April 2009

Michele Filgate


An Interview with Samantha Hunt

Samantha Hunt’s latest novel, The Invention of Everything Else, is whimsical and romantic, daring and charming. There’s something almost Jonathan Safran Foerish about her writing, but she also manages to infuse her fiction with her own unique voice.

She came to read recently at the Portsmouth Library in Portsmouth, NH as a co-sponsored event by the bookstore I run events at, RiverRun Bookstore. We e-mailed afterwards to talk about everything from time travel to pigeons to curious chambermaids. I had first heard about Samantha Hunt while listening to her give an interview on NPR. I was immediately struck by her fascination with one of the most important inventors to ever live, Nikola Tesla. Once I picked up her book, it was like entering my own little time machine. The streets of New York City during Tesla’s later lifetime were right there before me. I could see everything with such vivid detail. Samantha Hunt leads the reader on a larger-than-life tour inside the human heart and mind. What follows is our conversation.

Your novel is a blend of historical fiction and whimsical science fiction. Do you see yourself as a writer who often plays with genre in her writing?

Yes, in fact I was surprised to find I had written a work of historical/science fiction. The boundaries of genre are an inspiration as they give a writer rules she can enjoying breaking. My first novel The Seas was originally a collection of poems and, I might be in the minority here, but I am thrilled when I hear another memoir has been exposed as a phony because I think, hooray, fiction wins again! There are truths to be found in all writing and I suppose the truth coming out of all these fake memoirs is that humans can't help themselves when it comes to telling stories.

Can you talk about what first inspired you to write about Nikola Tesla? Did you know much about him before you had the idea for the novel?

At a museum exhibit I became interested in an artwork that featured James Joyce's Cinema Volta. While I knew the name Volta, I didn't know enough about him. I made a note to look him up when I got home but somewhere on the train between museum and my apartment, I got the name confused. I looked up Tesla instead. His name was kicking around my head, probably because of the hair metal band Tesla. I was very surprised to learn that the man who brought the world both our modern electrical system and wireless technology (four years before Marconi!) had been summarily forgotten. I'd never been taught about Tesla in school. He built a motor powered by June bugs when he was eight so I knew I wanted to write about him.

And where did the idea of Louisa, the curious chambermaid, come from?

Louisa was birthed out of the concern that, at first, I was very reluctant to step into the voice of a person who had actually lived. I needed someone closer to me, someone closer to fiction. Louisa's penchant for snooping was inspired by artist's Sophie Calle's piece The Hotel. Calle got a job working as a Venice chambermaid. While the guests were out, Calle would photograph their open luggage, laundry, the contents of their bathrooms, even their trashcans. She then created a narrative about who the people were without ever having met them.

Did you find yourself really attached to Tesla's character after all the research you conducted? How much research did you leave out of the novel, and what were some of the odd facts about him that you came across?

After three or four years of research, I've become very attached to Tesla even though he still feels, at times, unknown. I left volumes of research out of the book. His life is too large for two hundred pages. Almost everything I learned about Tesla was odd. He had awful germ phobias yet he harbored pigeons in the New York City hotel rooms he called home. He even imagined that he was married to one of the birds. He had plans to photograph thought, to build a ring around the equator so that by standing still a person could travel around the Earth in one day. He was friends with Mark Twain and John Muir. He had supernatural powers of hearing.

Speaking of hearing, I'm interested that you play around with voice and point of view. The chapters from Tesla's perspective are in the first person, while Louisa's is in the third person. How did you decide on this?

Only by going back and forth from first to third, first to third. I wish Microsoft Word would make a keystroke to change a manuscript from first to third. It was interesting to work in both, to notice the benefits and limitations of these two points of view.

One of the things I was struck by while reading The Invention of Everything Else is the idea of knowledge. You write about one of the best inventors of all time; and often your characters talk about the process of learning rather than actually learning itself. It's almost like the old idea that the journey is better than the destination. Is this what you're implying with the curious chambermaid, Louisa, and the genius but eccentric Tesla?

I think it is the same way I feel about mystery. The writers I most appreciate are those who pose mysteries and admit that they are unsolvable. The world is a mysterious place and part of the joy of being alive for me is that it is unknowable. There is always more mystery, always more to learn.

