Q&A: Reif Larsen, author of
THE SELECTED WORKS OF T.S. SPIVET
An online exclusive interview
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
By Eugenia Williamson
Reif Larsen’s debut novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, concerns a cartographic prodigy who ventures alone from Montana to Washington, D.C. to assume his post as a fellow at the Smithsonian Institute.
Larsen’s own story is only a little different. At 29, he’s quite young for a successful novelist. And as anyone who has read anything literature-related in the last calendar year knows, he received a startlingly large, Vanity Fair profile-inducing book deal.
We spoke with him at his parents’ kitchen table in the middle of his nation-wide book tour earlier this summer.
Stop Smiling: You’ve said you don’t like the word “genius.” Why is that?
Reif Larsen: It’s a whitewashed term. It’s an adult word. It’s loaded with connotations – oh this kid’s a genius. He must be able to do everything. Mozart? Genius. Beethoven? Genius. We have an ongoing love affair with the child prodigy – we love and hate them. Why couldn’t we have been a genius? What makes a genius? My child is a genius and therefore he can read this book.
There’s an assumption on the adult’s part that geniuses have large brains and can do anything – there’s that scene in the book where the scientist is scanning T.S.’s brain and she’s asking him to perform this really difficult math problem and he cries and says he hasn’t taken algebra.
T.S. is very much a kid. He just happens to be able to visualize and enact the elaborate symbol system that adults have set up around themselves.
SS: People seem very eager to turn your book into a children’s novel. Why do you think this is?
RL: Penguin is targeting it for young adults now. At the Harvard Bookstore reading, an 11 year old came up to me and said, “I read the whole book. I love it. Can you sign it for me?” People tell me they’re buying three for their grandchildren. If this book does one thing to get a kid interested in science, that’s great. Their experience is obviously going to be quite different than an adult’s – there are some f-bombs in there, death, child abuse. But my theory is that the book is set up how a kid’s brain works. The marginalia is actually how kids think now, so it makes total sense to them.
I’m glad they didn’t market it as a young adult book originally. I read Anna Karenina when I was way too young, and I was like, “What happened to her?” But those are the books that change you and push you. Like Vygotsky, the child psychologist and cognitive scientist said, there’s that zone of proximal development that’s just beyond the reaches of where you could go yourself. One of the roles of a teacher is to push the kids into that zone. If this book nudges a kid towards that, that’s great.
SS: What was it like to write about someone in a generation much younger than yours?
RL: T.S. is not of that generation. I think T.S. is a little bit timeless.
I think I cheated a little bit. If you look at his favorite movies, they’re 80s movies. There’s a time shift there – he’s a 12-year-old 30 year old. That came from me, intentionally or unintentionally, this backward-looking nature.
I always have to move an experience over three notches before I can use it. I can’t write stuff that gets too close to my own experience, and yet the roots of everything in this book have come from something that I’ve seen or experienced. Authors who write thinly veiled autobiographical fiction have more of a one-to-one correspondence.
SS: I think there’s been a bit of a backlash lately against young writers of thinly veiled autobiographical fiction.
RL: I didn’t want to write a book about sad writers. That’s just not what I do well. I don’t know where I come from, but I like telling stories. I like picking and choosing from the fantastical landscape and dropping it into my work.
I took a class at Columbia about the literature of fantastic with Myla Goldberg, and we looked at all sorts of books that use one element that was off, that was supernatural. It was really interesting to see how writers have tackled the use of the strange – like Amy Hempel.
In a way, it’s kind of annoying. I feel like there are so many stories where a guy wakes up and he has wings. What happens with his girlfriend? His skin is falling off! That seems more like a thought experiment in some ways.
But some of those stories are really good. I do like the idea of setting up a world with all these rules, then just plucking one string out or adding one element and seeing how the things change. It’s cool to do that on the much larger palette of a novel.