A Pure Life of the Mind: The Millions Interview with Karen Olsson

When novelist Karen Olsson was in high school in Washington, D.C., she checked The Simone Weil Reader out of the library and became obsessed by the French iconic thinker and activist. Later, after studying higher mathematics at Harvard and going on to become a writer, Olsson still found herself enthralled with the thoughts, ideas, and life of Simone Weil, as well as her older brother, André. In her third book, The Weil Conjectures, Olsson weaves together her fascination with the famous siblings and how her undergraduate studies in math eventually gave way to her own writing life. For math-minded and non-math-minded readers alike, Olsson presents a compelling series of questions about the brilliant siblings, and how math can shape and inspire one’s life.

Olsson—author of Waterloo (2005) and All the Houses (2015)—also has worked as a journalist and editor; her long-form articles have been published in The New York Times Magazine and Texas Monthly, and she is a former editor of The Texas Observer. Not surprisingly, Olsson’s journalistic curiosity melds perfectly with her novelistic precision for detail and language in this genre-defying book. Reminiscent of Jenny Offil’s The Department of Speculation, The Weil Conjectures offers a thought provoking portrait-in-pieces of what it means to be a writer and tell stories.

The Millions talked with Olsson via email about her preoccupation with the Weil siblings, mathematics, and the daily struggles at the desk.

The Millions: What drew you to write about André and Simone Weil?

Karen Olsson: I was fascinated by Simone Weil in high school: I was interested in the lives of brainy women, and here was this exotic, brilliant French intellectual in wire-rimmed glasses who could never really be a role model for a 1980s teenager in Washington, D.C.—yet I still found her inspiring in her integrity and purity. It was later that I realized her brother was a mathematician, another remarkable mind. Just the existence of these genius siblings is compelling in itself, but because one was a female public intellectual and one was a mathematician, they embody fascinations I had when I was younger, ones I could revisit through them.

TM: In reading and writing about Simone Weil for this book, did you gain further insight into your attraction to Simone—and her ideas and what she represented—when you were a teenager and first read The Simone Weil Reader?

KO: My early interest in Simone Weil was relatively superficial—I paid less attention to her work than to her biography. I was drawn to the figure of Simone Weil, to the saintly ghost of Simone Weil, who represented something like absolute attention, a pure life of the mind all but divorced from the body. So when I went back and read more about her and more of her writing, I didn’t see my youthful interest differently; I saw her differently. In particular, I saw how influenced she was by her brother the mathematician, how math informs her thinking. She also seems more eccentric, more self-punishing—it’s tempting to see her as crazy, because some of what she did seems nuts, but then again that seems to me a shortcut, avoiding the difficulty she presents. At times she’s been portrayed as crazy or as a kind of saint because she was living in a different register than the rest of us do. To the extent that her way of living demanded more discipline, more attention and engagement than most of us are in the habit of, we could all take a cue from her. But some of her ideas were quite extreme.

TM: How old were you when you discovered that you had “a head for numbers?” Did numbers and language always intermingle for you? Or was it only after college that you begin to understand the intersections?

KO: I wasn’t exceptionally talented in math, but I always liked it, and in junior high—we did a lot of rudimentary geometry in seventh grade and algebra in eighth grade—I realized that it came quickly to me. As the math on offer started to get more abstract, I started to like it more. Meanwhile I had a few teachers who commended my writing or told me I was a writer, and I took their word for it. Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if the praise had been more directed to my math side—I think I was pretty susceptible to that kind of encouragement.

TM: How was the writing of this book different from your first two novels (Waterloo and All the Houses)?

KO: I had more fun writing this book than writing a novel. I loved reading and thinking about math after so many years away, and I loved not having to tend to all the narrative machinery of a novel. There’s a way in which a novelist is a kind of beleaguered manager who has to deal with dissatisfied subordinates and equipment that’s not working and low inventory. This book gave me fewer headaches.

