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Down to a science
Roboticist Karl Iagnemmaís fiction explores the intersection of science and emotion

WRITERS, GOES the old cliché, do all kinds of things to support themselves while they pursue their creative endeavors. They bus tables and deliver pizzas. They teach Writing 101 to flannel-wearing fraternity boys with trust funds and short attention spans. They eat tuna out of the can and buy secondhand clothes and collect quarters from the couch cushions to pay the rent.

They do not, as a general rule, research space robotics at MIT.

But then, not all writers are Karl Iagnemma.

The 30-year-old Cambridge resident leads the kind of split-personality life thatís sure to make him a media darling: Iagnemma inhabits a divided world in which he spends his days working as a researcher in the mechanical-engineering department at MIT, then goes home to write award-winning fiction. In fact, Iagnemmaís short stories have garnered the Paris Review Discovery Prize and first place in the Playboy fiction contest, along with inclusion in the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize collections. In his first collection of fiction, On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction (Dial Press), published last month, Iagnemma explores the intersection of science and emotion, research and relationships.

Q: Tell me about your day job.

A: I work at a robotics lab at MIT. I went to school here ó I did my masterís and PhD at MIT, in this particular lab, and then I did the postdoc here, and then last year I joined the research staff, which means I just do research; I donít, like, teach or anything. Iím not a faculty member, but Iím a researcher. We study space robotics, mostly. Basically Mars Rovers, and also robots that would fly around and do things like, oh, capture space debris and things like that. We basically develop software and algorithms to make these things intelligent and control them; thatís the basic idea.

Q: Where did this interest come from?

A: Iíd always been interested in mechanics, mechanical things, physics, stuff like that, science and math, and then it just sort of evolved. Robots are cool because thereís a theory that goes along with them, but at the same time, you get to build things, so it sort of satisfies the childish impulse. You basically get to play with toys that are really complicated.

Q: So you wrote the book while you were a PhD student at MIT?

A: I wrote, I would say, 60 percent of it. What happened was, I wrote it, and then we sold it, but the collection that we sent to the publisher wasnít totally concerned with science and scientists and researcher types ó mostly, but not all ó and the publisher, Dial Press, the editors liked it, but they came back and said, "Do you think you could maybe write the collection entirely with this kind of theme?" And I thought that was a good idea; as soon as they said it, it really made sense, like, yeah, that would really unify it. Because the collection at that point was a little bit, not disjointed, but it wasnít as cohesive. So I ended up writing a couple more stories. Over the next year, after they accepted it, I wrote three more stories or so.

Q: How did you do this while you were a PhD student? MIT didnít work you hard enough?

A: Itís like anything else ó you always have a couple hours a day to do whatever. So basically I would go to school and I would work on my thesis or research, whatever I was doing, and then I would come home and make dinner, and Iím not a huge TV watcher, so I would just work on the stories from like 10 until midnight or 1 a.m. It was basically my hobby, so it was kind of fun. It was my free time. Even if I had all day, I can never sit down and write for eight hours a day, so having those couple of hours kind of worked out okay, even though, yeah, youíre pretty tired by the end of the day.

Q: What drew you to fiction writing in the first place?

A: My mother used to write childrenís stories a bit. I think probably the fact that she valued writing and would talk about it, and really encouraged it. She had some things that sheíd written and theyíd been around the house, and there was a typewriter in the laundry room the whole time we were growing up, so once in a while Iíd kind of sit down and type something. It wasnít even really writing, and I didnít even really start doing it seriously until college, but I think in the back of my mind it always seemed like a reasonable thing to do. I mean, basically I think I lacked imagination: my dadís an engineer and my mom was a writer type, so I think those were what I saw as the only two possible career options. So I did both.

Q: Most people are either strong in math and sciences, or in language, but not in both ó or if not strong, then just interested in one or the other.

