The Most Frequently Asked AoK Questions, Answered
- How did you decide the right amount of Katherines?
Well, it’s totally unrealistic that Colin would have so many girlfriends, let alone girlfriends named Katherine. I wanted it to be a high enough number that it was completely impossible. (I chose 19 because it is prime—but more than 17 and less than 23.)
You eventually learn that Colin’s definition of “dating” a girl is very different from, like, anyone else’s definition, but even so, it’s a ridiculously high number.
I wanted to establish right at the outset that this was not going to be a typical realistic fiction novel, but instead something of a magically realist one. In all of my books, there are fantastical elements—I grew up reading and loving magical realism, and I think it made me unafraid of telling impossible stories as if they weren’t impossible.
With Katherines, I wanted these fantastical elements to be grounded in reality, but only just barely. (Like, it is possible if you live in the city of Chicago to date 19 girls named Katherine. It just isn’t…you know…possible.) Colin’s entire life is lived out on that edge of possibility, and what causes him so much pain is that the process of growing up is pulling him away from being oh-so-special toward being just another human.
I wanted to try to express that phenomenon in a bunch of different ways.
- Why did you choose tampon strings?
Yeah, good question.
1. This is going to sound crazy, but I spent a lot of time trying to think of something that Colin would think of as behaving like light, and after all that time thinking about it, I could never think of anything other than millions of tampon strings blowing in the wind.
2. There are—or were in 2006, anyway—still textile factories in the American South, and some of those textile factories had been reduced due to outsourcing to producing one specific product, and when I was in high school, a friend of mine explained her hometown to me by saying that every adult she’d ever known worked at a tampon string factory.
3. It seemed like a gentle and funny way to get at Colin’s massive discomfort with actual human women. Like, obviously he is obsessed with romantic relationships and being in them, but he is also majorly freaked out by the reality of girls, because he is so busy romanticizing them.
- Why does An Abundance of Katherines seem to get the least attention of your books?
It is the worst-selling of my books (by a fair bit), but the people who like it seem to REALLY like it, which is cool. Also, the new cover (designed by nerdfighter Sarah Turbin) seems to have given the book fresh life, so it may be too soon to judge.
There’s a lot at play here. I do think the fact that the book involves a lot of abstract mathematics (even though you don’t have to know anything about math to read the story) is intimidating to some people. Also, Colin isn’t a very easy person to like, especially at first. And I think for some readers the book feels more like an exercise in cleverness or somehow less emotionally grounded than my other books. (My favorite professor from college, who God bless him cannot tell a lie, said, “I liked your first book. Your second one, schticky.”)
All that noted, Katherines has still had a great life, and I’m really pleased that so many people have responded to it so generously over the years.
- Why the name ‘Katherine’?
It has nothing to do with Hank’s wife (who was not his wife at the time).
I chose the name Katherine for an extremely fancy and metaphorically complex reason: It is good for anagramming. It contains the right mix of consonants and vowels. Also, helpfully, it contains both the word “heart” and the word “tears.”
- Did you try out the formula on the relationships in your life?
Yeah, Daniel and I messed around with it a lot to make it as funny and accurate as possible. (My favorite joke is that the formula fails if the dumper/dumpee ratio is 0, as if it has never occurred to Colin that people could come into a relationship on equal dumper/dumpee footing.)
- Did you try writing Katherines in first person?
I felt like KATHERINES needed to be written in third person, because it’s about a guy whose brain does not lend itself to narratives, and who struggles to tell stories in ways that other people fond interesting.
For a while I tried to write it in first person with all these tangents and footnotes to the foot and the story never really moving forward. But it was infuriating to read, and I felt like it was already challenging enough to empathize with Colin.
My hope was that creating a little narrative distance would make it easier to understand Colin.
- Why did you decide to use footnotes?
In college, I often felt like most of the really interesting stuff in academic nonfiction was in the footnotes, because that’s where the author’s voice came through.
Also, I’d read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, which contains a lot of endnotes, and I loved them, because:
1. They can function as a kind of competing narrative that comments upon and—for lack of a better word—problematizes the central narrative.
2. Also, sometimes exceptionally intelligent people (like David Foster Wallace or Colin or E. Lockhart’s Ruby Oliver) feel this need to qualify and refine and analyze everything they say, because they feel this urge to be both understood and intellectually precise. They want to be both very clear and very accurate. Footnotes can serve as a way of attempting to achieve that precision and clarity.
But I think that at least on some levels, precision and clarity are in competition with each other.* As discussed in the novel, human memory is not in the accuracy business; it’s in the narrative business. Colin eventually starts to feel that when it comes to being understood, telling stories empathetically works best.
