The Invisible Story Beneath the Story: A Conversation with Catherine Chung

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To read Catherine Chung is to live inside her worlds. With language that stuns as it captivates, her characters steal the heart. This was the unique magic of her debut novel, Forgotten Country, and I found myself equally spellbound by The Tenth Muse. Though vastly different, both novels cross continents in their search for identity and family, in their pursuit to uncover truth from secrets told.

Set in the years after World War II, Katherine is a brilliant mathematician in a man’s world. As she looks back on her life, we learn how ambition and genius drove her toward the storied Riemann hypothesis, which in turn unlocked clues about her own origins. The deeper we get into her story, the more slippery it becomes. Nothing is what it seems. Her parents aren’t who she thinks. Whenever we think we are on solid ground, Chung masterfully subverts our expectations, and it is this constant movement, a courageous unfolding of narrative and structure that braids myth and fairytale and the stories we tell ourselves in a quest that’s endlessly thrilling.

An exquisite story of legacy, selfhood, survival, and integrity—a story that poses the central question of how to live a life on your own terms despite terrific constraints—The Tenth Muse is an inspiring tour de force of STEAM proportions: a riveting intersection of mathematics and art.

Chung is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and a Director’s Visitorship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. She was a Granta New Voice, and won an Honorable Mention for the PEN/Hemingway Award with Forgotten Country. She has a degree in mathematics from the University of Chicago, and worked at a think tank in Santa Monica before earning her MFA from Cornell University. She is a fiction editor at Guernica Magazine.

[Don’t miss a special Rumpus signed book giveaway of The Tenth Muse, available through June 30! Details here. – Ed.]

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The Rumpus: The Tenth Muse is ambitious and transporting and boundlessly generous in its telling—not only is the plot immersive, but I learned so much, and also felt an actual physical expansion of my heart, which only the very best novels can do. Where did it all start?

Catherine Chung: For various reasons I’d been interested in exploring how and why we so often find intellect off-putting in women, and how as a society we tamp that down. In the midst of thinking about this, and reading accounts of it and why it happens, and growing ever grumpier—I randomly happened upon an article listing the five most influential women mathematicians in history. Their stories were incredible: what they did to study math back in the day when some of them weren’t even allowed to go to universities astonished and inspired me. They posed as schoolboys, they taught themselves languages to read textbooks in Greek and Latin, they stole their brother’s books, they risked their health, they moved across countries, they ignored or leapt over so many obstacles that seem to me insurmountable. They were exceptional and brilliant and made real lasting contributions to their fields, but what stood out to me was the nerve and commitment it took, the perseverance and faith in what they could make with their own minds before they had achieved any success, or had any reason to believe that they would.

I’ve joked on occasion that my book was born out of a grumpy moment, but the truth is that it was actually born out of the moment that led me out of the grumpiness, when I read about these women who’d lived through times that were far more restrictive toward these women who’d strived for and accomplished so much despite those restrictions.

Rumpus: You’ve done a tremendous job juggling a layered structure that incorporates fairytale and myth, that calls upon memory and limits of memory to patch together backstory, that uses retrospection in order to present a full picture. Your narrator, Katherine, opens by saying: “I suppose I should warn you, that I tell a story like a woman: looping into myself, interrupting. Things have never seemed straightforward to me, the path has never been clear.”  How did you arrive at this woven, interloping structure?

Chung: I think we were all taught the same classical plot structure in high school with the illustration of a hill that drops off into a cliff at the end—that a story is a quest in which a character is presented with an obstacle to what he desires, and then the story builds with each obstacle until we reach the climax and he either prevails or he doesn’t. Well, ages ago in graduate school, someone told me there’s another theory that says basically that that is an extremely gendered/male way of thinking of story and narrative. And that stayed with me and struck me as really true, and so ever since I’ve always wanted to play with that idea somehow, and see if I could organize the life story of a woman in the way the women I know seem to organize the narratives of their own lives. Not everyone’s life gets to follow a straight trajectory that isn’t in conflict with the narrative and historical conventions it’s located in. So I started thinking about how my girlfriends and I talk to one another, how we tell each other stories, interrupting and drawing connections and going on long tangents, and I really wanted to try to write my narrator’s story that way, the way she would tell it to a friend.

