Meet Christopher Meeks. I had the opportunity to read his novel, Love at Absolute Zero and reviewed it yesterday on My Bookshelf.
Christopher Meeks kindly agreed to an interview to discuss his new novel, Love at Absolute Zero. Help me welcome him to My Bookshelf (applause and cheering....)
AN INTERVIEW BY SHIRLEY of My Bookshelf WITH CHRISTOPHER MEEKS
Thank you, Shirley, for letting me be a part of your website.
How would you describe your favourite genre to write in?
That’s my problem. I don’t have a genre, unless you call “literary” a genre—but that’s broad and probably the most difficult type of fiction to market. I had an agent who loved Love At Absolute Zero, and he brought it to editors at large publishing companies who had enthusiasm, but the marketing people in the companies seemed to feel it was like beef-flavored gum—interesting but they didn’t know how to sell it.
Someone on Goodreads called this book’s genre “Lab Lit.” That made me smile because first there was Chick Lit, then Lad Lit, now Lab Lit. It suggests there’s humor, romance, and science, which my book has. There’s probably not a lot of books within Lab Lit, but what the heck.
There’s also depth in the book that’s not necessary to see, but it’s there. As one customer review on Amazon said, “I don't give five stars just because I like a book, but usually have to be able to see more than entertainment to give that rating. Absolute Zero turned out to be great entertainment, but also much more.”
Writers who write in main genres such as romance, mystery, and thriller have an easier time getting published and having their books sell. That doesn’t mean this book won’t find a large audience. I’m impressed by the customer reviews coming in—people I don’t know—and I’m optimistic. Or maybe I’m just quixotic.
So is mystery your favourite genre to read?
I have to say I love how the Canadians and English spell “favourite.” I’m international now.
Yes, I enjoy the old mysteries such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but Michael Connelly and Robert Crais are authors I often read. My former professor David Scott Milton’s new mystery, Iron City, which is only on Kindle now but soon will be in print, is dark like Chandler and Hammett, and I really love it.
However, it’s the contemporary literary books I love finding. I relish books that have great stories AND depth. When I find a book I love, I want to teach it. I happen to teach English at Santa Monica College, and I give myself the challenge of teaching two new books of fiction each semester, one by a male author, one by a female. Not only do I have to love each book, but I aim to have them grab my students who typically don’t read fiction.
What books, you might ask, fills all those requirements? This semester we’re reading The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. The first is told from the point of view of a dog whose owner races cars and the second just won the Pulitzer Prize and loosely revolves around a hit record producer and those associated with him before, during, and after his reign.
I’ve created a list on Amazon called Best Loved Novels I’ve Used Teaching English. You’ll see the books that have proven themselves such as Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen. These are books where a large part of the class reads ahead because the book is so good. That rarely happened in the English classes I took in college or high school. My goal is to show students that novels are where it’s at. If they come to love at least one of the novels in the semester, there are more books like them out there. Find them.
In short, I’m trying to deliver the spark that you clearly have and are flaming as you devote your days to reading and writing about new books.
Would you define your writing process for us? Do you use an outline?
I’ve changed over the years. One thing has remained constant: I write in the morning at the same desk. One of my mentors, the late and bestselling author Thomas Thompson (Blood and Money), told me his secret was writing at the same place at the same time each day. In that way, in a routine, you easily pick up where you last left off and you are productive. Even when my life is particularly hectic, I find time to write.
I used to be an anti-outliner—that outlines sucked out any creativity. My short stories were never written with an outline but with the curiosity to see where a story would go. When it came to novels, however, I quickly learned one can easily be lured away from the main story line, following a tangent that loses the reader. Then I discovered I don’t have to create outlines the way I’d been taught with levels using Roman numerals and capital letters and numbers. I discovered bullets.
What I now do is write outlines with mere bullet points to any given scene. In other words, novels are written in scenes, and each scene should deliver action and often realizations from a character. Scenes without either are not scenes but information dumps, which are boring. Exposition is needed but has to be metered out carefully. I want my reader involved in my stories, so structure is a big deal.
Outlines let me “What if?” What if such and such happens, where will the story go? What if something else happens?
This is to say outlining lets me imagine scenes faster than I can write them. I see them in my head, and if the scene isn’t interesting, I don’t write it. In the act of writing, I’m often surprised—I go off my outline. If I do, I return to my outline to see how the latest surprise changes things. I either adjust my outline or a scrap the surprise. With bullets, it’s easy to change an outline, and thus my outlines are organic and evolving.
You have published several other novels and short stories, what is your favourite so far? Why? What are some of your recently released titles?
I started writing plays and getting them produced, such as Who Lives? which is about the invention of the kidney dialysis machine and the first patients to try it out. In the sixties, when it looked as if the machine had been perfected, a committee was chosen to select people for it. Only a handful of people could be on it to see if there were any long-term consequences. Who would live?
In between writing plays, I wrote short stories. When I gathered enough courage and felt I had enough feedback that the stories were strong, I sent them out to literary journals—and was rejected like crazy. I realized, though, the journals were often staffed by eager college students who didn’t necessarily understand what I was doing, so I kept sending the stories around until they each found journals that would publish them. Once I had enough stories published, I put them in my first collection, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea. That was well-reviewed and even mentioned by Entertainment Weekly as a collection to get. I put together a second collection, Months and Seasons.
Novel writing intimidated me, mainly because I didn’t think that writing short stories well necessarily led to great novels. I completely loved Lorrie Moore’s short stories such as in her collection, Birds of America, but her novels had never grabbed me. After reading Melissa Bank’s The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, I saw I could create a series of short stories using the same characters and call it a novel. That’s how I built The Brightest Moon of the Century.