TM: Could you talk about the structure of The Weil Conjectures? Was it difficult to determine how the sections would answer each other? Or did it flow in an organic sort of a way as you began to write and revise the narrative?

KO: Because I wrote the book in fragments, and because I wanted to braid together certain subjects and themes, the structure arose naturally as I went along. Once I had a draft I started shifting pieces around, but the book didn’t change radically from one draft to the next.

TM: How do writing and mathematics inform each other in your own creative process now?

KO: For me the words “creative process” suggest something more sophisticated and effective than what actually goes down at my desk—and I wouldn’t say, in general, that those struggles at the desk are informed by math—but I think having studied math influenced me. Math can be difficult (that damn Barbie doll was right!) and I think when you spend time learning math or physics or philosophy or anything complex, you gain confidence that you can learn other difficult things, and that it’s worth trying to solve complicated problems. Also, for writers it can be tempting to let yourself be carried away by some nice-sounding turn of phrase, and while having studied math doesn’t make you immune to that, I do think it can make you more rigorous in your thinking. Then again I’ve wondered sometimes whether rigor is an unalloyed good for a writer, since sometimes it pays off artistically to be fanciful, to spin out notions that wouldn’t necessarily hold up in the face of logical analysis.

TM: Could you talk about how Anne Carson and David Markson inspired The Weil Conjectures? In a recent essay for Granta, you mentioned both of these inventive authors as varying influences for this narrative?

KO: It seems as if there are an increasing number of books now that mash up genres, works that combine elements of essay and memoir and historical narrative. There’s not really a name for this hybrid creature, though I’ve seen the term “lyric essay” used sometimes, in particular when the author is a poet, and Anne Carson is certainly one torchbearer when it comes to books in this vein. I wasn’t thinking of her directly when it came to figuring out the form of my book, but I was thinking about her ideas about the erotics of knowledge in Eros the Bittersweet. (I didn’t realize until after I’d finished the book that Carson wrote about Simone Weil in her book Decreation.) David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel was lurking in the back of my mind as I wrote, but it’s hard for me to articulate the way in which it was hovering—it’s as though there was a voice muttering things I couldn’t quite make out, and that voice was the voice of Markson’s book.

TM: In the Granta essay, you discussed how this hybrid form is a reflection of the Internet era, and how many readers are digesting different kinds of reading in fragmented ways but with hopes of gathering meaning. Could you expand on this?

KO: To the extent that the hybrid/collage assembled from short sections is becoming more popular, I think it reflects the way we read online—a little bit here, then jumping over there, and then on to the next thing—but at the same time makes that experience more satisfying, because there is an underlying design, and the sections are cumulative and reflective. Also there are no ads.

TM: Did you find it more challenging to find time to make the necessary deep dives into reading?

KO: It’s always challenging to make time to read, and when I look back I’m surprised I managed to read as much as I did and at the same time feel bad that I didn’t read much more, since there is always more.

TM: What did you think are the most common misconceptions about higher mathematics and the study of this subject area?

KO: There’s an image in our culture of the great mathematician as a lone (male) genius who is at a minimum autistic and/or very eccentric, or else mentally ill or a hermit—people at the edge of or outside of human society. And that’s an image that serves to reinforce an idea a lot of non-mathematicians have about math, i.e. that it is an occult subject that they’re not equipped to understand, because the people who understand it are crazy geniuses who aren’t like the rest of us. Any field will have its share of unstable or eccentric people, but many great mathematicians live conventional, community-minded lives.

TM: What book would you recommend to a reader who is interested in learning more about higher mathematics (without becoming too overwhelmed)?

KO: One that I like a lot is Remarkable Mathematicians: From Euler to von Neumann, by Ioan James, which is a series of 60 engaging short biographies of mathematicians, which need not be read in order—it’s a book you can dip in and out of. And How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, by Jordan Ellenberg, is the book equivalent of taking a class from a really great teacher, who drops all sorts of funny asides and draws excellent cartoons on the board while explaining why math matters to the world around us.