* Like, eventually footnotes and endnotes and footnotes-within-footnotes and so on in the ceaseless attempt to be clear in precisely what you are trying to say leads to the reader being confused and annoyed and altogether less engaged.
- Can you explain why Colin reads Seymour: An Introduction by J.D. Salinger?
Well, anybody who writes about intelligence in teenagers does so in the shadow of the extraordinary children of Salinger’s Glass family. And I wanted to acknowledge that.
Obviously, Salinger is a much better writer than I am, but I do think very differently about prodigious intelligence than Salinger did, and I hoped that Katherines would offer a different perspective on prodigies. (That said, “Seymour: An Introduction” remains one of my favorite stories.)
- Is Gutshot completely fictional?
Gutshot is a mixture of places I visited growing up. Both my mother’s parents are from small towns in Tennessee, and so the architecture and industry of those towns was pretty familiar to me.
Gutshot is most directly inspired by my grandmother’s tiny hometown of Skullbone, Tennessee, which—aside from lacking a textile mill—is geographically very similar to Skullbone.
Quick Skullbone story: Once I visited Skullbone with a girl I was dating at the time, and we stopped at the bridge that leads into town and we were just looking at the river. Suddenly a minivan pulls up and a guy gets out of the car. He’s a big guy with a thick brown beard, and he’s wearing (apparently) nothing but very dirty overalls and brand new sneakers.
Of course, I feel nervous: I’m this scrawny college kid clearly Not From Around Here, and this man has pulled to the side of the road on a bridge, and I’m worried that I’m going to have to protect my girlfriend or something, which is not exactly my specialty.
But the guy doesn’t even seem to look at us. He just goes to the back of the minivan, opens it up, pulls out a very old pair of tennis shoes, walks to the edge of the bridge, stares into the water for a moment, and tosses the shoes into the river.
Only then does he look up at us, standing maybe ten feet away from him. “I moved to Nashville 20 years ago,” he says. “Every year I come back here and toss last year’s shoes into the river, so that they can walk the country even though I can’t anymore.”
Then he gets back in the minivan and drives away.
- Why Archduke Franz Ferdinand?
Well, Colin is very interested in being historical significance and becoming renowned. (Like a lot of people, he thinks this will make him happy, and he also thinks it will make the Katherines regret dumping him.)
The Archduke Franz Ferdinand is a great example of someone who never did anything particularly historically important except dying. This struck me as interesting for Colin to think about.
Also: The Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s death led to one of the most important conflicts in human history, and yet even so, LESS THAN A CENTURY LATER, people as intelligent as Colin and Hassan don’t know where he’s actually buried. This is intended to point to how little “historical significance” really matters.
The boring and pedestrian truth is that our mattering is almost entirely wrapped up in our families and closest friends (just as the Archduke’s greatest accomplishment by far, as Lindsey Lee Wells points out, was his marriage).
- Is there any particular reason you chose to include a Muslim character?
Well, I wanted to take a Muslim character to the American South, and I wanted to write about a religious American Muslim whose life involved but was not entirely defined by religiosity.
Being part of a religious tradition is, for some people, their central identity. But for a lot of religious people, it’s an important identity among many other important identities: I am a Christian, but I’m also a father and a nerdfighter and a husband and a fan of the movie Rushmore and a passionate advocate for pizza consumption. All of these identities factor in to how I imagine myself.
Most Muslims I know have a similar relationship with their religiosity. It’s an important part of their lives, but not the only important part. But in American fiction, I saw very little of this: I mostly saw Muslim characters defined by their Muslim-ness.
So I wanted Hassan to be, you know, a regular American dude who happens to be a Muslim. And I wanted to put him in a small Southern town that most people—including Hassan—associate with intolerance because my experience has been that when people, even deeply prejudiced people, encounter and interact with those they imagine as Other, there is a mutual revelation that the Other is not so bad (or even other) after all.
- Do you have any advice for people who feel like they’re constantly chameleoning?
Lindsey’s life feels very performed and she feels this distance between how she thinks of herself and how she acts.
I can’t speak for everyone, but at least among people I’ve talked to, this feeling is damn near universal. I still feel it, actually: I feel like a total imposter as a writer and as a person, and I often feel like any minute someone will notice that I am a total phony and everyone will stop reading my books, etc.
But the process of trying to live an authentic life is complicated, as Lindsey discovers. I think you hit at something important in your question, though, by linking worry and authenticity. Colin is super-annoying in a lot of ways, but one thing he can’t help but be is himself, and that is really attractive to Lindsey.
And when you acknowledge that there is nothing repulsive or unforgivable or shameful about yourself, it becomes easier to be that authentic person and feel like you’re living a less performed life.