A: Thatís what I think it is. I think people sometimes say that; itís like, "Oh, I could never do x or y," and I think usually what they mean is that, "Well, Iím not interested enough to learn it." I think people could do either if they wanted to, but most people lean toward one or the other. I donít know; Iíve always been interested in both. Itís a different kind of feeling, you know what I mean? Itís a different kind of satisfaction. Thereís something nice about being able to basically solve a problem, like a mathematical problem or a research problem. Itís like youíve figured out a riddle or something; itís a little spark. For writing, itís totally different; you donít ever really get the feeling that youíve solved anything, but you get this, you know, when you read something that youíve written thatís good, you get this deeper sort of satisfaction.

Q: Did you score higher on your math SAT or your verbal?

A: [Laughing] I didnít take the SAT. I went to the state school, Michigan, so they didnít even require it. But with the GRE, I was bummed; my verbal score was a little lower than Iíd hoped. That was going to be my point of pride.

Q: Do you think it would be possible for you, or would you have any desire, to write fiction that isnít rooted in science, or that has something to do with science?

A: Yeah, I think it would be possible. In fact, the stories I was writing before this string of science stories came along were I guess what youíd call fairly traditional, or at least non-science-oriented stories. And I liked doing it, and I think I probably could do it, but at the same time, the stories that I was writing werenít as exciting to me because I think they didnít feel as unique, or maybe it was that they didnít feel like me. Because science, research, is something thatís really important ó itís something Iím really into. I think anytime youíre writing about something you really care about, you can give it that extra little charge. But maybe someday Iíll get sick of writing about sciences. I mean, some of the stories that are in the book, thereís a couple that arenít really about sciences. I think in my imaginings of the characters, theyíre probably science types, but maybe they just donít have the degree, or theyíre not working in the university. So maybe itís more a type of character than necessarily the details of science that Iím into. Because the stories, thereís not even that much scientific information; itís often more of like a backdrop. Do you have the book?

Q: Yeah, I do. Itís great. Iíve had it for quite a few weeks.

A: Cool, you didnít sell it? I went on to the first day the book came out, and it was like, "You can buy 16 used copies for four bucks." Iím like, well, fuck, whoís going to buy the hardcover? Oh well. Whatever.

Q: In your press materials thereís a quote that says youíre "more interested in failure. Failed experiments, failed hypotheses, failed theories." Tell me about that.

A: It seems to me that when you do read about sciences in the popular media, often, or sometimes even in fiction, people tend to write about the famous cases, right? Everyone knows who Einstein is. And I think thereís a little bit of an illusion ó and I think this is true for me before I got into research ó that science is usually successful. I mean, you set out to do something and you have a grand aim, and thereís a race to see who gets there first. The implication being that someone else wouldíve gotten there eventually. But I think in general, research is pretty hard, and a lot of times you donít end up getting the answer that you thought youíd get, or you end up getting an answer that turns out to be wrong, or you just end up looking in the wrong place. And I think thatís where a lot of the conflict ó conflict in a fictional sense, but a lot of the drama in a real sense, in doing research ó comes from. The fact that you donít always know if youíre on the right path. The answer isnít in the back of the book, you know? So when I started writing about the scientists, that felt real to me; those kinds of stories, where the characters had a lot of doubt and were struggling. Itís like, write what you know.

Q: Talk about your view of science as it relates to emotion.

A: Oh boy. Thatís a tough one. I donít know that I have a theory of science per se relating to emotion, but I do think science is more of an emotional field than most people probably would think, or give it credit for. Because the view is that you have to be completely rational, and of course in analysis and things like that, you do; you want to be analytical and prove every step before moving on to the next one. But a lot of the surrounding things in science, a lot of the decisions on what to study, a lot of relationships between researchers, a lot of politics in departments of course, a lot of that is governed by personal relationships, emotion, history. And I think thatís where the human side comes in. I mean, itís tough to really squeeze emotion out of a formula. But on the other hand, some people will look at a piece of science and find beauty, where other people would just see a string of numbers.

