A Bit of Unfinished Business

Karen Olsson & Emily Bell

In Conversation

Karen Olsson’s stirring and unusual third book, The Weil Conjectures, tells the story of the brilliant Weil siblings—Simone, a philosopher, mystic, and social activist, and André, an influential mathematician—while also recalling the years Olsson spent studying math in college. As she delves into the lives of these two singular French thinkers, she grapples with their intellectual obsessions and rekindles one of her own. Thus The Weil Conjectures—an elegant blend of biography and memoir and a meditation on the creative life. Olsson joined her editor Emily Bell in conversation at Chevalier’s Books in Los Angeles and discussed the Weil siblings’ letters, moving from fiction to nonfiction, and Saturday Night Live.

Emily Bell: I’m curious, as someone who I know primarily as a fiction writer, what was it like applying your fiction tendencies to these real-life people, Simone and André Weil? Can you talk about your research, what the primary documents looked like, how you whittled away and how you embellished?

Karen Olsson: I knew about Simone Weil starting in high school. She was somebody I read about and was fascinated by. I must have read in high school that she had a brother who was a mathematician but that didn’t really click for me until much later when I was reading math history and realized that her brother had been this really important mathematician, and I was fascinated by the existence of these two genius siblings. The first time I tried to write about either of them was when I tried to write about André as a fictional character. So in a sense there was a fictional character before there was this book, which attempts to use the fictional scene-making in service to something that is more biographical. And though I write fictional scenes in the book, they’re all based in fact. I don’t know that they have the exact conversation I write, but it’s supposed to be true to their experience.

As far as the sources, there’s a lot of biographical information about Simone. With André there’s less, but he did write a memoir about the first forty years of his life. And then his daughter wrote a memoir about being the daughter/niece of these celebrated, genius intellectual figures. These writing are where I started, but I think the book really started to come together when I discovered the letters they wrote when André was in jail—he was briefly jailed in 1940 because he tried to avoid serving in the army in France during WWII. And although Simone and André lived pretty separate lives as adults, they started corresponding then; she also visited him. They wrote these long letters to each other, and a lot of what those letters were about was math. At that point I saw into their relationship—they were siblings, so it’s a complicated relationship and it’s not that arguing about math was at the core of their relationship—but it was more important than I realized. It took all my barely remembered high school French to power through that correspondence and get a sense of that push and pull.

Bell: Where did you find the letters?

Olsson: One letter is pretty famous. Maybe first I’ll say a bit more about André and Simone since not everyone already knows who they are.

Bell: I didn’t know them at all when I acquired the book.

Olsson: André was born 1906 and Simone in 1909. He becomes a mathematician while she starts as a political essayist and over the course of her short life becomes more and more religiously inspired. She’s one of these people who is described with a lot of hyphens: political-activist, philosopher-mystic, and she was all those things. One of those letters that he wrote to her while in prison has been translated into English and it circulates around the mathematical community because it has some beautiful descriptions of the mathematical process and what it’s like to be on the brink of discovery.

I knew about that letter, but the rest of the letters—because she’s a very celebrated figure in France, and somewhat here, but less so now than the second half of the twentieth century—were put out by a French publisher. That’s where I found the rest of her letters, they weren’t hidden in an archive somewhere but did need to be ordered from French Amazon.

Bell: Did you pore over the pages? Do you consider yourself an obsessive and a completist? Or were you flipping through looking for things to ignite your own creativity?

Olsson: I don’t consider myself an obsessive and a completist. André wasn’t in jail that long, so that particular correspondence is not so voluminous. I read that exchange as closely as I could given that my French is only so-so. In general this book is more of a collage than an obsessive completist document about the two of them. I was reading in a more random and non-linear way; “I’ll read this book about math and then I’ll read that one.”

Bell: As you come in and out of the book and as you show up and recede, when did you know you were supposed to be within their story? How did you thread yourself in there and when did you feel most comfortable showing up?

I was trying to answer to myself, why am I writing this book, as I was writing the book.

