“I’ve found that the best things for me to write about are the things I’m insatiably curious about.” So says Chrissy Kolaya, whose debut novel Charmed Particles published from Dzanc last week. Chrissy’s poems and stories have appeared in Norton and Milkweed anthologies, the 50th Anniversary Best of Crazyhorse collection, and a number of literary journals. She authored the poetry collection Any Anxious Body and co-founded the Prairie Gate Literary Festival. Charmed Particles is a living museum for the curious, investigating everything from particle physics and world travel to love and the complexities of hope. Sabrina Wise got to talk with Chrissy about her inspirations, book nerdery, lion maulings, and understanding opinions very different from our own, among other topics. Read on for the full interview!
SABRINA WISE: As a teenager, you lived near one of the proposed sites for the Superconducting Super Collider. I imagine you got to witness some of the same fiery debates as young Lily and Meena do in Charmed Particles. What struck you most about this conflict at the time? Years later, what inspired you to turn it into fiction?
CHRISSY KOLAYA: In 1988 my family moved from Indiana to the Chicago suburbs. On one of my first days at my new high school, I was surprised to find protesters gathered out in front of the school. The school was hosting a public hearing on the issue of the Superconducting Super Collider. Becoming aware of this conflict was, for me, part of coming to understand this new town we were living in.
As I learned more about the issue through my research, I was struck, as Meena is later in the book, that the main problem seemed to be that the two sides were unable to communicate with one another effectively. In many ways, they didn’t speak the same language. And I think this is a problem we see replicated in lots of situations, politically, academically, culturally.
SABRINA WISE: Reading this book, with its public hearing and local election, I can’t help but think about our current election cycle. How much were you thinking about current events as you wrote Charmed Particles? Did writing it give you ideas about how we can better communicate with one another today?
CHRISSY KOLAYA: I was thinking a lot about current events as I worked on this book. As I wrote the scenes in which the pro- and anti-SSC [Superconducting Super Collider] signs begin cropping up in the yards, Minnesota, where I live, was in the midst of a voting on a proposed amendment regarding same-sex marriage. I remember noticing myself getting frustrated at signs that didn’t line up with my politics and, in low moments, having exactly the thought that Abhijat has—weren’t those signs “tantamount to putting up a large placard in one’s yard announcing: ‘I am poorly educated and illogically fearful.’”
I don’t know that I have answers about how to better communicate in our current election cycle, though it’s interesting that so many times, these moments of failing to communicate effectively are born out of fear. For me, Dr. Cardiff is a good model—his genuine effort to understand where others are coming from when confronting difference, his refusal to demonize those whose opinions differ from his own.
SABRINA WISE: The storylines you weave together—of world explorations, unconventional marriages, the immigrant experience, cutting-edge science, local politics, growing up precocious, and more—could probably make whole books in themselves. How did you know all these threads belonged together? Did you set out with them, or did they emerge as you wrote?
CHRISSY KOLAYA: In writing this book, the characters came first, and their storylines sprung up around them as I imagined what their lives would be like, what their challenges and desires were. Lily and Meena came to life for me first in a short story I wrote about them participating in a Civil War reenactment, as older teenagers than they are when we leave them in the book. I kept thinking about them and making notes, and I soon realized that I found their parents to be just as interesting as they were—sometimes more so! As the project grew, I started to see the larger themes emerging—ideas about ambition and how we communicate with one another, about the importance of finding our people, of finding a home.
SABRINA WISE: One thing I love about Charmed Particles is that the marriages and friendships actually grow stronger by the end, a departure from so much of today’s dire fiction. What inspired you to create a story that ends on a hopeful note? Did you know all along that your characters would find their way and not be pulled down by their struggles?
CHRISSY KOLAYA: No, I didn’t. As I wrote through some of the crises the characters come to, and toward the book’s end, I wasn’t at all sure how these relationships were going to shake out for them. I worried about where all of the characters would end up. But I also wanted to tackle the thorny and, to me, compelling issue of how we go on when our hopes and dreams are not fulfilled.
SABRINA WISE: It can’t be easy to write about particle physics in accessible terms, but you’ve done it with grace. How difficult was it to distill the science? Did you ever feel like the people in Nicolet, overwhelmed by the information in front of you?
