At the 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 like nuclear fission and chain reactions to her students. Far more complex, and at times less explicable, however, are the reactions occurring in Elin’s own family in the wake of the sudden death of her father, a revered Danish-born furniture designer.
Foss has twice been a finalist for the Journey Prize for her short fiction. Her previous novel, Smoke River (2014), won the Hamilton Literary Award. She lives in Hamilton.
This novel is a notable 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 – an entirely different book that I would have kept expanding and retooling had not my daughter, whose judgment I trust implicitly, found the courage to tell me it wasn’t working and wasn’t likely to either. As far as moments go, that was a devastating one. And not an easy message for her to deliver. At a gut level, I knew she was right – as she was when she pointed to this other story, sniffing around the edges of the unsalvageable manuscript, suggesting I dig into that. It scared the bejeezus out of me. But my other option was to get depressed over having noodled away for four years with nothing to show for it.
So, Half Life was written in a swoon of fear, with equal parts humiliation and humility, but also a lot of love for mothers, daughters, the complexities of family. And those really brave moments when someone has to say something that’s both true and devastating.
The grace note was the first draft came out quickly; it seemed to have been there all along. And because Half Life is a close character study, told with a singular voice, it feels wholly different from my first novel, which had 12 points of view. I got to stretch myself in a new way.
The specificity of its setting and characters is one of the most interesting things about Half Life. Why did you set it in Milwaukee?
Milwaukee was the whim that became the premeditated choice. I wanted Elin to live in a mid-sized city, that for her feels midway to somewhere else, namely the bigger cities her more accomplished siblings left Milwaukee for.
I also mistakenly thought Milwaukee had a large Danish-American population, so when I landed there during a January snowstorm, I thought I’d be tripping over Scandinavians. But the more I discovered about Milwaukee the more it felt kindred to me, an inveterate Hamiltonian: its ugliness and its beauty and other troubling contradictions. It’s the largest city in the U.S. to have 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-well-known role Milwaukee played in The Manhattan Project, and it worked so perfectly with the novel, I started to believe I’d chosen the city on purpose, rather than acting on a gut feeling that led to productive serendipities.
The patriarch in the novel, Tig, is a famous Danish mid-century furniture designer. How much did you know about such things before you began writing?
My childhood home was originally filled with Scandinavian mid-century modern furniture, but it didn’t hold up under assault from me and my siblings: five very large, unruly children born in quick succession. It was replaced with rough-hewn pine benches and homemade durable sofas. Still, I never shook the impression of the earlier furniture’s angles and curves, the low-lustre teak, the dark-striped boucle, all of it registering as birdlike, weird and beautiful.
So, my knowledge of Danish mid-century modern design begins with an old emotion supplemented by some later book-learning, BBC documentaries and hours spent staring at the offerings of online auction houses. Also, if a chair is unadorned physics – it has to hold itself up under the forces of gravity, and then it has to hold you – the Danish made it look cool to my eyes.
For much of my life, that was about my working level of physics – that, and a disastrous first year of university engineering.
And yet physics and physicists also play a major role in the novel, so I’m assuming you had to do a lot of research in that realm as well?
I backed into theoretical physics for this book through recreational reading on what’s called “the hard problem of consciousness” and stumbling on how neurology, philosophy, computer science and physics have all staked out turf in this debate (and turfs inside turfs). It’s vociferous, and sometimes veers toward the polemical. And in going down that rabbit hole, I read more about theoretical physics than I expected to. At the simplest level, I became intrigued by how much we do in this world that breezes over underlying paradox: science works even when its practitioners don’t fully understand or agree on how or why. The consciousness question didn’t show up in my book, but the physics did.
Eventually, research has a showdown with hubris. I couldn’t become an expert on subjects others have dedicated their lives to mastering. In an early draft, my main character had long conversations with Niels Bohr on 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 as much of the physics that interested my character and that she would use in the context of her story arc. That allowed me to approach the subject with more wonder. What does she contemplate walking through busy halls holding a full cup of coffee? How does Schrodinger’s cat show up in her dreams? Who are the physicists she wishes she knew?
So did you emerge from it with a favourite physicist, or theorem?
Physicists fascinate me – how often messy lives produce brilliant, elegant science. But it was the female physicists in the period straddling the foundations of quantum mechanics and the beginnings of nuclear physics who left the deepest impressions, because other than Marie Curie and her daughter, they were largely shut out of recognition and rewards – a reality that’s only recently shifting with the 2018 and 2020 Nobel Prizes in Physics. Among them was Lise Meitner, exiled from her beloved Berlin, tromping off in the snow with her nephew to sit down in a Swedish forest and scribble calculations on the back of stationery that confirmed nuclear fission. For the man who’d betray her. She had that trifecta of emotional complexity, deep humanity and utter brilliance.
People like to say things don’t matter, and yet objects in this novel have a weight and a power. Can you talk about that?
Things matter in this novel insofar as they are matter. Which is Elin’s central dilemma. Her memory is analogous to quantum physics: she can’t produce visible tangible evidence. It is dogged by 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 in her path. Even the bombs that fell in the past have macroscopic footprints.
So, the objects in the book – a beautiful chair or dining set, a collection of smoky Danish glass – mirror the dilemma. They have their own classical reality, the substances they are made of and their tactile aesthetics. But these are overlaid with strata of narrative: who designed them, how they are made and where the wear and tear came from. And finally, that invisible encoding of memory: the laughter, meals, song, comfort and wounds they hold. The secrets.
The paradoxes we can’t see – joy co-existing with pain – along those we can – aesthetic delight simultaneous with ugliness, with stain – can all be the reality of something as utilitarian, yet intimate, as a chair or a table or a drinking glass.
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