Olsson: In the first draft I showed up later in the book—probably a third of the way through. That’s where I probably started to think I should be in there. I was trying to answer to myself, why am I writing this book, as I was writing the book. Well, it’s because I studied math. And since I’m a writer, when I tell people I studied math I’m often asked, why? What was that about? And I’ve never felt like I could fully answer that, even to myself. I was trying to answer that question in writing this book, and so I had to talk about my own experience. Also, I think popular books about math or science are often written from the perspective of a person who may or may not be a scientist or mathematician per se, but it’s either that or a science writer adopting a similarly knowing perspective: I know all this and I’m going to explain it to you to the best of my ability but kind of watered down. This is not my perspective in the book. It’s more, I don’t know as much as I wish I did about math but I find it really fascinating and want to talk about why.

Bell: You alluded to it earlier: at one point in the book you talk about math and Simone Weil as feeling like unfinished business for you. Things you started but didn’t finish. I’m curious if after writing this book you feel like you’ve closed that chapter or if there’s more to know.

Olsson: Yes to both. Someone contacted me from an online publication last week to see whether I wanted to write a monthly column about mathematicians in history. And I was like, gee I wish you’d called me three years ago, that was exactly what I wanted to do then, and now I don’t really want to that at all because I’ve read enough about math history for now and don’t really feel like reading tons more. But at the same time, because I was writing primarily about math and about André, and writing about Simone as an offshoot of that, I was mostly thinking about her relationship with her brother and about how much she was influenced by math. There’s a lot more to her than that. I don’t know, she’s still unfinished for me. Maybe she will just be unfinished business my whole life.

Bell: She’s endlessly fascinating and you write that as you got deeper into her work that maybe the reason you never really got into it in high school is because some of it was totally impenetrable. Not nonsense, but really out there and difficult to follow.

Olsson: She wrote this college thesis about Descartes that is very hard to follow in places. Some of her writing is very beautiful and clear and other parts I just can’t access. I think she was one of those people who just thought differently. But at the same time, one thing that is interesting to me about her is that her reasoning is very rigorous and it makes total sense that her brother was a mathematician, you can see the kinship, how logic-driven they both were. The sense of argument is there, she is ruthlessly pursuing a logic and sometimes I can follow it. Other times I can’t get from A to B.

Bell: And you sometimes trust that she knows what she’s doing, and maybe there’s a big leap but because you trust she’s so smart you’ll just follow her there.

Olsson: Or really on a different plane. On a different trajectory but one that I really admire at the same time. Having read a couple reviews from Simone-lovers that feel I didn’t do her justice made me wonder, did I do her justice? For me, one of the most moving things about her is that she believed so much in the power of absolute attention, and towards the end of her life on a mystical level. That, in our world, is hard to find. So I really admire her a lot but I do not always understand her.

I really admire her a lot but I do not always understand her.

Bell: Can you talk about her physical presence and how she moved through the world? You do such a beautiful job describing her and it feels particularly relevant to this time because she was somewhat androgynous, especially as a younger woman, and that fluidity is something people are now are talking about quite a bit. I’m curious what you think it might have been like being androgynous at the time that she was alive.

Olsson: She at one point just wanted to be a boy, and then later stopped saying that but at the same time there was a way in which she almost didn’t want to have a body. I actually didn’t read the Anne Carson essay “Decreation” until I finished writing my book, but it’s about wanting to assimilate to the divine by not having a physical body. The thing about wanting to not be a person but also be a writer is that you really can’t. There have been writers in history who have wanted to be the disembodied writer, but that’s not possible. A writer is a writer in a body. To me she embodies this paradox.

Bell: Well you are a writer with a body and you have to physically do the writing. Will you talk a bit about your process as a writer?

Olsson: My family has puritan roots and it’s sort of congenital so I do have this sense of, go to the desk and get your work done. But once I’m at the desk, plenty of times I’m not procrastinating online, but I’m not quite there, either. I clock in then procrastinate while clocked in.

Bell: There’s one moment in the book where you describe a mathematician discussing a fly that keeps flying into the windowpane over and over and over again, and even though it could get out, it keeps banging its head. But you got somewhere! Perks of banging your head!

Karen lives in Austin, TX, and I feel like all I ever hear about is how people from L.A. are moving to Austin. And it’s a book about creativity. So, I’m curious about your creative life there, what kind of community exists there, if you engage in it much, and how that’s affected the course of your writing career?

