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Powell's Q&A

Alan Lightman

Describe your latest project.
Alan Lightman My new novel, Ghost, explores the nature of the supernatural, the metaphysical experience, and the conflict between science and religion.

David is a person of modest ambitions who works in a bank, lives in a rooming house, enjoys books and quiet walks by the lake. Three months after unexpectedly being fired from his job, he takes a temporary position at a mortuary. And there, sitting alone in the "slumber room" one afternoon at dusk, he sees something that he cannot comprehend, something that no science can explain, something that will force him to question everything he believes in, including himself. After his metaphysical experience, all his relationships change — with his estranged wife, his girlfriend, his mother — and he grudgingly finds himself at the center of a bitter public controversy over the existence of the supernatural. As David struggles to understand what has happened to him, we embark on a provocative exploration of the delicate divide between the physical world and the spiritual world, between skepticism and faith, between the natural and the supernatural, and between science and religion.

  1. Ghost
    $7.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist


    Alan Lightman
    "Satirical and compassionate...[a] brilliantly orchestrated and gripping tale..." Booklist (Starred Review)
  2. Einstein
    $9.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    Einstein's Dreams

    Alan Lightman
    "Endlessly fascinating. A beguiling inquiry into the not-at-all theoretical, utterly time-tangled, tragic and sublime nature of human life." The Boston Globe
  3. The Diagnosis
    $5.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    The Diagnosis

    Alan Lightman
    "Original and grimly unsentimental....A major accomplishment, written in austerely beautiful prose.” The Washington Post Book World
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
The strangest job I ever had was working in a drive-in movie theater in the late 1960s. It was supposed to be a "family" movie theater, and my job was to walk between the rows of parked cars with a flashlight and identify couples having sex in the cars. When I found couples occupied in that way (instead of watching the movie), I was supposed to ask them to leave the premises.

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
I highly recommend the Italian author Dino Buzzati (1906–1972), who is little read in the U.S. His greatest book, in my opinion, is The Tartar Steppe, a mysterious short novel about a military outpost charged with guarding the frontier of an unnamed country against invasion — which never comes.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
One of my favorite passages from literature is the follwing, from Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet: "You should learn to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms, and like books written in a foreign language."

How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
The last good book I read was Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss. It ended up in my hands because I like Indian novelists, and this book had just won the Booker Prize. I had read Kiran's first novel, and I have also read the novels of her mother, Anita Desai. Both Kiran and Anita are wonderful writers, with different sensibilities.

What makes your favorite pair of shoes better than the rest?
My favorite pair of shoes are some brown wingbacks, now thirty-five years old. Every five years, when they wear out, I get them resoled instead of throwing them away. I love these shoes because they are comfortable and can be worn on almost any occasion, except going to the beach or hiking. And I bought them during a very romantic period of my life (checking up on the couples having sex in their cars at the drive-in movie theater).

What is your idea of absolute happiness?
My idea of absolute happiness is to be in a beautiful place with people I love, occupied by some creative activity.

Why do you write?
I write because I have to write. It is a necessity and a compulsion, and I have no choice in the matter. Beyond that, writing offers me creative expression and a chance to discover the deep parts of myself. Beyond that, I would like to make a difference in the world with my writing, to change the world a little.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.

I will recommend five wonderful novels that all begin with a fantastical premise and then explore the consequences of that premise. Some of these books could be put in the category of "magic realism," in which the writer distorts reality in order to see reality more clearly.

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Blindness by Jose Saramago

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

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Alan Lightman is the author of four previous novels, two collections of essays, and several books on science. His work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Granta, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and Nature, among many other publications. A theoretical physicist as well as a novelist, he has served on the faculties of Harvard and MIT, and was the first person to receive a dual faculty appointment at MIT in science and in the humanities. He lives in the Boston area.


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