Gabriel Reads: What got you interested in writing a book about absolute zero?
Christopher Meeks: Absolute zero was the furthest from my mind when I started this. I wanted to write about a professor who was clueless in love and ended up in Denmark. It’s Denmark because I know that country and because being in a foreign country offers an extreme view of not understanding language and people. I wanted to write a duck-out-of-water romantic comedy—not a novel with science necessarily. To push this to an extreme, Gunnar could not be a traveler and also something bad had to happen to him in a relationship. I decided he’d meet a Dane in Wisconsin, which has a large Scandinavian population.
For an American to work in Denmark means he could not take a job away from a European (because Denmark is in the European Union). Denmark happens to be top in physics. I’d met a lot of American physicists when I lived in that country during my junior year abroad.
Thus, Gunnar needed to be a physicist. If engineering in new strains of corn would have been better, then Gunnar would have been a genetic engineer.
Originally, Gunnar was going to be a nuclear physicist because in the eighties I had a tour of a nuclear facility in Roskilde, just west of Copenhagen. A former neighbor was a nuclear physicist, and on the tour, he explained passionately what he was looking for when he was smashing atoms. However, Denmark banned all nuclear facilities in the country in the late eighties, so I had to make him a different kind of physicist.
But what kind? I didn’t know. In 2004, I ended up talking with Nils O. Andersen, who was the director of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. He told me that a lot of Danish physicists were focusing on the ultracold.
I loved researching the ultracold. In fact, there’s an amazing Nova episode called The Race for Absolute Zero. You can see it on the Internet. Click here. The more I researched, the more I realized that what happens to atoms near absolute zero is a metaphor for love. I can’t explain it in a few sentences, but the reader will get a sense of the whole thing in reading the novel. The science and the symbolism slips down the throat as easily as a cherry soda.
GR: What made you decide to start the novel in the middle and then flash back?
CM: I love books that drive the reader to want to find out something. In this case, I thought what if Gunnar looks to be near death at the beginning? The reader would want to know more. It also set up his problem with women, one that he had to surmount if he was to get ahead in life romantically.
GR: Is Gunnar more of an "everyman" or is he based on someone you know?
CM: I tend not to write about powerful people—no presidents, CEOs, queens, or princes. The “everyman” interests me, but one can’t just come up with a generic person. I write from people I know. My wife worked at Caltech in Pasadena, so I met a lot of brilliant scientists, some of whom seemed shy to me. I used to be shy, too. Because I teach, I could empathize with how Gunnar taught (which is the way I’d teach science). In short, Gunnar is an amalgam of people, which also includes me.
GR: What did you do in order to research this novel? Did you actually go to labs, speed-dates, Denmark, and more?
CM: Yes, I ended up going to labs at Caltech and at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I didn’t know Madison very much, so after a few drafts of the novel, I flew there from Los Angeles and went to every place I’d found for the novel. I had a tour of my own novel. If this book were to get popular, someone could put together a tour of the places in the book. I even spent a lot of time searching for a real house next to a corn field where Gunnar would live.
Every place is real, and going there improved the book. Some things that looked a certain way on the Internet were different in person. I realized afterwards that for my next book, why not choose Los Angeles where I live so that I wouldn’t have to spend to much money to check on the details? I’m writing a mystery that takes place in L.A.
As for the speed-dating, my cousin Elisabeth was trying out speed-dating at the time in Denver, and I could just imagine how it would be. Her stories were funny.
With Denmark, I’d lived there and went to school at the University of Copenhagen at one time, but also I traveled to Denmark in 2001 with my mother just for fun and to visit the family I’d once lived with. Elisabeth was teaching on a Fulbright in Finland, so she came down, too. Seeing Denmark again must have moved something in me to want to use it in a novel.
GR: Which of the speed-date girls was the most fun for you to create and why?
CM: While Svetlana, his student, wasn’t one of the speed-date girls per se, she was there at one of the events. I had fun with her because she oozed sexuality and was young and outgoing—everything that both attracts and scares Gunnar. He has his high standards for how he interacts with students, and she pushes the boundaries. Because she’s Russian, she also foreshadows his involvement with a foreign woman.
As for the other women, I just wanted them different from each other, and I wanted to play with miscommunication. I wanted them funny to the point that they made me laugh. Who says writing can’t be fun?
GR: The Gunderson family dynamic is quite interesting. How do you feel it shaped Gunnar and his naiveté?
CM: My own mother was a character, even if she didn’t see it, and I borrowed from her—my mother pushed to an extreme. Creating Gunnar’s mother was simply fun. I laughed every time something wild came out of her mouth. I’m not sure where Gunnar’s sister came from because I was the oldest of four boys. However, I could picture Patty vividly.
Ever see Punch Drunk Love with Adam Sandler, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson? Sandler’s character, Barry Egan, is a perfect example of someone shaped by a powerful family dynamic, and I knew Gunnar’s family—and the loss of his father when he was a teenager—helped shape Gunnar. Showing that dynamic in the present was both challenging and a delight.
GR: What's one thing you know about the character of Ursula that isn't revealed in the novel?
CM: Another stop on this tour was an interview with the character of Ursula, and I had fun being in Ursula’s POV. What I knew, and what was clear to me but is only suggested in the book’s subtext, is that when Ursula and Gunnar meet at the Muni in Fond du Lac early in the novel, she’s deeply attracted to him and is watching him at the bar with the two coeds. Gunnar doesn’t know how attracted Ursula is to him then—everything is a mystery to him—but there’s a powerful attraction by both of them. Her needing to leave is a defense mechanism. Think of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The same misunderstandings of the 19th century happen in the twenty-first.
Thanks to Christopher Meeks and Teddy Rose for this opportunity!