Monday, December 14, 2009

An Interview With Isadora Wagner

Isadora J. Wagner’s “A Mathematical Theory of Elasticity” marks her first publication, appearing in STORYGLOSSIA 37. Isadora took a few moments to discuss found stories and origins, narrative structure, math and love, and story endings.

Anne Valente: Where did the premise for this story come from?

Isadora J. Wagner: It actually happened quite randomly. Brad Kessler assigned it as a writing exercise at the Kenyon Review summer conference in 2007. I was in his fiction workshop with ten other people, and one morning he came in the door with a stack of books from his nose to his knees. They were big, dusty books he'd pulled from the library. He proceeded to toss them down the table, telling us each to come back the next morning with a new story. The stories could be about anyone or anything, but had to in some way touch on the subject matter of the books. Some people got psychology; others got treatments on the orientation of the planets, or the proper care of white poodles for dog shows. The book I got was a 1923 Yale University Press textbook by A.E.H. Love called, "A Treatise on the Mathematical Theory of Elasticity". I had Love, math and elasticity right there.

Later when I sat down at a park bench and scanned through the book, I remember jotting down phrases that stuck out to me and sort of half thinking, what if it's a lovelorn math student on a college campus? I had been thinking to write a story about a young man caught between two loves at Madison for some time. From there, the story pretty much assembled itself. I remember walking back to my room with the phrases tumbling in my head. When I sat down, they poured out pretty much as you see them now. I don't think the story took more than 35 minutes to write.

AV: Structure plays a large part in this story, both in terms of the mathematical overlay and the numerical sections. Why did this structure feel right for the piece, and how does it interact with the content?

IJW: The section headings are phrases or paraphrases I lifted from the 1923 textbook. I had about twenty I had jotted down, and in assembling the piece and selecting material, I wanted some way to separate the book content from the narrative response. Cadence, or the idea of calling back and forth in submission and reply, was also on my mind. It's strong in poetry and song, and to me, the piece was almost like a poem of lament. It felt like a poem as I was putting it together with all its different parts, although it is also a story. These concerns led to the italics for the book parts, with the non-italics parts marking off the narrator's response: his lament back in lovesick love as he is working through the issues, both theoretical and personal. As for the numbers, they came from a different direction. I thought the piece read better with them, particularly aloud, and also I had an idea of the young man writing this stuff out in a journal, not all at once, but over the course of a few weeks or a semester.

AV: I love the notion of human relationships - and love - fitting into the structure of mathematical models. How does the relationship in this story either fit into or elude the given structure?

IJW: I was intrigued by the idea that love and math could be juxtaposed if elasticity was in the middle. I saw elasticity as a middle ground between the polar opposites, the one calling for a more flexible way of existence, and the other grounded in rigidity. As a non-math major, it was a revelation to me that fuzzy terms like plasticity and elasticity, stress and tension could be explained with mathematical or scientific models. I was working up in my thinking; I wondered what someone working the opposite direction, from the theoretical to real life, might conclude. Or rather I wondered how they might think, how love and its complications might get distorted or clarified through the rather particular lens of these theories. I'm not sure if I solved the problem this way, but I did feel at the end that the narrator felt he had.

AV: That final section is a perfect, haunting ending. How do you know when an ending is the right one, particularly for this story?

IJW: About the best explanation I've heard of endings is that they're right when there is nothing more to say. I felt that my narrator had reached that point when he got to the plant. He was done with the relationship, the girl was in Detroit, and the new love interest, Katya, had moved in or was about to--it really didn't matter what happened next since the piece was about the young man and his journey to let go of one love and turn toward another, and how even in rigidity, elasticity can be found. Once that was done, there was nothing more to say for the piece.

In this particular story, I was lucky that the narrator found the last lines; in others often I have to fish around. The thing that helps me, usually, is to try to separate out who's finishing--is it me the author, wrapping up my last thoughts and lines, or is it the character or narrator, seeing or thinking whatever it is that they see or think? That makes a difference in terms of where I can land, and sort of knowing as I get into the home stretch who's speaking helps. Of course it's always the character, but some characters and modes of narration are closer to the author than others, which are more like a temporary visitation or maybe a friendly possession!

AV: What are you currently working on?

IJW: Several pieces. Most of my writing these days concerns war vets, Wisconsin, and something that I hope approaches gothic in on the page.

Isadora J. Wagner lives and writes in Chicago. Her story, “The House the Thompsons Bought,” was nominated for Best American New Writers by the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2008. This is her first publication.

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