Anil Ananthaswamy in conversation with Anita Nair

I attended an event at the Bangalore International Centre yesterday, Anita Nair in conversation with Anil Ananthaswamy about narrative non-fiction. Anil spoke for 45-55 minutes about what it was like to write his first book, The Edge of Physics (2010), and the different kinds of decisions he had to make as the narrator to keep the book interesting and engaging. Then Anita and Anil had a conversation for 30 minutes about the challenges of constructing narratives in fiction and non-fiction, followed by a short Q&A.

I quite enjoyed the evening because, though it was the third or maybe fourth time I have heard Anil speak about his books, the highlight every time has been the questions people have asked about them and his answers. This occasion was no different; in fact, Anita – who is an accomplished writer of fiction (whose books have been translated into 31 languages, as I and others in the audience discovered yesterday) – was particularly engaging. She was able to focus on the differences and the overlaps between the two kinds of exercises that I personally found illuminating.

The following are some of my notes from their conversation, together with my takes:

§ When Anita asked Anil how he chooses what to write, he said his decisions are almost always driven by curiosity. I thought that is a wonderful place to be in if you are a non-fiction writer: to have the liberty to pursue the stories that interest you, beyond considerations of marketability and the economics of feature-publishing. Anil has been a science journalist for two decades and there is little surprise as to how he got to this place. Nonetheless, his comment merits thinking about how writers and journalists balance the pull of their curiosity with the push(back) of the more pragmatic aspects of their vocation.

§ A quote about science writing from Tim Bradford, former science editor of The Guardian, that Anil recalled: “Never overestimate what the reader knows, never underestimate the reader’s intelligence”. In other words, the difference between you and your readers is simply the amount of information; if presented right, they likely possess the cognitive and intellectual faculties to process it.

§ Anil mentioned (in response to an audience-member’s question, I think) that all three of his books are geared towards making the reader understand what the major unanswered questions (in the respective fields: cosmology, neuroscience, quantum mechanics) are and aren’t concerned with providing a resolution at the end. He had already mentioned towards the close of his talk that he is principally concerned with the bigger picture and getting a grip on where we all come from, etc., but I have never asked him if he consciously set out to write books like this or if the books simply reflect his own curiosity-driven pursuit to understand our universe, so to speak.

Edit: I asked him over email and he said, “I think it’s more a reflection of my own pursuit – the topics that interest me seem to be those for which we are at the cusp of some understanding.”

§ Through Two Doors At Once, Anil’s third book, tracks how our understanding of quantum mechanics evolved by examining multiple iterations of a single experiment created over 200 years ago. Late last year, I prepared to excerpt a few pages from the book for The Wire Science when I realised that this was harder to do the farther I got away from the first chapter (final excerpt here). This was because of the book’s extremely linear narrative; the superlative is warranted because each chapter builds on concepts carefully erected in the previous one, so it would have been nearly impossible for you to start the book from the tenth chapter and understand what was going on. This is partly due to the counterintuitive and complicated nature of quantum mechanics and partly to the author’s decision to frame the narrative around one experiment.

Anil pointed out yesterday that this was in contrast to both The Edge of Physics and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2016), his second book, which follow what I like to call the radial narrative: each chapter begins at the centre of a circle and moves along the radius towards the circumference. But the next chapter doesn’t begin at the circumference; it begins at the centre again, reasserting the theme of the book and moving along another tack to a different point on the circumference. This way, it is possible for the reader to open the book on chapter 10 and understand what is going on; the author is less railroaded and has more room to explore different interpretations of the book’s theme; and editors like me have more portions to consider excerpting from.

§ My favourite part of the conversation was when Anita and Anil were springboarding off of the ideas discussed in his second book, The Man Who Wasn’t There, which examines how – to rephrase Anil – the body and the mind work together to construct the sense of self. Anil does this with a quest through different neurocognitive conditions that affect the mind in unique ways, providing insights into where the person’s sense of ‘I’ could be located in the brain.

I should mention here that this was an interesting passage of conversation but, for the same reason, one in which my neurons were going berserk and I don’t clearly remember how one part connected to another now. However, I do know that the following things were discussed:

  • Anita said that this journey of discovery (in Anil’s book) parallels her own when she is writing a novel. As the work of writing the book progresses, Anita the author gets more and more into the character’s skin so that she can write convincingly about the character’s actions and motivations. However, this process can be uniquely painful when the character molests a child, for example; according to Anita, it felt worse when she was able to make the transition from herself to her character, the child-molester, and slip back out almost effortlessly.
  • This was related to a question about the narrative growing its own legs and, every now and then, leading the author away in unintended directions. Anil said that in his case, it was a factor of how much reporting he had done. That is, the more knowledge and perspectives he had available, the more ideas he could explore in the same story. He also said that such narrative drift (my words) is more likely to happen in fiction than in non-fiction.

This is fascinating. It probably happens more with fiction because the rationale is that it is easier to invent than to infer, and because reality offers to railroad the author in non-fiction. However, narrative drift may not necessarily be more likely in fiction-writing. This is because, in my view, fiction also places a bigger premium on the author’s self-imposed limitations on inventiveness, since Occam’s razor applies equally to both forms of writing. And with fiction, unrestrained inventiveness imposes a greater cost on the story’s readability and even interestingness than unrestrained inference imposes on non-fiction-writing. I am curious to know, therefore, the different causes of narrative drift in fiction and (long-form) non-fiction – assuming there are differences – and how much time authors spend working against them.

Next courses of action: Read The Man Who Wasn’t There and A Cut-Like Wound.