Balancing Fiction and Non

Writing fiction is fun, but it’s also great to do something else for a change. Yesterday I visited Princeton, my alma mater, to attend a conference on string theory. String theory, of all things! This stuff is so mathematically complex I can’t even pretend to understand it, and luckily I don’t have to. My alumni magazine asked me to write a “casual piece” about it. I’m going to write five lighthearted paragraphs about the scientists who are struggling to understand the universe.
Actually, that’s a perfect assignment for me right now. I’m about 25,000 words into my next novel and I don’t want to get sidetracked by writing a long, serious magazine article. On the other hand, writing 500 words about the quirks of genius physicists is a welcome distraction.
And you can definitely reap some benefits from writing both fiction and journalism. I gave up my full-time job at Scientific American six years ago when I got a contract to write thrillers, but I’ve remained a contributing editor at the magazine. A couple of months ago I contributed an item to the magazine’s website about a scientist at NASA who’s trying to build a real warp-drive engine, like the one that propels the Enterprise in all the Star Trek episodes. This silly little piece got more than 8,000 “like’s” in 24 hours.
I’ve also done a bit of book editing on the side. I’m on the editorial board of Science and Fiction, a series of novels and works of literary criticism published by Springer. I get a chance to read manuscripts and make suggestions for improving them.
I don’t do these things for the money. I get only nominal fees for this work and sometimes nothing at all. No, I do it because I want to keep one foot in the world of journalism. Although I love the fantasy of fiction, I don’t want to lose touch with reality.
And you can learn some fascinating things when you hang out with geniuses. Did you know that Chinese scientists are seriously considering building a gigantic particle collider, a machine so huge it’ll dwarf Europe’s Large Hadron Collider? This is big news in the physics community.

On Monday, though, I’m going right back to the novel. I have some new ideas for the book, ideas I gleaned from the living, breathing world.  

An Introduction; and Found in the Translation

Please allow me to make an introduction. Next Saturday, September 22, as I make my way down to New Orleans for a legal seminar, movie role auditions, and a bit of urban spelunking, a gentleman named Mark Alpert will make his debut on this blog. He and I shall thereafter alternate in this space on Saturdays. Mark is one of those individuals who is the smartest person in any given room, even when he is several miles away from it. It’s a quantum physics thing, my friends. Mark is a contributing editor to a magazine that I am barely intelligent enough to read — Scientific American — and makes the incomprehensible understandable on a weekly basis. Mark has so far also published two thrillers, FINAL THEORY and its sequel, THE OMEGA THEORY. Both books deal with aspects of quantum physics, and what occurs when science and knowledge are used with evil intent. Pick them up, and prepare to lose several nights of sleep, reading and thinking and worrying.  Mark’s third novel, EXTINCTION, which deals with a hostile artificial intelligence, is on its way in February 2013. I hear good things about it already.  I am sure that in the interim Mark will keep us all educated, informed, and most of all entertained with his contributions here.
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Let me now change direction. Does the name “Stieg Larsson” mean anything to you? It probably does, particularly if you are a fan of mystery and thriller novels. After all, it was the late Mr. Larsson who penned that famous trilogy of novels, the ones about the girl with the dragon tattoo who played with fire and kicked the hornet’s nest, which renewed interest in what is variously called Nordic Noir or Scandinavian crime fiction. You might also have read a novel or two by Jo Nesbo, such as THE REDBREAST or THE SNOWMAN.  You are undoubtedly at least nominally familiar with SMILLA’S SENSE OF SNOW by Peter Hoeg, and THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. But…have you read any novels by Reg Keeland? Or Don Bartlett? What about Tiina Nunnally? How about Alan Blair?
Keeland, Bartlett, Nunnally, Blair  and many other worthies I could name are the individuals who provided you with the opportunity to read Larsson, Nesbo, Hoeg, Sjowall, Whaloo,  and…well, many other worthies I could name. It was Reg Keeland who translated The Millennium Trilogy. Don Bartlett did, and does, the honors for Jo Nesbo. Without Tiina Nunnally, Smilla would have still had a sense of snow, but you probably wouldn’t have known or cared. And Alan Blair made sure that the policeman didn’t laugh to an empty room. None of these people are household names. I think they should be. I think that they, and at least a dozen other individuals, should get some credit for what they do and for how well they do it. I submit that there is much more to translating a work of literature than simply doing a word for word interpretation; you have to…you have to taste it, and get the recipe right. Leave out the spice, add too much of this, and too little of that, and it might be bland, or watery, or inedible. Or, indeed, unreadable. Put something into Google Translate and see what I mean. I adore Google Translate, and it does a good job, but more often than not what you get has to be interpreted for context. What Kleeland and a number of others do is much more than translate Swedish or Nordic or language foreign to English; they take what would be indecipherable to most of us and make it understandable, and insure that the end result is still suspenseful, mysterious, and magical.
Every time I pick up a book by an author whose native language is other than English, I make a point of noting the translator of the work, and for a brief moment, thanking them.  And so, to those who show and share us the magic of faraway places —those I have named, and those I have not — I thank you.