Olsson: I think one thing I’ve always liked about Austin is there’s very little industry there as far as publishing; film feels the same—so you’re not going to that party where everyone’s talking about their book deal. It feels like a good mix of other people there who are writing books or making films but aren’t talking as much about the commercial side of it.

And I’d also say that for a long time I had more journalist friends than fiction writing friends, and the attitude is different. Now I know more filmmakers through my filmmaker husband. I think I sometimes have a fear of the fiction community, but lately I’ve been making a conscious effort to get to more events and so on.

Bell: As much fun as you had writing this book, do you think you’ll return to fiction next?

Olsson: I’m struggling through a piece of fiction right now. But this book came out of a piece of fiction that just didn’t seem to have traction that had André Weil in it as a character. So, as I struggle with this current novel I’m trying to write, I’m wondering if there’s some way to jiu-jitsu this into some other form? And make it fun again.

Bell: In your last novel, All the Houses, you used the Iran-Contra affair as a structural framework for telling the story of a family and a city at a specific time. I feel like with The Weil Conjectures you use these siblings to tell your own story about math. And I’m curious about using actual timepieces and characters in real life to tell these stories, but doing it in fiction and nonfiction and how it felt different? What liberties did you feel like you had and what restrictions did those pose in the two different genres?

Olsson: It’s a complicated question in that I don’t know if I can categorize them simply as fiction and nonfiction. In All the Houses, I knew I wanted this character and this family to be involved in a political scandal in the ’80s and that I didn’t want it to be one I made up. So all roads pointed to Iran-Contra. I kind of backed into that one. This time, in a way, it’s more personal because I had had this adolescent fascination with Simone Weil and I was interested in her brother being a mathematician because I had been a math major. So they were not only these genius siblings but they represented these different parts of me that allowed me to relate to this project.

I’ve been thinking about this more abstractly since I wrote the book. Curiosity is a big part of my life and a big drive for me. Somehow, André, as the mathematician, represents the curiosity that leads one to create something. And Simone represents the impulse to sacrifice oneself. That was a big drive for her. Not as big of a drive for me, but I think these two things—intellectual curiosity and true sacrifice and generosity—are two roads to being happy in the world, besides our relationships. I think these are two major parts of human flourishing that the world often conspires against.

I think these two things—intellectual curiosity and true sacrifice and generosity—are two roads to being happy in the world.

Bell: At one point I wrote to you asking, have you ever read a self-help book? Because you kind of wrote one in a way by championing these characters and allowing for that choice of living a creative life, even if good things happen way too late or not at all. I’ve been seeing responses to your book along those lines that are very different than anything you would expect from a hybrid biography about a mathematician and his mystic sister.

Olsson: There’s something I’ve been thinking about today—digression alert. My husband and I watched some episodes from the first season of Saturday Night Live in 1975 and there’s this one skit from the second episode where this NBA player Connie Hawkins challenges Paul Simon to a game of one-on-one. And when they come out, Paul Simon has a jersey with a decimal point on it, his number is .02, and he’s being interviewed before the game, and he’s like, “Well, the Hawk has a 1-foot-4-inch height advantage and is faster and a better shooter so I just need to stick to my strengths, which are singing and songwriting.” And this has become a domestic meme; we watched this years ago but we’ll quote it all the time—“I’m just going to stick to my strengths.” I think there’s something about this that’s a metaphor for life; we’re all in a one-on-one game, and we’re trying to play this game that doesn’t reward our strengths of singing and songwriting but we still have to play to our strengths, which are singing and songwriting.

Bell: And now Karen is going to sing a song she wrote . . .

Karen Olsson is the author of the novels Waterloo and All the Houses. She has written for The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Bookforum, and Texas Monthly, among other publications, and she is also a former editor of the Texas Observer. She graduated from Harvard University with a degree in mathematics and lives in Austin, Texas, with her family.

Emily Bell is a senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and the Director of FSG Originals. She publishes Lucia Berlin, Amelia Gray, Catherine Lacey, Karen Olsson, and Laura van den Berg, among others. Prior to FSG she worked at Riverhead Books. Emily lives in Petaluma, California, with her family.