Author and physicist Alan Lightman talks to Chatelaine about his newest novel, Mr g, his thoughts on the universe, our desire for knowledge and inability to answer many of the questions we have about ourselves and our world, and his own creative works.
Q: Who would you say the audience for this book is?
A: My audience is all intelligent readers.
Q: You’re an atheist; why write a book about the creation of the universe that has a deity?
A: First of all, a work of fiction does not necessarily reflect the personal views of the author. Secondly, I am a writer who likes to explore provocative ideas. Religion and religious belief raise interesting questions, whether you are a believer or not. Finally, I am a dreamer, and I pursue my imagination, wherever it leads.
Q: In an essay for Harper’s you wrote: “some of the most basic features of our particular universe are indeed mere accidents — a random throw of the cosmic dice.” What Mr g sets out to do seems somewhat lacking in planning and foresight. Is it for that reason, to convey that sense of randomness?
A: Yes, I do think that there is a random element in most creative acts. I did not intend a direct connection between my novel and the ideas in my Harper’s essay, which come from the best thinking of science. That having been said, I do think that Mr g is informed by modern science. For example, if Mr g had chosen to intervene in the physical world he had created, that would have violated some of the tenets of science.
Q: Is the purpose of Belhor to act as a counterpoint, a voice of conscience almost, to Mr g? And, in a larger way, as a counterbalance to Mr g’s “good”? If so, where was he before? Or did the concept of “good” as such not exist before the creation of the universes, even though Mr g existed, and therefore there was no “evil” either?
A: As a fiction writer, I would not attempt to explain the “purpose” of any of my characters or their actions. That is for individual readers to decide. I would agree with your suggestion that good and evil did not exist before Mr g created the universe (and Belhor along with it). To me, Belhor is a very complex Satan, encompassing both evil and good, like the devil character in Michael Bulgokov’s The Master and Margarita.
Q: You’ve said: “As human beings, don’t we need questions without answers as well as questions with answers, questions that we might someday answer and questions that we can never answer?” Why is that do you think? And don’t you think we always strive for answers, that it maddens us in some way to not have answers to certain questions?
A: Some questions simply to do not have answers, such as: What is love? Or: Would we be happier if we could live to be 1000 years? Yet such questions can still provoke and stimulate the imagination and are therefore useful and important.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from Mr g?
A: I hope that readers have a literary experience, that their imaginations are broadened, their intellects provoked, that they laugh and also cry.
Q: Are you working on any new work of fiction now and, if so, can you give us some details?
A: I have written a semi-fictionalized memoir of my childhood in Memphis, Tenn., partly about the culture of the South, the racism, and the Southern style, also partly about my family’s movie business.
Q: What are your favourite books and authors and why?
A: I have many favorite books and authors. I often like novels that have a strange or mystical quality and that distort reality to see reality more clearly. A few novels in this category are Blindness by Jose Saramago, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati, The Trial by Franz Kafka. I also like sheer beautiful writing. A few novels in this category are The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje and The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai.