When Catherine Chung’s debut, Forgotten Country, was published in 2012, she started thinking about what it means to be a smart, ambitious woman in the world. “Around the same time, this article came out in the Smithsonian magazine about five famous women in mathematics. I’d never heard of any of them,” she says. “In the histories of math and science, women are often excluded.”
Chung, 40, kept this in mind in the seven years that followed, with the experience directly informing her next book, The Tenth Muse, which is centered on a fictional mathematician named Katherine as she reflects on how she and other trailblazing genius women defied society’s expectations. Herself a recipient of a mathematics degree from UChicago, Chung spent years researching for the novel. “The more I read about these women, the more inspired I became,” she says. The Tenth Muse is engrossing, too, filled with juicy historical details (Alan Turing makes an appearance) and startling twists related to Katherine’s family life and legacy.
In a wide-ranging conversation, EW caught up with Chung about how writing The Tense Muse changed her as a person, the challenges of employing memoiristic voice, and much more. Read on below. The book is now available for purchase.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So it’s been seven years since your first novel. What about this topic grabbed you?
CATHERINE CHUNG: I had the idea when my first book came out. We were having all these conversations in publishing about what it means to have a likable female narrator, and I think all these other conversations were happening about women writers being told to smile enough. It was in the air, this idea of what it meant to be a woman who was trying to be an intellectual in the world — to have ideas that are accepted. In the middle of that moment, I thought, “I will write a book about a woman who is trying to be an intellectual in the world!” Around the same time, this article came out in the Smithsonian Magazine about five famous women in mathematics. Even though I’d studied mathematics in college, I’d never heard of any of them. I thought, “Oh, I think this is my way in.” I did research for a couple of years. The more I read about these women, the more inspired I became. I felt like it was a story that set this new standard. “You think you have it bad because you were told to smile.” [Laughs] These were stories of our ancestors, women who’d come before us, who had done all of these amazing things.”
I started writing this woman, Katherine. I learned along the way all the ways I hold back — in ways I wasn’t even aware of, and that my narrator didn’t want to, and that all these women that I had been researching didn’t. To overcome obstacles, you have to silence the critics that you’ve internalized. It was just so fun and challenging for me to inhabit the voice of a woman who is more badass than I am.
How did Katherine evolve, given that you were learning about these women and learning about yourself, really, along the way?
I knew that I wanted to write about the history of math and science, which I found extremely fascinating. Weirdly when I started, my narrator was a failed mathematician — she was a math historian. This was one of the ways that I tried to challenge myself. I think 50 pages in, I thought, “Why is she a failed mathematician? What’s going on in my mind where I’m not allowing her to have this career?” I had this immense realization that propelled basically the entire book. I had to go back to start over…. I went to this talk on black holes, and at the end of this conversation, this woman across the room — who must be around the age of my protagonist, by some stroke of luck — raised her hand, and she said, “Back in the ’60s, when I was working on this, before we called these things ‘black holes’…” and she launched into an incredibly technical question. I remember looking across the room and watching this woman ask this incredibly detailed question that incorporated her history. I met her soon after and she and I had a series of conversations in which she told me what it was like for her, as one of the only woman coming up in graduate school, and the forces that allowed her to have the career that she did. That was tremendously helpful for me, in creating the environment — what academia was like at that time for women.
You do interweave real-life historical figures into this fictional narrative. How did Katherine fit among their stories?
You’re asking, “How did I bring Katherine into these other stories?” but I actually think, for me, the project was, “How do I bring these stories into her story?” She’s always aware of them. Women or people who haven’t seen themselves in certain kinds of stories. In the histories of mathematics and science, women are often excluded. She’s constantly trying to draw links between herself and the stories that she’s telling us. This is how she navigates her life.
So this twist of Katherine’s parentage is a running thread in the book. How does this aspect of the book fit into what you’re talking about there?
Katherine tells the stories of Alan Turing and Ramanujan, too. She is searching for an intellectual lineage for herself, because it helps her ground herself in her work — to say, “I belong, these are my people, I’m telling their stories and showing how my stories lead to their stories.” The other side of that is, Katherine has never felt entirely secure in her own family. She doesn’t feel necessarily grounded in her community or her family. The search for her intellectual lineage, but also the search and acceptance of her biological lineage, are related. The twist that you referenced is in there because as I was writing the book, I was thinking that there are two ways to look at it for Katherine: Either she belongs nowhere or she belongs everywhere. The twist exists there because it was something I was trying to explore — this idea of how your perspective can change your experience of the same thing. Who she is doesn’t actually change, but her view of who she is changes, depending on what angle she’s looking at.
I was also struck by the way you employ mathematics as a novelistic tool and a dramatic tool. It has all of these elements, like mystery and complexity.
The thing that I’m interested in mathematics is the way that it gives us glimpses of the underlying structure of the universe. For me, that’s how I look at narrative. When I’m interested in stories, I’m often interested in what they show about the structures of life. How somebody’s life gets organized into a story. In mathematics, it’s how the physical world gets organized into these structures that are mathematical. I felt like both math and narrative can have a conversation going on, that I tried to illuminate or explore.
Walk me through your use of memoiristic voice, here.
I definitely changed from first [person] to third and back again more times than I care to admit. I lost count. It’s something that I struggled with. A memoiristic vision limits your vision in certain ways, but I was free from that because she’s older. She does have a sense of perspective. It’s something that I was conscious of, particularly when she’s narrating her younger years. I didn’t want it to read like she was 21, when she’s in her 70s narrating. That was the challenge of having it in first-person. I wanted her voice. She thinks in a very particular way. She has opinions that come from the life that she’s lived. I fell in love with that.
Beyond nailing her voice down, anything particularly difficult about figuring Katherine out?
Well, the math was really hard, David! [Laughs] One of the largest challenges in the books was actually trying to wrap my mind around what she was doing. It’s not as if I have become an expert in that at all, but just trying to get a sense of how she thinks about these really immense mathematical problems — it was maybe the hardest thing I needed to learn how to do because it’s how she approaches the world. She sees so differently. I see things in terms of stories, maybe, but she sees things in terms of mathematical structures. I needed to learn how she would analyze not just the things that were happening in her life, but just, what she sees when she looks at a flower, or what she sees when she looks at a leaf. Once I figured out the sorts of things that she was interested in — the ways the world organizes itself in front of her — I felt I had much more of a handle on her.
How close do you feel to Katherine, now that you have some distance from the book?
I feel quite close to her. I really like Katherine. At first, it took me a while to figure out who she was and what I understood about her — what we had in common. The more time I spent with her, the more I admired her. Knowing her the way that I do pushes me to try to be more honest and more courageous — to forge ahead in the way that she does.