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"Writing is not hard. Just get paper and pencil, sit down and write it as it occurs to you. The writing is easy —it's the occurring that's hard."
- Stephen Leacock
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A Young Girl Reading

Finding Emilie : Q & As

WHO IS EMILIE DU CHÂTELET AND HOW DID YOU BECOME INTERESTED IN HER?

I’m a professor of humanities at San Diego City College, and every one of my novels has come about as a result of having my ears perk up at the mention of forgotten or marginalized women in the past.  I first ran across her name because she was Voltaire’s lover but she was never more than a footnote in the discussion.

 I’ve always had the impression that noblewomen who were lovers to great men were a starchy lot in their wigs and corsets, so I wasn’t interested in knowing more about her until a book and DVD came out about Einstein’s theory of relativity, in which the author, David Bodanis, credits her as one of the champions of the idea of kinetic energy. The idea that energy is really mass times velocity squared, not just multiplied was quite controversial at the time, because many scientists saw the idea of hidden forces as a remnant of medieval thinking.

It didn’t take me long to discover that Emilie’s personal story and her scientific achievement are both quite amazing. She was an intellect of the highest caliber from a very young age, fluent in a number of languages, and so fascinated by science and math that she used some of her patrimony to hire the best mathematicians and scientists in France to teach her privately.  She was also a very sensual creature, and if the tutor was attractive, it appears from time to time there may have been a bonus to the sessions.

Despite her obligations as a noblewoman, she rebelled as best she could against social constraints, believing that the only way to be truly happy was to know who you are and act accordingly. The idea of being your own best friend came naturally to her. She was a voracious reader (she and Voltaire amassed a library that was bigger than in many universities at the time). a gambler, a cross-dresser when she needed to go places only men could go. Probably the single greatest emblem of her individuality was her drawing room at the chateau she shared with Voltaire.  It had the usual couches, chairs, and tables, but set in the middle was a bathtub, so Emilie could enjoy a good soak without benefit of more than a chemise, while she and her friends enjoyed great conversation.

BUT SHE WAS MORE THAN A PAMPERED, RICH ARISTOCRAT. HOW DOES SCIENCE FIT INTO HER STORY?

It’s important to note that while she was living this rather self-indulgent life, she was also writing a book called The Elements of Physics, in which she tried to reduce everything about the physical world to a few basic principles, as well as writing a treatise on the nature of light and heat.  But her most important project was her translation of Newton’s Principia, which includes the laws of motion and is one of the most important works of science.  But to call it a translation is an understatement.

 Newton was obsessed with getting credit for his ideas, but not equally obsessed with anyone actually understanding them. The Principia in the original Latin is apparent quite obtuse and he didn’t supply adequate mathematical proofs for his ideas. Emilie was one of the few people who truly understood Newton, and she didn’t translate the Principia from Latin into French so much as rewrite it so others could understand.  And she went further, supplying mathematical proofs that she figured out for herself from his conclusions.    

Six days after giving birth to a little girl, the result of a torrid affair with an army officer at age forty-three, she put the sealing wax on these mathematical proofs to mail them to the Academy of Science in Paris. A few hours later, she put her hand to her head and said, “I don’t feel well.”  That night she died, probably of an embolism.  Her work was forgotten for ten years and then finally published. It is still the translation used today in France to teach the Principia.

THE DAUGHTER SHE DIED GIVING BIRTH TO, NOT EMILIE HERSELF, IS THE MAIN CHARACTER IN THE NOVEL. TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT THE WORLD LILI LIVES IN, AND WHAT HER REACTIONS ARE TO IT.

I felt very strongly that readers needed to know about this incredible woman, but I didn’t think she could be the main character for two reasons. First, I knew readers would love Emilie as much as I do, and I just didn’t want to write such a sad ending. Second, there are two fabulous and readily available biographies of her—one by David Bodanis and the other by Judith Zinssner—and I thought people already had two great choices of books to read if they wanted to learn about her.

What I came up with was the idea of having the story be about the daughter she left behind. Emile was considered so scandalous and so frightening in her intelligence and accomplishment that she was essentially shoved aside after she died. The women who ran the salons of Paris ridiculed her, probably from envy and a certain viciousness about nonconformity, and men of science tried to minimize the importance of her work.

The scandal of living with Voltaire and then having a baby out of wedlock by yet another man made her a pariah after her death, so I wondered what the life of a little girl born into that situation would have been be like. I imagined a life in which information about her mother is kept from her, while she grows up very much like her in many ways, wondering why she doesn’t fit in and can’t be satisfied with the future others have in mind for her.

Since the reader wasn’t likely to know any more about Emilie than I did, I knew that I had to build in Emilie’s story so that what happens to Lili could be seen in its proper context. All the scenes about Emilie interspersed in the book are based on fact, and my goal was to have Lili’s and Emilie’s stories be on an intersecting trajectory, so that just when Lili is beginning to feel desperate about her own future, she learns what the reader already knows about her mother, and this gives her the insight and strength to shape her own life.

WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER MAIN CHARACTERS? ARE THEIR ANSWERS DIFFERENT TO THE CHALLENGES OF THE COMPLEX FRENCH SOCIETY OF THE TIME?