- Did you intend to make Colin in any way autistic?
I’m a novelist, not a doctor, so I won’t attempt to diagnose any of my characters. But I was conscious of the way people on the autistic spectrum struggle to read certain social cues, and the way their brains process and store information.
- How did Daniel Biss’ mathematical help factor into the writing process?
He wrote the formula after the first draft but before the huge revisions (more than 75% of the story was deleted) that accompanied the last year or so of the writing process.
Daniel’s math helped a lot with the writing. I needed Daniel to help me understand what variables Colin would care about most. Also, in the process of writing the formula, we came up with lots of jokes (some mathematical and some not) that ended up in the book.
It was really great fun. Mathematicians get a bad rap. All the ones I’ve met are brilliantly funny, Daniel included. (He is now, of course, not so much a mathematician as a politician.)
- Why did you decide to write a character like Colin?
So we tend to imagine love monolithically, especially when we’re talking about romantic love. There is this assumption that everyone’s experience of romantic love is identical, and that romantic love is this THING sitting out there somewhere that you eventually stumble upon (or as the saying goes, fall in to).
But in fact, romantic love is different for every person who experiences it, because all of our brains are wired differently, and this is especially the case for someone like Colin, whose brain is exceptionally good at making certain kinds of connections but not particularly good at making connections that would traditionally be seen as emotional.
I wanted to write about this, and even find a way to celebrate it, because I do not think it’s fair only to imagine romantic love as a thing. And so I wanted to write about Colin, because I wanted to argue that people like Colin can and do make emotional connections; we just aren’t defining the words emotion and love broadly enough when we talk about them.
Plus I wanted to write a story about story (I’m kind of obsessed with stories and what they do/why they matter; see also, TFiOS), and I wanted to write about a character for whom understanding the importance and nature of narrative is a matter of legitimately high stakes—so his kind of a brain was a natural fit for the theme.
- What do you think about the response to ‘what’s the point in being alive if you don’t at least try to do something remarkable’?
Well, I think it’s an appealing sentiment, and it’s particularly appealing to the Internet, where value is counted in number of followers and success is measured by retweetability.
But let me flip the sentiment around: What’s the point of being alive if you’re only trying to do remarkable things? Isn’t life ultimately less fulfilling and rich if your aim is merely notoriety or getting strangers to talk about you? We celebrate fame in our culture, but do the famous really have desirable lives?
As I’ve said a million times before, Colin says that at the beginning of the novel. By the end, he clearly doesn’t believe it—or at least his belief has been tempered by having encountered many people whose lives are rich and full even though they haven’t won a Nobel Prize.
- What’s the point in having Hassan drink and kiss a girl?
Well, if Islam forbids premarital kissing, I am unaware of it.
That said, drinking alcohol is unambiguously haram, and by having him drink, I wanted to point out that religious faith and practice exists on a continuum: Many Muslims don’t pray five times a day. Many Muslims drink alcohol. Many Jews don’t keep kosher.
These narrow definitions of religiosity don’t hold up, at least not to Hassan.
- Was there any reason why you chose the name Colin?
He’s constantly callin’ his ex-girlfriend. That’s about it.
(The word singleton means a person who is not a conjoined twin. So you and I and almost very human alive on the planet are singletons. And obviously the idea that Colin cannot be as physically/emotionally connected to other people as he wants is important to the book.)
- Can you talk about Colin’s feeling of a hole in his stomach?
I wrote all these stories in high school and college in which I called that gnawing stomach pain “the night feeling,” because for most of my life I experienced it primarily at night.
(The feeling, insofar as I can tell, is some variant of worry/fear/sadness/insecurity/etc. I still get it, although now I often feel the physical pain of sadness or anxiety in different places, especially the center of my chest, which is why you will sometimes notice me pressing my ribcage when I’m on stage or in public or talking to someone.)
So that particular observation came from my own past. But more generally when writing Katherines I was interested in how false the distinctions are between mind, spirit, and body. Constructing the mind as separate from the body can be useful at times, but it can also be really destructive, as it is for Colin.
- How did you come up with the format for An Abundance of Katherines?
The structure of the book was all about trying to deconstruct what makes a story work, what organizational tactics help a narrative make sense in the mind of one’s audience.
This is something Colin struggles with very openly, but in a way all the characters in the novel are dealing with the problem of story—or at least the problem of collecting and sharing their stories in a way that will make people listen and pay attention.
So the novel has 19 chapters for obvious reasons, but it’s interspersed with these jumbled flashbacks through which Colin is trying to organize his thoughts and feelings.
This was meant to reflect the relationship we have between chronological narrative and emotional narrative.