Interview: March 3, 2006
March 3, 2006
With her latest endeavor, INTUITION, Allegra Goodman examines a different sort of faith from the recurring religious and spiritual matters she explored in her previous works. In this interview with Bookreporter.com's contributing writer Joni Rendon, Goodman discusses how her fascination with scientists and their work inspired her to explore a new milieu, and explains the challenges she faced in writing about a topic so disparate from her own experiences. She also ruminates on the idea of absolute truths and attempts to trace similarities between INTUITION and her prior books.
Bookreporter.com: Your previous novels and short story collections have centered on religious and spiritual issues as well as various aspects of the Jewish experience, yet your latest novel moves away from those themes to explore faith in a scientific sense. Was this shift in focus premeditated or did it happen organically as the story took shape?
Allegra Goodman: I had long been interested in writing about scientists and their particular beliefs and doubts. I've also long been interested in writing about community. Like KAATERSKILL FALLS, INTUITION is a novel about faith, ritual and community. Like THE FAMILY MARKOWITZ, INTUITION is a book about trying to define and express yourself in a family --- except that in this new book I am exploring scientific faith, experimental ritual, and the community in a laboratory and those professional families that develop in the workplace. Thematically, there is common ground between this new novel and my other books. That said, INTUITION is a departure for me in the sense that I am writing about a new milieu. I made a conscious decision to learn about work and procedures previously unfamiliar to me. I decided that not only did I want to write about researchers, but that I wanted to do research myself --- in observing scientists at work in a laboratory. I went into a lab and talked to post docs and took notes and drew pictures. For example, I sketched the animals and their cages. I drew a mouse pinned down on the dissection pad. This process was new for me --- and exhilarating.
BRC: Because the Philpott Institute is hungry for results, Cliff's preliminary findings are immediately judged a success by his bosses, while his colleague Robin just as quickly regards his results with suspicion. Though snap judgments can be dangerous, isn't there an equal risk of becoming paralyzed by caution?
AG: Yes indeed. Snap judgments are dangerous and excessive caution is paralytic. A researcher has to know where to push and where to wait. There is a fine line between understanding the significance in data and forcing that significance on data. The characters in this book must define that line for themselves. The choices they make are quite revealing!
BRC: In a world of few certainties, do you believe there's merit to letting our intuition guide us in certain instances?
AG: Intuition is a tricky quality. That inner certainty, that almost instinctive knowledge can be a gift. A seemingly powerful intuition can also be misleading. Again, my characters have to decide how far to trust their intuition.
BRC: The protagonist in your previous novel PARADISE PARK was obsessed by a quest for spiritual truth, while Robin in INTUITION is single-mindedly obsessed with seeking scientific and moral truth. Do you believe there are any absolute truths in life or is everything, including science, subject to interpretation and extrapolation?
AG: I believe there is such a thing as truth. Scientists are truth seekers and truth interpreters. There are certainly many ways to describe the world, but I do think there is an objective external reality there to uncover. The truth is not a construct.
BRC: As a fiction writer, your work is by definition subjective, yet your husband is a mathematician who dwells in a black and white world of absolutes. Did this contrast between your professional lives provide inspiration for the novel's theme of moral ambiguity? If not, what inspired you to explore this topic?
AG: My husband is a computer scientist, my sister is an oncologist, her husband is a computational biologist, my mother was a population geneticist, and I have several friends who work in labs. I live with scientists all around me, and so I've developed a natural curiosity about what scientists do and how they think. My work has also been informed by firsthand experience of the pressures scientists work with --- the constant applications for funding, the jostling for lab space, and the pressure to finish experiments before getting scooped by rivals. Over the years I've also seen the collaborations scientists develop, and as a solitary novelist, I've envied the camaraderie and intellectual give and take my husband and other friends develop with their colleagues. I've observed the intense joy and sibling rivalry, the fights, the respect, and the fun that characterize close collaborations. When I began INTUITION I knew that this was a great subject for me: the complexity of these work relationships.
BRC: What were the particular challenges in learning about the intricate, behind-the-scenes politics and protocols involved in the high-stakes world of scientific research, which you portray with such remarkable insight?
AG: Perhaps the greatest challenge to me in writing about scientists was to dramatize their work in a concrete way. I chose to write about biologists doing animal research because I felt that experiments with animals showed the reader scientific process in a concrete, immediate, visceral way.
BRC: In addition to exploring the human side of the often nameless and faceless scientific community, did you set out to make a broader statement about the ways in which money and politics can negatively interfere with experimental research?
AG: I'll leave it to the reader to infer broader statements about money, politics and experimentation. As a novelist I specialize in narrow statements --- always the particular, and not the general --- always the sweeping questions.
BRC: The mystery element of the novel is extremely suspenseful, fueled by the shifting narrative perspective that continually casts doubt on what the "truth" really is. What drove your decision to show the story unfolding from four such seemingly unreliable points of view, each colored by their own agenda?
AG: There are many ways to tell a story. I think the contribution I can make is to tell a story from several sides, and beyond that, to tell the story from the INSIDE of several sides. This has always been my artistic interest --- a kind of interior geometry. In the case of INTUITION I found that my shifting point of view heightens suspense, and also implicates the reader in interesting ways. We identify with first one character and then another; we can see each more fully, and the experience is richer.
BRC: Besides being compelling characters in their own right, lab co-directors Sandy Glass and Marion Mendelsohn share a unique bond that's a fascinating study in contrasts. Were there any real-life role models for their distinctive relationship and do you think it's a mistake to put too much faith in another person?
AG: Is it dangerous to put too much faith in another person? I suppose there is always a risk there, but without risk there are no rewards of friendship, and intimacy. Sandy and Marion have enriched each other's lives. When it comes to Marion, INTUITION asks several related questions as well --- what happens over time when we lose faith in ourselves? Where can we find the strength and generosity to keep working with others?
BRC: In the past you've cited that classics such as MIDDLEMARCH inspired you to become a writer. Who are your modern inspirations and did any of them influence aspects of INTUITION?
AG: The two contemporary books I've enjoyed most in the past year were Marilynne Robinson's GILEAD and Kazuo Ishiguro's NEVER LET ME GO. But I had already finished writing INTUITION when I read these. While writing INTUITION I did a lot of rereading, much of it aloud to my oldest son: Dickens's GREAT EXPECTATIONS, Twain's A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT, Defoe's ROBINSON CRUSOE, Swift's GULLIVER'S TRAVELS. All of these were far darker and more moving than I remembered! Closer to my own subject matter, I reread Sinclair Lewis' ARROWSMITH, which seemed rushed in places, but also rang true in its propulsive all-consuming manic energy.
BRC: Have you began thinking about or writing your next novel, and how do you see your future work continuing to evolve in terms of subject matter?
AG: I am indeed thinking about my next book. I keep future plans secret, but I can say that I'll use what I learned in INTUITION: to set the bar high, to look out into the world, and to work patiently to tell my story.