If you could use Proust to help in learning new things, would you? What conditions would make that acceptable, or not?
I don’t think so. I have a decent memory, but nothing special, and I don’t feel deprived. If Proust could help me remember people I’ve met, that might change my mind . . . but I suspect that’s handled as autobiographical memory, so Proust wouldn’t work anyway. I’m holding out for augmented reality glasses to help me with faces and names.
I found both Dr. Phan and Eddie McGill to be quite striking characters. What inspired them?
I’m fascinated by geniuses, who are nearly always flawed in some major way—they often lack social skills, self-awareness, conventional morality, or some combination thereof. (The Greeks didn’t necessarily invent the concept of the tragic hero; they simply observed it.) Andrea Phan is oblivious to the darker implications of her research, while Eddie McGill is her conscience, albeit one with his own ruthless code. On a practical level, my youngest son was born in Danang, Vietnam, so I thought it would be fun to make that Andrea’s birthplace, too.
How did your experiences as a college president influence the development of this story?
My job allows me to be around smart people with diverse interests, which is great fun. I can skip across the surface of many fields, rather than focus on just one. The kernel of this story was a financial oddity that I found intriguing: the strange fact that student loans are the only major loan type that isn’t collateralized. It’s obvious why, of course, since you can’t repossess an education. But what if you could? Most of us don’t own software or music anymore—we merely buy a renewable license to access them. What if education were treated the same way? These questions gave me an excuse to learn more about brain science as I tried to engineer a way to repossess an education if one were so inclined. Along the way I got to have some fun with French literature—one of my personal goals in 2017 is to finally finish In Search of Lost Time. For the record, I’m anti-repossession of education, and my own student loans were paid off long ago.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing or working?
That’s a harder question than it seems, because I’m pretty much always working or writing. My wife and I travel a lot, mainly for the college. We love movies and good TV—this is a golden age of TV, with some very well-written series. We have a wonderful bunch of grown children, an ungrateful cat, and fifteen chickens.
What are you writing lately?
I have three or four stories at various stages of polishing. I think of writing in carpentry terms. Some people are frame carpenters—they’re good at turning dimensional lumber into large, impressive structures. Others are finish carpenters—they concentrate on making that mantel over your fireplace as perfect as they can. Novelists are frame carpenters; short story writers are finish carpenters. Some people do both well. I’m a finish carpenter.
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