometimes – and what you might call the “business of writing,” like sending work out. But it’s really hard to find those little snippets of time during the academic year.

I think about that a lot. With a day job it’s hard sometimes you get time off, or you have miraculous energy when you come home at the end of the day to put a couple hours into it, but a lot of times you’re beat, or you have a lot of other prep to do, and you just can’t do it.

Exactly. I end up walking around for nine months out of the year feeling like a total phony. I’m telling my students “you need to write every day” and thinking “please God, don’t ask me if I write every day!”

Is there a novel or an author you love that you feel hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves?

I want to put in a good word for a few fantastic projects that are all at different stages of that long, hard process of coming into the world—the parts of the process where writers can often use a reminder of the worth of those projects and encouragement to keep going. So here are a few projects I’m excited about:

The Bride Price by Mai Neng Moua (Minnesota Historical Society Press, March 2017): I got to read excerpts of this project years ago as part of the Loft Literary Center’s fantastic Mentor Series program and it’s great. The book’s about Mai Neng’s own marriage and her conflicted feelings about Hmong cultural traditions surrounding marriage. It’s a fantastic glimpse into what it’s like to straddle two very different cultures, for Mai Neng as a Hmong American, but something that’s resonant for many of us as a nation of immigrants.

Fiction writer Donna Trump, whose fantastic novel Portage is being shopped around to publishers. It takes place in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters and tells the story of a woman who’s been given a donated heart. I can’t wait until this book finds a good publishing home and makes its way to readers.

I’m also excited about Margie Newman’s memoir in progress, The Thing is to Always Be Ready, about growing up as the daughter of a Holocaust Survivor and the way that experience resonates through generations.

With the exception of Mai Neng’s book, none of these are coming any time soon. I thought about this question in terms of, when did I most need someone to be like “Chin up! Keep up the good fight!” And it was really in those periods where you’re unsure if it’s worth continuing to work on. [While working on Charmed Particles,] there were many moments along the way where I thought, “This is never going to happen. This won’t be a thing.” So I’m thinking about those writers right now who are in that moment, and wanted to give them a little thumbs up.