CHRISSY KOLAYA: I think what saved me from feeling overwhelmed by the science was that I was always most interested in the interpersonal parts of this story. I also had some fantastic resources to fall back on. I’m especially indebted to Adrienne Kolb and her co-authors’ Fermilab: Physics, the Frontier, and Megascience (and super excited to check out their new book Tunnel Visions: the Rise and Fall of the Superconducting Super Collider). Facilities like CERN and Fermilab also have fantastic resources online now that help to contextualize the work they’re doing—whole departments devoted to communicating about science to the lay enthusiast or the curious citizen—and I found these invaluable as well.
SABRINA WISE: While we’re on the topic of research—you must have tracked down some pretty fascinating sources in order to write Randolph’s letters, dispatches from remote cultures across the globe. What’s one of the coolest things you learned about or saw in your research?
CHRISSY KOLAYA: Oh my gosh—there were so many! Definitely the thing about the Tiwi tribes of Melville Island “who, during funeral ceremonies, donned false beards and face paint so that the spirit of the dead person could not recognize and harm them.” Also “the story of the old Muthaiga Club in Nairobi, where patronage of the golf course dropped precipitously after a player was mauled by a lion on the fairway.” In researching, I fell in love with Osa Johnson’s memoir I Married Adventure. And also, of course, the story of Lady Florence Baker, which makes its way into the novel as Lily and Meena’s fourth-grade report. That came into my consciousness via the excellent Pat Shipman book To the Heart of the Nile.
SABRINA WISE: I’m interested in the way you develop your characters through what they read. In one instance, you juxtapose a middle school sex ed lesson with Meena’s current favorite book The Secret Museum of Mankind, which she reads covertly during the lecture. How did you come up with the reading lists for your characters?
CHRISSY KOLAYA: That was one of the most fun parts of working on this book. As a book nerd myself, it was great to be working with characters who could be characterized by what they read. With the exception of Sarala’s Our Colonial Forefathers, which I made up (though good lord, there probably is a text out there just like it), all the books the characters fixate on are real—Rose reading aloud to a young Lily from Deutscher’s three-volume biography of Leon Trotsky, Abhijat’s gift of DeTocqueville’s Democracy in America, Carol’s biography of Mary Kay Ash. Lily and Meena’s affection for reference texts is inspired by my own childhood (and adulthood!) love of encyclopedias. For Sarala, I raided the basement bookshelves of my parents’ house, where they still had copies of the kind of 1980s self-improvement literature Sarala’s so fond of. And I stumbled upon The Secret Museum of Mankind on the shelves of the library at the university where I teach.
SABRINA WISE: In grad school, you studied as a poet. How do you see that poetry background informing your prose?
CHRISSY KOLAYA: I suppose working as a poet has trained me to pay close attention to word choice, to the rhythm and musicality of language, and to places where one might break a paragraph, section, or chapter for effect. But it’s also come with some drawbacks. I wrote about this a bit in a Q&A I just did with Christine Sneed, author of Paris, He Said: “Studying poetry rather than fiction meant that I felt like I had to teach myself many of the basics of writing a short story, a novel. This was difficult, and for me required a lot of heartbreaking trial and error...When I’m frustrated with my work, I sometimes feel like I write poetry like a fiction writer and fiction like a poet. When a piece seems to be working well, though, it feels like those two types of writing are playing nicely together.”
SABRINA WISE: Finally, short and sweet and a little self-serving: What advice do you have for young writers?
CHRISSY KOLAYA: Be tenacious and be kind. I wrote about this in detail for book blogger Kim Ukura’s fantastic blog, Sophisticated Dorkiness.
“Regarding tenacity, I like to share with my students the story of my most well-published story, one that Crazyhorse picked up and that made its way from there into an anthology called New Sudden Fiction. That story, though it eventually found two fantastic homes that brought it to the attention of more readers than I ever imagined, was rejected fifteen times. I share this with students not to discourage them, but to give them an idea of the kind of tough skin you have to develop as a writer sending your work out into the world.
Regarding kindness, novelist Sandra Benitez once gave me and a group of writers some fantastically simple advice—just be a nice person. It’s pretty good advice for life in general, but especially in a field that can be so full of frustration and heartbreak. A few semesters ago, I taught from an outstanding Lance Olson book called Architectures of Possibility, and in it, he reminds us that just as important as the work we make is the work we support as, what he calls, ‘literary activists.’ I love this idea of being aware of the many small ways we can support one another, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve been bowled over by the kindness and generosity of other writers.”
Thanks so much for making the time to talk with me and for all of your great questions, Sabrina!