With my new novel, Love At Absolute Zero, I wanted a page turner. Rather than have chapters end with an ending (as short stories do), I wanted what a good mystery does, where you hit the end of the chapter and just have to turn the page. That meant a more traditional structure.
In short, everything I’ve written has been with a particular challenge in mind, and I’m proud of each of them. I’ll let critics choose which is best.
What are you working on now?
I’m polishing Falling Down Mt. Washington, a mystery novel about a young man, a theatre Ph.D. student who’s writing a dissertation on David Mamet and who’s at the end of his rope, desperately trying to get a job. While he’s applying at a Starbucks in a bank, the bank is robbed and he’s taken hostage. Now he really has to fight for his life.
I’m on the third draft and working with an editor.
About Love At Absolute Zero, can you relate to or do you know a Gunnar Gunderson?
I’ve always loved science—I was a kid when President Kennedy said we’d get a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and we did. I was a chemistry major for a year before I realized that’s not where my passions were. I like writing stories.
My wife happened to work in Caltech’s astrophysics library, so I met a lot of brilliant scientists there who could easily be Gunnar. One of them in particular helped in my initial research into studying the physics of the ultracold.
Do you believe in the scientific approach to love?
That’s one of the points of the novel—that it doesn’t quite work. Chaos is involved. Einstein never liked chaos in his science, even if (or perhaps because of) he had chaos in his love life. I’ve studied Einstein, too, and even wrote an entire screenplay called Einstein Loves. He had an amazing personal life, but people have made him such an icon, they don’t know him as a real person. He was living with his lover in Switzerland around 1905, and they had a child out of wedlock, who was lost to history or at least in most of his biographies.
Einstein was a Gunnar, now that I think of it.
In layman's terms, for the person who doesn't like or understand physics, can you describe "absolute zero"?
Absolute zero—or very near it—is the coldest anything can get. It can get extremely cold in Canada and Minnesota (where I’m from) and thus -32 C (or -25 degrees Fahrenheit for us in the U.S.) is so cold that it’s just not pretty. Your nostrils sting breathing in that cold. Cars don’t start. However, that may as well be the sun for how cold cold can get. Absolute zero is 0° on the Kelvin scale, −273.15 ° on the Celsius scale, and −459.67 °F.
Cold and heat is just a reference to how fast atoms bounce around. The hotter something is, the faster the atoms move. Theoretically, absolute zero is where atoms stop moving. However, atoms never stop moving. We can only get within a few billionths of a degree from absolute zero, and at that temperature, atoms change and form a new state of matter called Bose-Einstein Condensates (BECs). The previously known laws of the universe change with BECs. For a cool YouTube video on BECs, click here.
How does "absolute zero" relate to the search for love?
That’s the fun of the novel, for the reader to see how love and quantum mechanics connect. Atoms in a Bose-Einstein Condensate lose their identity—so do people in love and those in misery from the loss of a love. Physics and love interconnect on so many levels. It might take the whole book to see, but it’s a fun journey.
You write of physics with a great depth, demonstrating a comprehensive understanding of the concepts of which you write. Did you take physics in school or is your knowledge a result of extensive research?
Both. I took a great class at the University of Denver, physics for non-majors. The professor gave all sorts of wonderful demonstrations. In my junior year abroad in Denmark, I lived with a family whose neighbor was a physicist, and he loved talking about how everything in our world comes down to 92 natural elements. The taste of your lover’s saliva, the fire where you cook marshmallows, the tent you sleep in—all are part of 92 natural elements. Scientists have a different way of seeing things.
I had to research a lot, however, to grasp a basic sense of quantum mechanics, and then I had to explain it to readers without boring anyone or drifting away from the story. It’s a tricky balance. Story comes first, then the science slips in where it doesn’t hurt anyone.
Who is your greatest influence in life? In your writing career?
We are all products of our environment, driven by whatever mysterious commands are in our DNA. In my Blake High school class of sixty-three young men, I was not the English geek or the jock or any of the many brilliant boys in the school. Al Franken, now Senator Al Franken, was a few years ahead of me. I have to say the school encouraged me in my senior year to try new things, to push myself, and I’ve done so ever since.
My mother was a voracious reader, and when I started writing, she became a fan long before I deserved to be. My father loved that I was writing stories, but he was also a tough critic. It was probably after my first book was well received that he saw that my stories could have open endings.
I’ve had some great mentors—author Thomas Thompson, playwrights David Scott Milton, Jerome Lawrence, and Robert E. Lee. Each held my plays or prose and went over them and gave me great advice.
I also learned a lot from reading my favorite authors, such as Tim O’Brien, Lorrie Moore, Margaret Atwood, John Irving, J.D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, and many more. I also teach Children’s literature, and there’s a lot to learn from J.K. Rowling.
You’ve mentioned teaching English and writing on the college level. Has that helped you to analyze your writing process differently than you think others might write and edit their own work?
Teaching should also be on the list as a major influence in my life. Writing well cannot be done without reading a lot, and teaching novels has made me look closely at what certain writers do. I push myself to try new books every semester, even though it’s a lot more work, because I learn so much from each new novel. How the students react is important. What grabs their imaginations is so fun to see. When I witness that, I hope I find readers like them for my books.
In my Introduction to Literature classes, we study fiction, drama, and poetry—all of which can help any creative writer. Teaching is important because I’m witness to young people’s thirst for knowledge. I hope not to take away from that thirst but to let their genius come out. Teaching is a real balance in my life. It helps feed my writing.