“Suddenly, I knew exactly what the story was going to be about — redshift and increasing distances.”
For most writers, writing isn’t “rocket science” or “brain science” or any kind of science we use to distinguish elite or inaccessible intellectual vocations. But Tasneem is in fact a theoretical physicist with a doctorate from Stockholm University and post-doctoral experience at Harvard; better still, her writing mission aims to make the inaccessible, accessible. Her first book, Only the Longest Threads, is a fictionalized account of the great breakthroughs in physics, from Newton’s Classical Mechanics to the Tasmanian Devil’s (this will make sense when you read the book) String Theory.
- What’s the surprising inspiration behind one (your choice) of the articles or books you’ve published?
This year marks the centennial of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and I was asked to contribute a short story to an anthology that marks the occasion. While I cast around for an idea that would fit, the song “La Vie En Rose” played over and over in my head with annoying persistence. I couldn’t make it stop, so I finally stopped ignoring it and actually considered the lyrics. The instant I thought about life, seen through rose colored glasses, a vivid image flashed to mind: sunset over the Notre Dame, and two lovers separated by the Seine. Suddenly, I knew exactly what the story was going to be about — redshift and increasing distances.
- If you could rescue one obscure book and make it more widely known to the world, which book would you choose and why?
The Dean’s Watch, by Elizabeth Goudge. Goudge is one of the last Victorian authors, and even though the undertones of faith in her books don’t always sit well with a modern audience, her writing has a lyrical beauty that is timeless. She has a flair for description, and picking just the right detail to zoom in on. She shows an incredible depth of understanding, and compassion, for each of her characters and her ability to completely inhabit their various perspectives is astounding. Her stories feel quiet and restful, there’s no high drama anywhere – yet they keep you engaged while you read them, and stay with you afterwards. I love most of her work, but The Dean’s Watch is up there at the top of my list, so that’s the one I would rescue from obscurity if I could.
- You can ask one question to any author, living or dead. What would you ask and why?
I’d ask Arthur Stanley Eddington how he approached popular science writing. Most people know Eddington only as the man who gathered experimental proof for Einsten’s theory, but that barely scratches the surface of who he was. Eddington’s true gifts were his deep insights into the intricacies of physics, and a unique talent for portraying complex truths in a lucid, but not overly simplistic, way. In addition to his scientific work, he did an amazing amount of outreach, and his popular books (and lecture transcripts) are an absolute joy to read. I am particularly impressed by how he manages to maintain a sense of rigor even in his most non-technical explanations, and I think this is partly due to his brilliant use of metaphor. Metaphors are endlessly fascinating to me. They can be such a powerful tool, particularly in the kind of writing I do, that I’d like to sit Eddington down and ask him to talk me through his process.
- What’s the best (or your favorite) feedback you’ve received from a reader?
An award winning science writer, whose work I have admired and respected for a long time, wrote to tell me she had read my book and loved it. I couldn’t get over how surreal that felt. I grew up turning her phrases around in my head, and then one day I find she has not only read my writing, but liked it enough to reach out and tell me! That is one of the most powerful arguments I can make for having the strength to put your work out there. You never know who will find it. And when someone actually connects with what you’ve written, it’s a high like no other.
- What’s the worst writing advice you’ve received from a teacher?
To categorize my writing, and force it to fit into a pre-labeled box. This whole business of having to ‘decide’ whether something is fiction or non-fiction, scientific or literary, A or B, was overwhelming at first, but now it just seems unnecessary. I totally agree that you need to have a clear vision where your writing is headed – otherwise the words ramble off the page – and that it often helps to have a particular reader in mind, to keep you on track. But being targeted isn’t the same as being constrained. Few real world readers have tastes that can be categorized by a single keyword. Life isn’t neatly split up into mutually exclusive compartments, and it isn’t always possible – or even preferable – to write as if it were. Most of us live in a space where genres overlap, and it is only natural that our books occasionally do the same.
For more information about Tasneem Zehra Husain and her books:
Visit her online at: www.tasneemzehrahusain.com
Follow her on Twitter: @tasneemzhusain