Paolo Giordano on The Solitude of Prime Numbers

Paolo Giordano was working on his doctorate in particle physics when he wrote The Solitude of Prime Numbers, a beautifully rendered tale of two misfit children whom Giordano compares to twin primes -- a prime number that differs from another prime number by two (like eleven and thirteen). The further away from zero one gets, the fewer prime numbers (and, hence, twin primes) exist. Giordano's use of evocative language and his knowledge of physics and mathematics together weave a gorgeous tale, which won him the Premio Strega, Italy's prestigious literary award. (He's the youngest winner to date.) We caught up with Giordano to discuss the journey of Solitude, his writing style and his plans for the future.

Westword: Can you tell us about the process by which you wrote this book? Paolo Giordano: I can say it was a very messy process, because I had no overall idea of the story until almost the middle of the book. And I just started from very small details that had no real relationships between each other, and from those details, I wrote the first two chapters of the book, which give the boost for all the story, probably. But I wrote them as if they were separate, independent short stories. And then I decided to move on and let these characters grow up, but it was really a step-by-step thing, so that's probably why the book has this weird structure with all these big jumps in time and different parts of life. It's just because I just decided what to write while it was going on.

WW: Was the prime-number metaphor something you had thought about for the characters of Alice and Mattia before putting this book together? PG: I think it came in the middle of the book, so it was not really, I would say, a fundamental thing of the story for me. It just became like that after this title was chosen, but to me it really came by accident in a way, because I started to write this thing about the boy of the book becoming a mathematician, and since I was a little bit obsessed with prime numbers myself at the time, I decided to just transfer this obsession to him. And while I was describing it, I realized that the idea of the prime numbers being misfits and lonely had a lot to do with the story I was writing about. So that's how the metaphor came out. I realized the importance of it, I think, afterward.

WW: How did your knowledge of physics and mathematics play into the writing of this novel? PG: I think there is a sort of symmetry in the book, especially between the two stories. They're built in a very symmetrical way. And this really happened instinctively for me, probably because I was so -- my mind is so shaped about geometry and symmetrical stuff; that's what I studied, so that's for sure something that influenced the structure. But I think my background also has a role in the style of the book. In mathematics, you can always say one thing after another, only one thing at a time, and it must always be very clean and precise, and not ambiguous. Of course, you cannot do the same in the writing, but I have this tendency to go toward this thing -- I think this affects the style a lot. This was really helpful for this book, but it tends to become a problem after some time, so now I'm trying to get free of this need of always precision and cleanliness, because I like writing and literature to be more free than that.

WW: How easy was it for you to transition from a world of numbers and formulas to the world of literature while writing this novel? PG: It was quite hard. So I had to drink, basically.

WW: What did you drink? PG: I drank wine. Also, because I always started writing when I was already very tired, so I would have rather done something different, whatever. But I wanted really to do this, so really I had to push myself to the desk most of the time. But this feeling of tiredness, I think it helped me a lot, because when you're tired and you write, some things come out more easily. You don't really control everything. So something will surprise you then.

WW: Do you plan on going back to the world of science? PG: No. I finished my Ph.D. about one year ago, and then I decided to quit because it was too hard to do both things. When I did both, I was not really happy with either of the two, so I had to make a decision. Let's grow up.

WW: Do you think you'll write about particle physics in the future? PG: Not as an academic. But I want to write about it at some point. I don't know how, I don't know when, but it's definitely something that I will go back to.

WW: What's next for you? PG: I'm working on a new novel. It's very early; I'm just starting. It's another very confused process, so I don't know what it will be in the end -- if I ever come to an end!

WW: Is there anything you'd like our readers to know about you? PG: Usually, I think it's better not to know anything before diving into a book, especially about the author. As a reader, I usually like that, I have to say. The curiosity, maybe, comes afterward. But I like the author to be just a name until the end of the book.

Catch Giordano signing The Solitude of Prime Numbers tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Tattered Cover. For more information, call 303-322-7727.

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