I also thought a lot about how to write in a way that isn’t only from the Western Judeo-Christian tradition because I had noticed that the stories I was told by my Korean Buddhist parents were also markedly not of that other mold. That was more challenging to think through somehow, maybe because I write in English, and there is the way that languages inform and shape the stories they’re telling—but that was something I wanted to engage with and want to engage with more in the future. For the purposes of The Tenth Muse, I wanted to address structurally the idea that there is the story we’re telling in the moment, and then the invisible story running beneath that story, exerting its own gravity. So yes, this idea of a layered structure is always on my mind when I’m writing, in part because I’m aware that I have a layered consciousness.

Rumpus: I am struck by the scope of research that went into this project. Your hero is invented, but there are a number of cameos by actual academic figures, and of course, the historical backdrop. How were you able to balance the research demands against your imagined landscape?

Chung: Oh my god, the research. I don’t think I tried to balance anything, so much as stay afloat! What was hard was I didn’t know anything when I began—not even what I was looking for! So I kept trying to write and then having to stop, but eventually I figured out where the things I was looking for would be, and trusted I’d recognize them when I found them. I went to Germany and visited Göttingen, Nuremberg, Leipzig, and Berlin, visiting various universities, museums, historical sites, and libraries. I met people, especially at the universities and libraries, who were generous with their time, who let me handle letters and manuscripts, took me on tours, and told me stories I would never have otherwise known. I was so lucky, and am so grateful. Then I spent a couple semesters at The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton poring over their archives. I read biographies and histories and looked at photographs and math blogs and talked to mathematicians and physicists. I met an amazing archivist named Erica Mosner who was a game-changer, and the mathematician Karen Uhlenbeck without whose help I don’t know what I would have done. All this to say, I definitely got submerged in the research for a while and just lost the book entirely during that time. I couldn’t hold onto both. But then at some point I had to let all the research go as well, just cast away everything I’d gathered so that I could take up the thread of the story again. And at that point what was left—the artifacts of that research—what I remembered, what I knew—made it into the book, and helped create the imagined landscape and also what happened and who the characters were.

Rumpus: You were a math major in college and you also have an MFA. It feels like a perfect marriage that you were able to devote your prodigious talent to bringing to life this story of a female mathematician on a quest to solve the Riemann hypothesis. Did you always know you wanted to combine these passions?

Chung: Not as such, but you know how writers use everything available to us! The truth is, I’m not sure I would have been able to write this book if I hadn’t been given a Director’s Visitorship at the Institute for Advanced Study to do research, and if I hadn’t met and befriended the great mathematician Karen Uhlenbeck there, who a couple months ago became the first woman to win the Abel Prize. One of my first days at IAS I attended a lecture on black holes and at the end of a talk a woman on the other side of the room raised her hand and asked a question that began something like, “When I was working on these kinds of geometric spaces in the 1960s, before of course black holes were even called black holes” and my head just snapped to attention. I knew I was in the right place at the right time and that I had to meet that woman, who turned out to be Karen Uhlenbeck.

She was the one who told me Katherine should work on the Riemann hypothesis, and she was spectacularly generous with me. She told me many stories, but really what was even more important than that I think was just that she existed, that she was real. Very quickly it became quite clear to me that I hadn’t been ambitious enough for my protagonist. What I found both frustrating and fascinating as I was writing the book was how even though my intent was always to write about a brilliant woman, my initial impulse was to tone down her intellect—to make her a failed mathematician—and I had to actively fight that impulse, and to also actively grow my imagination for her. Why couldn’t she tell her own story? Why couldn’t she be successful at the highest levels? After I met Karen, my ambitions for my protagonist grew measurably, and I understood how much I’d been limiting what was possible for her in life just subconsciously, without meaning to, and that became a central question to explore in the book—what we allow women, and also what women allow themselves.

Rumpus: It’s striking how your seemingly divergent gifts play off one another. As I was reading, I kept running to share all your delicious shortcuts and equations with my son, who is a math head, and eats that up. I love how your book demands that level of participation. I’m also curious: were these patterns you’d known as a child? Growing up, did you identify more strongly with your math self or writing self?