I can't explain why, but maybe ever since seeing Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds I've had this gut-wrenching, terrible fear of the creatures. Yet reading your book made me fall in love with pigeons. Who would have thought? I love the idea that Tesla was really truly attached to one bird; so much so that he thought of her almost as a wife. Do you like birds yourself, and what role did you see them playing in your book?

I do love birds. I used to work at a Raptor Center and everyday people would bring injured songbirds to us, hoping we could fix them. I didn't know anything about fixing the birds but I loved being in the office. A baby kestral made his nest on top of my computer monitor. I've always kept feeders (though right now my landlady forbids it) and am surprised by the diversity of species I see here in Brooklyn. Pigeons were not a favorite of mine before Tesla opened my eyes to their beauty. Now I see them everywhere. A man down the street keeps a coop on his roof. They're gorgeous. And, I'll confess, during the writing of the book, I took many cues from my local pigeons. If after writing, I'd see one with horribly mangled feet, I'd rethink what I just wrote but if I saw a lovely flock making gorgeous circles in the sunlight, I'd think I'd done all right.

I had no idea that Thomas Edison was such a stern, almost greedy man until reading this. At one point in the novel, he tells Tesla that he'll give him a large sum of money if he makes his laboratory more efficient. Then he jokes that Tesla doesn't understand American humor when Tesla comes to collect what he has earned. Did you find yourself hating Edison as you wrote about him?

Edison was a fantastic business man. The story about him promising Tesla $50,000 if he made the lab more efficient and then not paying him when the task was done, is a true one. I didn't make that up. (I didn't really make up anything about Tesla.) At first I did feel quite a bit of rage for Edison. He seemed to me to be everything wrong with America, specifically his greed and the notion that to make the most money is to make the most good. But as I was finishing the book, I came to have a soft spot for him as well. At least he loved the spirit of invention. Edison himself was a dreamer. He had a scheme to build a megaphone for talking to dead people. It makes an appearance in The Invention of Everything Else.

What are the challenges of writing fiction that includes a real, historical character in it?

As I said above, I didn't want to make anything up about Tesla. I thought he had already been very badly maligned and forgotten. There have been awful, fantastic lies told about Tesla. One biography I purchased, claimed, in kelly green ink, that "Tesla was born onboard a spaceship traveling from Venus to Earth." The challenge for me was how to take his life and weave it into a work of fiction so that while a reader is wrapped up in story he/she would also be learning the real facts of this astonishing man's life.

Did you receive any feedback from Tesla devotees/scholars?

Yes, I did. Ninety-nine percent of the Tesla fans I've spoken with are glad I tried to bring some attention to such a forgotten man. A couple of them are some stodgy old scientists who act a bit surprised that a young woman could know anything about Tesla but really, there was only one crazy fellow who told me that he wished I and all my friends would die.

The details you include about The Hotel New Yorker in the time period are incredible. It feels like you really were there. What sort of research did you do to get the atmosphere of the hotel down to a science; including painting a picture of Tesla's hotel room?

I was very fortunate to have been given tremendous access to the Hotel. On my first visit I ended up in the office of Joe Kinney, chief engineer, unofficial historian. He has kept and collected every menu, every brochure, every blueprint and music program that ever happened at the hotel. He let me look at all of it. I was allowed to visit parts of the hotel closed to the public, some which haven't changed much since 1930 -- old ballrooms and bank vaults, sub basements and boiler rooms. I've stood on the roof thousands of feet above the street, spent the night in Tesla's room and even taken a bath in his tub.

Do you plan on including real characters in the next book you're working on?

No, I'm not working with real characters at the moment. I wanted to try something different.

Who are some of your biggest influences as a writer?

W.G. Sebald, David Mitchell, Haruki Murakami, Kelly Link, Faulkner, Breece Pancake, Anne Carson, Ali Smith, Jeanette Winterson, Suzan-Lori Parks, James Joyce, Georges Perec, David Shields. I'm afraid there's not much rhyme or reason to the list.

If you could build your own time-machine and go back in time to meet Tesla, what would you say?
I don't think I'd say much but I would want to follow him around, to hear his voice. Oddly enough, there are no recordings of the man who invented radio's voice.
If you’re interested in autographed copies of The Invention of Everything Else, you can order them at RiverRun Bookstore’s website.