Q: Can you imagine your life without either science or writing, or have they become just too intertwined at this point?

A: I would be bored, I think. Iíve thought about not writing for a while. And then Iíve also thought about quitting my job to try and write full time, and itís the same sort of feeling: I think Iíd miss the other one a bit, or more. Especially writing; I enjoy research, but itís a little bit more of a livelihood. With writing, itís something that Iíve always done just because I wanted to, so to stop doing it, it would be kind of like giving up your favorite thing.

Q: It sounds like youíre glad thatís your livelihood, though.

A: Oh yeah, I love it. I mean, I love my job. I wouldnít want to have to choose between them, basically. The only thing I would like to do is maybe be able to work a little less. Then I could sleep more, which would be great.

Q: Youíre starting to get more press for being part of this group of young, up-and-coming Boston-area writers. Do you feel a real sense of community and support with the young writers here?

A: Yeah, totally. I was surprised. Only until really maybe a year and a half ago did I meet any writers in Boston, and part of the reason I think is because I assumed that maybe the literary community ó I mean, I guess I imagined it as a somewhat snobby, English-major world, and hereís me, the engineer with the pocket protector ó

Q: You donít really have a pocket protector.

A: I think I do own one, but Iíve never used it. It was just for fun. I donít know if Boston is unique in this, but the writers that Iíve met around here are very cool and willing to help each other out. Thereís a group mentality, that I think everyone wants the other to succeed. At least, I havenít really met people that are the cliché of being bitter and snobby.

Q: Whatís next?

A: I donít know. I should probably have more of a plan. All I know right now is that Iím working on a novel, which is going okay, a little bit slowly, and Iím working at a job, and trying to basically build something of an academic career, which means writing this proposal which is due tomorrow morning, and going to conferences and stuff like that. I certainly donít have a 10-year plan. I probably donít have a five-year plan. I have, I think, a two-year plan. It always changes. You never know. I just kind of take things as they come.

Q: Are you keeping track of the bookís sales rank on Amazon?

A: Omigod, the sales rank is so humiliating. Because the book came out last week, so I have ó okay, Iíve checked it letís say several times, and I think I have yet to break, like, 70,000. I keep telling myself, okay, itís because the book just came out. But who knows. I assume itíll go up a little bit.

Q: Do you feel like youíre at a disadvantage because itís stories and not a novel?

A: Oh yeah, I mean, I think the pool of people who are interested in short stories is a lot smaller. Some people just donít like íem. And thatís cool; I mean, I can see that. I think probably if I had a choice between reading stories and a novel ó I love stories, but Iíd take a novel on vacation before Iíd take a book of stories. So it tends to be the more writerly types, or the real kind of hard-core readers. I think thatís why the book of stories is kind of seen as a way to establish yourself, your name, and hopefully get some critical press. But I think itís rare that you see one really sell a ton of copies. But you never know. It happens occasionally that stories will kind of break through. I think thatís always the goal, that youíll be that one book of stories of the year that actually sells, I donít know how many copies, but more than seven ó which is probably what Iíve sold so far.

Q: Tell me what, exactly, is online terrain-parameter estimation for planetary rovers?

A: Uggh ó thatís my life! Itís part of the rover research that we do, and like any other scientific thing, when you get into the details, it starts sounding really boring really quick. But itís actually pretty interesting stuff ... I mean ... well, anyway ...

Q: Weíll leave it at that.

A: Thatís probably best.

Karl Iagnemma reads from On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction at the Attic Bar, in Newton, on May 27; at Out of the Blue Gallery, in Cambridge, on June 6; at Newtonville Books, in Newton, on June 10; and at Village Books, in Roslindale, on June 18. Visit for more information. Tamara Wieder can be reached at twieder[a]

A complete archive of our weekly Q&As
Issue Date: May 16 - 22, 2003
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