Chung: Growing up I always wanted to be a writer and only a writer from a very young age. I did take math at a somewhat accelerated pace, but once I’d finished AP Calculus I remember proclaiming I was “done” and not going to the nearby university to take more math classes. I guess I tried to make it seem like I’d done the math quickly to get it over with so I could wash my hands of it, and I’m surprised and a little regretful in retrospect, to realize I felt I needed to perform a dislike of mathematics in a way that was at least partly gendered. At the same time, it’s also true that I was not terribly interested in math the way it was taught to me when I was in high school, and I was glad to be done with it. As a young kid I really enjoyed learning about pattern making and tessellations and things like the Fibonacci number series and the golden ratio and things like that, but I’ve always hated busy work and still do, and by middle school it all seemed to be about plugging and chugging formulas, which was just never going to hold my attention.

Now, I think it’s a shame that so many of us are taught math in a way that doesn’t give us the smallest glimpse of the beauty and elegance of mathematics, since in my experience, that’s the part that most mathematicians love best. In any case, I guess I was lucky in that if literature was my one true love, mathematics was my father’s. Almost all the math stories and shortcuts and equations in the book are things my father told me or taught me when I was growing up, and all the love and admiration I have for the language and beauty of mathematics comes initially from him. But he was always impatient with the math I was learning in high school and dissatisfied with my textbooks. He’d look at my homework and say things like, “But can you tell me why any of this works? If you can’t, what’s the point? You’re just mindlessly doing as you’re told without understanding why.” I was often impatient in return; the last thing I wanted to be doing with my free time was deriving everything from scratch when it wasn’t part of the assignment (and five hundred times harder), but when I went to college that’s what we had to do, and I discovered my father was right, and that while it was way more work, it was also way more fun and rewarding.

Studying mathematics in college definitely taught me the discipline I needed to become a novelist: it made me learn to slow down and take the time to hold something in my mind for a long time until I understood it. I’d fall asleep thinking about a proof and wake up to it, and it’d be in the back of my mind all the time as I chipped away at it until I figured it out. That’s largely my process when working on a novel, except that my novels have thus far taken me years to complete. The other thing math demanded of me that’s carried over into writing was a certain amount of self-knowledge and honesty. If I didn’t know an answer and tried to sort of fudge my way through, my teachers would write “Nonsense” over my paper. It was my favorite thing. And I learned to appreciate a certain type of elegance: when mathematicians say a proof is beautiful, what they mean is it’s both profound and simply expressed.

Rumpus: Despite its post-war setting, your novel feels remarkably timely. On the one hand, it’s kind of depressing that lines like: ”I couldn’t help but wonder why so many intelligent men aren’t more embarrassed to speak on topics they know nothing about” resonate like they do. (I SCREAMED.) And “what beautiful places men have built for each other with the intention of keeping women out” feels infuriatingly true, too.

Chung: That first line was so fun to write because really, why aren’t they?! And as to the second line, yes, it’s really bracing to remember so many of our hallowed institutions of higher learning, and government, and even certain towns were initially built to keep women or other minorities out. I mean, the late 1960s are not so long ago—it shocked me to discover the Ivies didn’t let women in until then. And while it’s important to acknowledge and celebrate all of the gains we’ve made since then, it’s simultaneously quite sobering to think of how far we still have to go.

One of the historical figures I was most fascinated by in my research was a German Jewish mathematician named Emmy Noether, who’d been championed by Einstein and Hilbert and had done far-reaching important math that undergirded Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, but whose career sparked protest everywhere she went. She actually ended up briefly at the Institute for Advanced Study and then at Bryn Mawr when she was fired from her position in Germany for being Jewish.

The more I read about Noether, the more I was absolutely struck by the similarities between her lifetime leading up to WWII and ours—theirs was also a time of breathtaking advances in science and technology (and social advances—that’s when women were first allowed to go to universities) pitted against an anti-intellectual and socially restrictive backlash. There was also, chillingly, the rise of xenophobia and the persecution of Jews and other “outsiders,” and ultimately of course the rise of Nazism and fascism and a devastating war. I felt there was a warning in that history for us in the present day, and also hope in that we came out of that time though at a terrible cost. Ultimately, I wanted to explore the legacy of that history and the life of a woman mathematician in the aftermath of all that.

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Photograph of Catherine Chung by David Noles.


Sara Lippmann‘s collection Doll Palace (Dock Street Press) was long-listed for the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She was the recipient of an artist’s fellowship in fiction from New York Foundation for the Arts and her work has appeared widely in print and online, notably Slice Magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, Diagram, Midnight Breakfast, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at St. Joseph’s College and lives with her family in Brooklyn. Find her at saralippmann.com or @saralippmann. More from this author →