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NOVA ScienceNOW

Karl Iagnemma: Expert Q&A

  • Posted 10.10.06
  • NOVA scienceNOW

On October 10, 2006, Karl Iagnemma answered wide-ranging questions about his dual career as a fiction writer and roboticist and offered his encouragement to others interested in a similar path.

Karl Iagnemma

Karl Iagnemma

Karl Iagnemma is a robotocist in the mechanical engineering department at MIT as well as a fiction writer. Full Bio

Photo credit: © NOVA/WGBH Educational Foundation

Karl Iagnemma

Karl Iagnemma grew up in suburban Detroit and attended the University of Michigan, where he studied engineering and began writing fiction. He did graduate work in robotics at MIT and wrote much of his short-story collection, On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction, as a Ph.D. student. His stories have received several awards, including first place in the Playboy college fiction contest, and he's just completed a novel about an ill-fated scientific expedition to upper Michigan in the 1840s. He also works full-time as a research scientist in the mechanical engineering department at MIT, where he develops robotic systems to move through challenging environments, such as the surface of Mars.

Q: I have two questions:

Do you begin writing with a well-formed insight about the human condition you wish to communicate through your story, or do these emerge as surprises as you sit and work?

What role do story outlines have in your writing? My guess is that you might prefer to write in this sort of organized way. Don Moffatt, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Karl Iagnemma: Hi Don,

My stories often begin with a situation or character, rather than an insight about the human condition. It's always been difficult for me to write from an abstract idea, no matter how interesting or compelling I feel the idea might be. When I can hear a character's voice in my head—even if I don't know for certain who the character is, or what sort of conflict he might be engaged in—it's easy to sit down and follow the sentences wherever they lead. Also, I believe that the depth and richness of a story usually emerge during the writing process, and so if I begin with a clear idea of where the story is going, I risk rushing to the end too quickly and overlooking what the story is truly about.

The same logic explains why I don't write from an outline. I usually have a general idea of where the story is going, but I try to avoid planning in too much detail. The best endings are those that emerge only after I've thought long and hard about the various ways the story might end. Then I choose the ending that seems surprising yet somehow inevitable. If the ending is surprising to me, there's a pretty good chance it will be surprising to the reader.

Q: I find it great to know that even scientists enjoy writing fiction novels. I enjoy spending my time writing and researching new things in science. But my problem is that when it comes to my writing, I'm sometimes too lazy to write down the idea or even start on it. So here's my question, what's your secret to being disciplined? Sarah (home school junior), Florida

Iagnemma: Hi Sarah,

No secret, really, though when I was your age I wasn't very disciplined at all—the longest I could work on anything was probably about a half-hour, if I was really interested in the subject.

If I were you, I wouldn't worry too much about discipline. It's enough to keep thinking up ideas and let them roll around your brain for a while. Maybe you'll end up writing that particular story in a month, or a year, or five years. There's no hurry. The thing about stories is that they almost always find their way onto the page, even if it takes a while. In the meantime, daydreaming is one of the most productive things a young writer can do!

Q: I have a six-year-old daughter who seems to share your interests. Unfortunately, as children grow older, creativity often is discouraged. What was the one thing your parents did to encourage your diverse interests as you became older? Vera Barton, Cobourg, Ontario, Canada

Iagnemma: Hello Vera,

My parents encouraged me to be creative by being creative and interesting people themselves, and by making it clear how highly they valued creativity in others. More important, however, they never once discouraged me from trying my hand at writing or music or engineering, even if my engineering lesson involved, say, the disassembly of a new clock radio. Supporting your daughter's creative interests, in whatever forms they might take, is one of the best things you can do for her.

Q: Dr. Iagnemma, what do you find most fulfilling in being a writer as opposed to being a scientist? Crystal Rodriguez, Texas

Iagnemma: Crystal,

One of the great pleasures of fiction writing is being able to imagine my way into lives that are vastly different from my own. I've just finished a historical novel set in 19th-century Michigan, and there was something very satisfying about describing the lives of characters whose everyday existence was starkly different from my own, but whose desires and hopes and fears were not so different at all. Fiction constantly reminds us of the similarity, rather than the difference, of human beings across space and time. It's a simple but beautiful lesson, and something that engineering research simply doesn't offer.

Q: What do you give up in the end? As a scientist, writer, and father, finding a balance must be difficult. Do you feel that something has to be given up? Gabriela, Decatur, Georgia

Iagnemma: Gabriela,

I don't think anything has to be given up—however, there are only so many hours in a day! As a graduate student, I spent a lot of time writing stories. After I got married, I spent a little less time. And after my daughter was born, even less. Each time it was a matter of finding a balance that felt right at that point in my life. And what I found is that there's always enough time to do something you love, even if it's only for 15 minutes a day, or 15 minutes a week.

Q: When did you know you wanted to write, and how did you start to write fiction, by accident or by design? Becky Herbig, Vermont

Iagnemma: Hello Becky,

I've been interested in writing since I was very young, but I started taking writing seriously when I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. That was when I started revising my stories with a goal of making them better, and I first started thinking about publishing them. This was also when I started thinking about how I might structure my other interest—research—around my fiction to ensure that I'd have time for both.