Delphine and Lili grow up like sisters, and the bond is deep although Delphine represents the mindset that could accept things as they are and learn to play the game. She’s no great intellect, although I think she is sweet to the core, and I had so much fun writing her! Julie de Bercy, Delphine’s natural mother and Lili’s surrogate mother, represents a society on the edge of breaking loose from the corseted world of pre-Revolution France and embracing the romanticism and free thinking of Rousseau and others. She also represents another way for women to be a larger part of society. Even if she can’t make a contribution herself, she can run a salon, and she can use her considerable charm to promote a better society that way. Her foil is the rigid and old fashioned Baronne Lomont, who thinks in all sincerity that she is acting in Lili’s best interests by training her to be pious and docile and to accept her role as a wife and mother. I imagine in real life these conflicting ideas were as passionately and aggressively held as they are in my novel.

AND OF COURSE THE OTHER KEY CHARACTER IS VOLTAIRE HIMSELF. HOW TRUE TO THE FACTS IS YOUR DEPICTION OF HIM?

As an author I feel a great responsibility to the facts, while at the same time I write fiction because I really don’t want to be bound to them. There is a lot of opportunity to be creative in nonfiction, but one has to keep imagination and inventiveness in check, and I discovered in writing my first trade book (the nonfiction Holocaust story (Until Our Last Breath) that those limitations undermined what I consider my strengths as a writer.

At the same time, I think historical novelists would do well to bear in mind that one of the things that appeals to readers about the genre is the chance to learn facts in the enjoyable context of a good story. Lack of faithfulness to the facts, like poor research, will squander the audience’s faith in our books as “smart reads.”

My approach with Voltaire, and with all biographical characters in all my novels, is not to say anything I know to be untrue. Voltaire was, for example, always in trouble with the censors and Emilie did have to go to great lengths to protect or rescue him. Voltaire always had trouble with his teeth and eventually lost them all. He was a flaming hypochondriac and extraordinarily self-centered and self-promoting, sometimes at Emilie’s expense. He lived at Ferney in much the manner I described, and he is revered today for buying the whole town outright and bringing it out of squalor by providing the capital for cottage industries. He and Emilie were lovers until he became convinced his penis was not up to the task, after which they settled into being constant companions and often quarrelsome friends. One of my favorite scenes in the book is when a carriage axle breaks on a winter night and Emilie and Voltaire wait for help to arrive while lying in a cocoon of rugs and furs, looking up at a clear night sky and talking about the stars. That is taken from Voltaire’s manservant’s memoirs just as I present it, embellished only to imagine what they might have done and said.

IS THIS MIX OF FACTS AND INVENTIVENESS WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO HISTORICAL FICTION?

Absolutely. I am equally a humanities professor and a writer, and this is a wonderful way to be both. I take facts and use my imagination to tell the rest of the story. I think sometimes people get too wrapped up in thinking that only things that can be documented should be treated as true, but how do we tell the truth when the facts aren’t known? If we don’t have any facts about what a famous person ate for breakfast, or where and at what time, is the story of that person better served by making some assumptions or by leaving out breakfast altogether? So yes, I would say I have found the perfect means to teach and create by writing novels.

Lili tries her hand at writing and some of the stories she writes are in the book. Why did you feel this was important to include?

I got about forty pages into writing the book and I realized that the story was rather gloomy and would continue to be that way to a significant degree. Because writing a novel takes such a huge investment of time and effort, novelists keep going by shaping books to what their own temperaments require. I’m an optimistic and happy person, and I want readers to know that they can count on a book from me to be serious and realistic but with characters that sparkle and refuse to be blunted, so that the tone remains upbeat throughout.

The plucky little girl Lili invents, Meadowlark, has adventures that are half fairy tale, half science fiction, and they are written with the voice of the person Lili is at the time, from naïve little girl to intelligent young woman working out her own fears and criticism of her society, much as Swift was doing at roughly the same time with Gulliver’s Travels and Voltaire with Candide. In this way I introduced humor and lightheartedness into the novel at times when the story provided very little opportunity for it.

FINDING EMILIE HAS MANY DISPARATE ELEMENTS—THE VIGNETTES ABOUT EMILIE DU CHATELET, THE MEADOWLARK STORIES, AND A NARRATIVE THAT FOLLOWS TWO MAIN CHARACTERS AND INCORPORATES MANY OTHERS, FICTIONAL AND REAL. HOW IS IT ALL HELD TOGETHER? IS THERE A MESSAGE OR A THEME THAT SERVES AS A THROUGH-LINE?

The key themes in all my fiction are the narrow range of choices for women throughout most of history, but how it is possible, even within these narrow opportunities to make choices. I believe that our choices define who we are as people, and that self-knowledge both drives these choices and is a result of reflection on them afterwards. The key focus in all my fiction is characters who, for the most part, are healthy and strong in mind and spirit. I’ll leave it to others to write books about dysfunctional relationships. I am more interested in how people thrive, and how they build good, abiding relationships with each other.

Conflict in my books comes from the fact that the odds are stacked against the characters, that they must fight against limited expectations and counterproductive societies. That’s how I see the world—as a place where we need to create havens both within ourselves and in the healthy communities we create with others, and where we strive to make meaningful and positive contributions to the world on our own terms.

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