A conversation with Paolo Giordano, author of The Solitude of Prime Numbers
Q. You're a physicist. This is a book. What can a book tell us that a math problem can't?
A. Books (novels and poetry more than anything else) can tell us about the ambiguity of the world. While a math proof is either right or wrong, literature lies between the real and the unreal and is often an approximation of the truth. I think it is in this approximation that a book's fascination and humanity reside.
Q. What did your academic advisors in your physics program say when you told them you'd written a book?
A. Nobody knew anything until the book was published (not even my parents), so everybody's first reaction was, "A book? And when did you get the chance to write it?" In the beginning, my advisors were quite positive - they were amused by seeing my face on newspapers and in bookstore windows. Then, as the book became more successful, some started to feel bothered about it. I think it was partly because I wasn't able to devote myself to my work as seriously as before and partly because I was trading the scientific truth for a more (in their opinion) dubious art.
Q. Solitude is the story of two friends, one male and one female, over the course of twenty-five years. What was harder: writing from a child's perspective or writing from a woman's perspective? Why?
A. Writing from a female perspective was much harder for me. Children's voices are those that come to me most naturally. I think this is something deeply related to me being a writer: any time I sit down and work, it's like I go back to my childhood - even when I'm writing about an 80-year-old character. On the other hand, the female world is something I've only observed from the outside and experienced indirectly. And, to be fair to both sexes, I had to get rid of some of the attraction and fear and caution that the female world provokes in me.
Q. The effect of childhood and adolescent experiences on future events is a big theme of this book. Do you have one memory from childhood that affected you in a big way, for better or worse?
A. If I had one, I'd probably never confess it - the book itself would be a form of confession. To tell the truth, I don't recall any big event (it may be hidden very deep in my subconscious, who knows?). Small, daily events, however, are enough to learn and remember the pain of childhood.
Q. What about a memory from adolescence?
A. The most autobiographical aspect of the book is the impact of my high school experience. I came from a really quiet town close to Turin and I ended up in a school full of kids from the city's upper class. Everybody seemed smarter and older than me, and my first reaction to this was fear.
Q. You're quite young and this is your first novel. Is there something new writers have to offer their readers that veteran novelists can't?
A. I used to think that some form of spontaneity and freshness can only come with the first book when you're still young and inexperienced and (to some extent) pure. Then I read My Sister, My Love by Joyce Carol Oates. That novel, written by a very experienced woman who is over seventy, has more spontaneity and freshness than the novel of any young writer I have ever read. So the answer is probably no.
Q. Has your literary success affected your scientific aspirations? Any temptation to quit physics and lead a life of literary leisure?
A. It's become something more than a temptation. I recently finished my PhD program and I made the decision to quit physics. It's impossible to do two such involving and demanding things at this level.
Q. What do you want to write about next?
A. I just started my new novel. I still don't know what it is, but I'm sure it will again focus on the relation between different stages of life and different ages. But this one will be mainly from an adult's perspective.
Q. Joseph Conrad wrote, "We live as we dream-alone." Alternately, E.M. Forster advised us to "only connect." We see Alice and Mattia navigating these conflicting agendas-do you think our loneliness ultimately drives us toward each other? Or does it drive us apart?
A. I'm trying to figure out the right answer. And it will take a long time. I could answer in two opposite ways, depending on the day (or even on the time of day). Intellectually speaking, I think life is alone. But we can get along together.
Q. The Solitude of Prime Numbers has sold in huge numbers internationally. Clearly, there's a strong universal element at the heart of the story. Would you say there's a strong Italian element at its heart as well? And if so, what is it?
A. Most likely there isn't any important Italian element in the story. When I wrote it, I was mainly influenced by American literature and foreign cinema. Of course the book takes place in Turin, the city where I was born and still live. However, Turin doesn't really have any marked Italian features - it is very generally European and I think this contributed to the book's universality.
Q. Is there any aspect of the book that you think will speak in particular to its American audience?
A. I've learned that readers are often very surprising, so I don't make any predictions. Speculating on what a reader might like, moreover, is in a way judging him, I guess. I don't think I'm good enough or expert enough to do that.