So you might say that I started writing by accident, but continued by design.

Q: I enjoyed seeing you on tonight's NOVA segment, as I am a fiction writer myself with an interest in science. It seems that discipline is a key factor to success in both the literary and scientific worlds. I am curious about your take on the discipline of writing and how the structure of mathematical formulas can be applied to creating fiction. Alika Tanaka, San Francisco

Iagnemma: Hi Alika,

For me (and most of the writers I know), writing requires a pretty serious amount of discipline, mainly because writing fiction is not always fun. Having written is great—there's no better feeling then heading into work at 9 a.m. after I've already written 400 words—but writing can be frustrating, discouraging, humbling, boring, confusing, or all of these things at once. It takes discipline to return to the chair every morning, squeezing the fictional rock ever harder with the hope that a trickle will emerge.

As far as applying the structure of mathematical formulae to creating fiction—I wish I had the secret! I'm aware of the use of formulae to generate patterns in music, but good fiction is often irregular and surprising and faintly mysterious, somehow very un-mathematical. So I'm not holding out hope.

Q: Dear Karl,

I was so excited when I saw the segment about you on PBS. My son, Tom, is a sophomore at James Madison University. Because he has always been very strong in math and science, we figured he'd pursue a career in those areas. He is now a math major but has told us he wants to be a writer and will probably change his major. I've been encouraging him to strive for a marketable skill until his aspirations of being a writer come to fruition. Secretly I've worried about the likelihood of a successful career in writing. However, you are an inspiration. My question is: do you have any advice for him in picking a major?

Thank you and best wishes, Joni Moomau, Winchester, Virginia

Iagnemma: Joni,

Honestly? I would suggest that your son do a double major. I can't think of anything cooler than a dual degree in math and writing, and such a unique combination might even catch the eye of a potential employer. Best of luck to Tom!

Q: Who do you like better, Michigan or Michigan State? Michael Kama, Thousand Oaks, California

Iagnemma: Hah! Everyone who knows me knows that my favorite colors are maize and blue.

Q: My eight-year-old son Noah enjoys NOVA immensely and, after watching the segment about your career in science and writing, he went to bed talking again about being a scientist (which he has done so for the last two to three years) as well as the stories he wants to write. Science is what my son loves, and my wife and I are fortunate to have an elementary school that encourages creativity. My question is: Did your education and work in science/engineering open the door for your creative writing since such disciplines demand thought and understanding in three (and sometimes more) dimensions, or, looking back upon your life as a child growing up, do you feel the creative outlets that you were exposed to allowed you to see and understand the scientific-mechanical world not as a formidable obstacle but as an adventure worth the journey? Paul E. Michalec, Angola, New York

Iagnemma: Paul,

I think the fact that I was exposed to both engineering and writing at a young age went a long way toward shaping my current pursuits. As a child, seeing your parents enjoy a particular activity is far more powerful than simply being told to try something for yourself. I think it's wonderful that you are encouraging your son in both science and writing, and if you really want to hook Noah you should sit down a write a story with him, or build something, or (better yet) take something apart. I plan to do the same thing with my daughter in a few years, once her little hands are big enough to hold a wrench.

Q: Dear Dr. Iagnemma,

What advice would you give to a nine-year-old (like me) who wants to be a scientist and a writer?

Sincerely, Ben, Sharon, Massachusetts

Iagnemma: Dear Ben,

I would encourage you to do three things: First, take all the science classes you can in school. This will help you decide what kind of scientist you might want to become. Second, read a lot of books! Encyclopedia Brown and Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were some of my favorites when I was your age, but there are a lot of great novels out there. Third, and most important, remember that you can do whatever it is that makes you happy, even when people tell you that you can't be both a scientist and a writer.

Q: I was fascinated by your ability to take on two huge careers. What advice would you have for me as a person with a disability who wants to write? Steve Milbrandt, Kitchener, Ontario, Canada

Iagnemma: Steve,

I would encourage you to find a writing process that makes you comfortable, then tell the stories that are important to you. The best stories come from a deeply personal point of view, and they read as if they could not have been written by anyone other than the person who wrote them. If you have ideas and characters that you want to bring to life, you should try as hard as you can to do so, remembering that writing is never easy but that with enough patience and effort your stories will emerge on the page.

Q: Do you think robots that look like us and act like us will be part of our lives in the near future (25 years)? If so, in what capacity? J. Pumphrey, Brevard, North Carolina

Iagnemma: J.,

I think it's a strong possibility. There are many research groups around the world currently developing humanoid robots, and the sophistication of the tasks these robots are able to perform in well-structured scenarios is quite remarkable. However, these robots are extremely expensive, limited-production prototypes.

Within the next 25 years I can imagine a large company taking a plunge on mass-producing a reasonably priced humanoid robot to function in the service or health-care sector, both for novelty's sake and to reduce employment costs of trained professionals. If such an event did take place it would almost certainly occur first in Japan, then eventually migrate to the U.S. (The Japanese are the world leaders in humanoid robot development, and their culture is also a bit more technology-friendly than we are in the U.S.)

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