The Stuff of Lasting Friendship: The Millions Interviews Jessica Francis Kane

May Attaway—the protagonist of Jessica Francis Kane’s fourth book, Rules for Visiting—is not your usual middle-aged woman: She prefers plants over people, and at 40 years old, is still living with her father in her childhood home in Anneville. As a professional gardener at the local university, May lives out most of her existence toiling over trimmings and maintaining a safe distance from others. The premature death of a stranger, the flurry of heartfelt online tributes to this stranger and her generosity toward others, and an unexpected paid leave of 30 days forces May to look at the lack of friendship in her life. And so, she plans a trip to visit four friends from different parts of her life: Lindy, a childhood friend; Vanessa, a friend she met in the eighth grade; Neera, a college friend; and Rose, who was in May’s graduate landscape-architecture program. In preparation for her trip, May purchases a new rolling suitcase and names it Grendel, after the friendless monster in Beowulf.

Recently, contemporary literature has seen a multitude of novels and stories—such as Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends and Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl—exploring the theme of female friendship. Kane’s novel joins these ranks but, at the same time, the narrative shines as a singular story of one woman’s journey away—and toward—herself and others. With each excursion, the reader can’t help but quietly root for May Attaway as she seeks to rekindle friendships from years past and, later, makes an attempt at romance. An extra bonus: A handful of beautiful illustrations of trees by author/artist Edward Carey punctuate this elegant, moving narrative.

The Millions talked with Kane via email about the writer Amanda Davis, H Is for Hawk, urban gardening, and friendship during the social media age.

TM: When did you decide to write this novel? Had it been an idea that has been percolating for a while?

JK: The first inkling of the idea dates back to 2003 when I learned of the death of the writer Amanda Davis. I became a little obsessed with the tribute page that McSweeney’s created so that anyone who’d known her could share memories. Taken all together, it’s an extraordinary document of friendship, and it set me to thinking a lot about friendship just as social media began to take over the world. Facebook launched in 2004.

TM: When did you first encounter Davis and her work?

JK: I never met Amanda Davis, but I’d been aware of her work and had read her first book, a collection of stories called Circling the Drain. I’d been following the release of her first novel, Wonder When You’ll Miss Me, with great interest, in part because she’d achieved my dream: After a collection of stories, she’d published a novel. I’d published a collection, too, but in 2003 I was at home with my first baby and beginning to feel like a novel was never going to be within reach. She was an inspiration and the news of her death was a shock. Then I read the tributes, and much like May in my novel, felt she must have known something about friendship that had alluded me.

TM: I love the quote from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves as your epigraph. It’s one of my favorite novels, and in a way, The Waves is one of the original friendship novels with how it explores what we know about ourselves and our identities through our relationships with others. What in Woolf’s novel inspired you with Rules for Visiting?

JK: I first read The Waves in college when I took a whole course on the novels of Virginia Woolf. She was one of my favorite writers then, and her work is still important to me, but I must confess to finding this epigraph in a not particularly noble way: I saw the last line of it via a search in Bartlett’s for friendship-themed quotations, then reverse-engineered it back to the book. When I reread the full context and remembered what The Waves was about, it seemed too good to be true.

Originally the book had a different epigraph at the beginning of each of the five sections. These were hugely important to me during the writing years, but eventually my editor at Penguin suggested they were part of a scaffolding that could be removed, and I immediately saw that she was right.

TM: How did you land on May Attaway’s voice? Was there a particular novel or story that inspired you in finding a balance between remoteness and intimacy, reclusiveness and a desire for connection?

JK: Definitely Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. Also Claire Messud’s Nora Eldridge in The Woman Upstairs. But also, and this may seem odd at first but bear with me, Helen Macdonald in H Is for Hawk. I loved that book so much, and after I finished it, I knew I wanted to try to write something with as many layers. MacDonald layered a story (grieving her father), with another story (raising her goshawk), and also gave us a mini-biography of T.H. White. In a similar way, I wanted my narrator, May Attaway, to sound as if she were writing a memoir (the story of a year visiting friends), layered with another story (the grief in her family), and also share a ton of information on the plant and tree world she loves so much.

TM: Do you consider May Attaway a reliable narrator?

JK: I’m not sure what May is. Sometimes she seems reliable because she is very accurate and forthright in her manner. Other times she’s unreliable because her very mission of accuracy belies a sorrow, or a gap in her understanding of how people behave. Maybe she is unreliable by virtue of trying to be so reliable.

TM: I loved how you weave so many different references to classic texts, particularly The Odyssey, throughout the narrative. When did you read The Odyssey for the first time? And did you know right away that you might use the epic poem as a recurring point of reference for your protagonist?

JK: I read The Odyssey as an English major in college, and of course it stands as one of the great journey narratives of all time. I was working on Rules for Visiting and I suppose thinking of literary journeys when I remembered the famous line “O Muse, I sing of arms and the man.” Right away I knew I wanted to recast that for my female hero on her series of domestic journeys. The line, “O Muse, I sing of visits and the woman,” came to mind. That was the beginning.

TM: What inspired you to ask Edward Carey (most recently of Little and The Iremonger Trilogy) to illustrate trees for the novel?

JK: I follow Edward on Twitter, where he will occasionally post a sketch or a bit of a work-in-progress or an exercise he’s set for himself, and one day when I was writing the book, I saw an amazing sketch (charcoal, I think) of a dead rat.

It was the summer of 2016 and I had most of a first draft of the novel. I began to think I wanted it to have tree illustrations, if possible, because I thought readers should have a guide to the shapes of the trees discussed. I don’t think many people have a working sense of tree forms in their minds. I wanted something fairly botanically accurate, but also with mood, and honestly, the very first thing I thought of was that Edward Carey rat. I wrote him an email, he asked to read the manuscript, and then he agreed. My only regret is that we couldn’t put more of his trees in the book.

TM: What is your personal relationship to flowers and trees outside of writing? Where do you find nature in New York City?

JK: I have a balcony in New York City where I have been trying different approaches to container gardening. I don’t love annuals either—May and I have this in common—so I’ve tried ambitious plants with mixed results: a rosebush (dead), a crepe myrtle (dead) a dwarf cypress (still alive, but struggling). My current delight is that I have some peonies coming up in a pot and I’m crossing my fingers they keep growing until they bloom.

TM: What do you think is being lost with friendship during this social media age?

JK: I think we might be losing the art of visiting. We are so busy and mostly unwilling to inconvenience someone else because we don’t want to be inconvenienced ourselves. Just look at the language around asking if you can stay with someone: “I don’t want to put you out.” “Please don’t go to any trouble.” “I’ll be out of your hair soon.”

Today we stay in touch with emoji buttons, text instead of call, and travel mainly for sights and experiences instead of friendship. Think of Jane Austen’s novels. They are full of lots of things we don’t seem to have time for: letters, walks, and visiting, the stuff of lasting friendship.

TM: It’s funny because you and I met through Twitter, and then IRL when you came to Austin last November. So, some aspects of social media produce authentic connections despite all of the artificial curated facets of it? Have you experienced this with other writers, too?

JK: Yes, a handful. And other readers, too. I love it when a Twitter friend moves into real life. It can feel awkward to make that initial contact—I remember we talked about this when I came to Austin and we met—but it has never yet been not worthwhile.

TM: What’s a favorite thank-you gift to give to others when you’re visiting friends or family?

JK: If I can’t think of something specific to the person, and there isn’t a favorite item that I know I can bring them from New York, then my favorite gift has been a hand-blown glass votive similar to some that I have. I like the idea of our households being linked by candlelight.