Allen Kurzweil Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Allen Kurzweil

Allen Kurzweil

An interview with Allen Kurzweil

Allen Kurzweil reveals why it took a decade to complete A Grand Complication and the fascinating history behind the "grand complication" timepiece.

The Grand Complication took nearly a decade to complete. Why?
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 Complication
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 story?
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 Curiosities?
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 Reserved.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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