An Interview with Allen Kurzweil
The Grand Complication took nearly a decade to complete.
The short answer is this: The subject of the book the heist of a priceless
pocket watch from a private museum in Israel demanded a huge amount of
investigation. Over time, my curiosities, and those of my characters, expanded
to include library cataloging, pop-up books, tattoos, security systems, secret
compartments, the history of French watchmaking, and book design.
Did you have any say in the design of The Grand
Absolutely. It's a myth that publishers refuse the input of authors. I worked
very closely with the editors. It wasn't easy, but in the end, we managed to lay
out the book the way the characters in the novel envisioned it.
The characters imagine a book that comes full circle in exactly 360 pages a
book that has little gears that turn as the book advances. Happily, those
devices appear in the published work.
Was the "grand complication" timepiece your invention?
It depends what you mean by "timepiece." The story is my invention, the watch
is not. The actual timepiece that gives the book its title was the creation of
France's greatest watchmaker, Abraham-Louis Breguet. Breguet received a
spare-no-expense watch commission, in 1783, from Marie Antoinette. She wanted
something grand and complicated. Well, she got that sort of. Breguet didn't
finish the piece until after her decapitation. Eventually the watch ended up in
the hands of Sir David Lionel Goldsmid Salomons, first director of the City of
London Electric Lighting Company, who bequeathed it to his daughter Vera. Vera
best known for trying to buy the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem after witnessing a
donkey relieving itself next to a rabbi bent in prayer built a museum that
housed the Queen's watch. It was from that museum the timepiece got stolen.
How did you come across the story of the heist?
The essence of the novel emerged in Zurich nearly twenty years ago. I was
interviewing a sixth-generation watch dealer when the phone in his workshop
rang. Within seconds, the dealer sat slumped in his chair, the color drained
from his face. I asked if I should leave, convinced there had been a death in
the family, or some similar personal crisis. He shook his head and said, "No,
stay," he said. "It's the Queen. She has vanished." That was how I learned about
Breguet and his pocket watch. The mystery surrounding the theft, coupled with
the stupor of the dealer, stayed with me. A decade later I began to investigate
the history of the grand complication. Research took me to the crime scene in
Israel, to the watchmaking valleys of Switzerland, to Paris, and to the Isle of
Man. Then I settled down in various libraries to write my timepiece about the
fabled watch and the crime surrounding its disappearance.
And as a result libraries and library culture became part of the
Yes. I had the good fortune of receiving a research grant that gave me an
office in the New York Public Library for an entire year. It was Paradise. I
felt like the Wordsworth biographer who receives the keys to Dove Cottage. The
chance to ferret through the stacks and offices the nonpublic areas of the
library shifted my focus from library books to their caretakers. The Grand
Complication is more about librarians than it is about libraries, more about
collectors than it is about collections.
Is The Grand Complication a sequel to your first novel, A Case of
Not exactly. The Grand Complication reclaims and extends the story
told in A Case of Curiosities. I know that sounds complicated, but, title
notwithstanding, it's not. The two books are linked the way a thief is connected
to his victim.
The Grand Complication is filled with watches, hand-cranked
Roll-Players, automatons, a pop-up Kama Sutra. Where does this passion for
engineering come from?
It runs in the family. My father created machines that designed machines. I
have brother who is an engineer, and my cousin Ray is an inventor.
One writer has called your fiction "curiously Kurzweilian". Why?
Because my surname means "short-time" and "entertainment" in German. I had
one German publisher who was absolutely convinced I had invented a pen name. I
had to fax him a copy of my birth certificate to convince him otherwise.
Copyright © 2002 by Allen Kurzweil. All Rights