Joram Piatigorsky

Joram Piatigorsky

1.Tell us a bit about yourself – something that we will not find in the official author’s bio?
My official bio reflects my life as a scientist – publications, lectures, diverse scientific activities – and my recent non-scientific writing. Omitted, however, are feelings, such as doubts, aspirations and disappointments. For example, my bio does not show how worried I was that leaving science for writing was like quitting before having finished (whatever that means for a scientist) and fear that my striving to become a writer after a career of science was almost certain to fail. I have always lived with conflicted feelings of a certain hopelessness somehow (fortunately) coupled with confidence of succeeding – yin and yang. In any case, whichever feeling prevails at the time, I keep trekking along! Perhaps my bio should say “willing to climb over a wall of perceived obstacles.”

2. Do you remember what was your first story (article, essay, or poem) about and when did you write it?
I have always written ideas and short pieces now and then throughout my life, but I started writing in earnest in Maine when I was 56 and hiking with my wife Lona. We rested a while, and as she sketched the view of the bay in front of us, I leaned against a tree and wrote my first short story. I entitled it “Ayalkeet,” a name I pulled out of the air of an Inuit teenager who went hunting with an American guest. They killed a caribou and proudly dragged it back to camp. Giving birth to a character with blood of ink and creating a paper world to inhabit and stretching my imagination were exhilarating. I knew then I would continue to write despite that I was still busy 24/7, as they say, running my laboratory at the National Institutes of Health. That was when the seed for writing fiction and essays was planted in me and started to germinate.

3. What is the title of your latest book and what inspired it?
My memoir, The Speed of Dark, is my latest published book. However, since my collection of short stories, The Open Door and other tales of love and yearning is scheduled for release in April, perhaps it may also qualify as my latest book.
Being the American son of a world-famous Russian father and a descendent of the historically important European Rothschild dynasty known for banking and art collecting, I had a strong compulsion to write a memoir to explore my own identity. The heart of the memoir is less on what I’ve done than on my journey of self-discovery and confronting such questions I’ve been asked as, “Are you a failure like the sons of all great men?” Writing the memoir allowed me to recognize more clearly how my background and art influenced my view of science and how I found my voice in my diverse activities – science, art collecting and writing – which, I discovered, all fall under a common umbrella of creativity.
Most of my short stories were written over a number of years taking writing workshops at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda while still fully engaged in science. These stories were my initial steps as a writer and meant to stand alone. What surprised me when I reread them was that many had a common thread of love and yearning, despite that the subjects were radically different in the diverse set. One is science fiction where clouds on a faraway planet are alive, another is fantasy involving talking sculptures, a third is about a lonely lawyer and repressed secretary who have secret crushes on each other, a fourth tells a story of a physically ugly, very smart woman elected president of the United States, and so forth. It was a revelation to me how often my feelings of hope and disappointment – fantasy mixed with reality – were expressed unwittingly in the different stories. That was a satisfying discovery, which I believe reflected authenticity, and so I placed the stories together in this book.

4. How long did it take you to write your latest work and how fast do you write (how many words daily)?
My friend Van Andruss invited me to write for his literary journal, Lived Experience, and I decided to submit one essay a year to get me started on a memoir. Van published each essay in his journal for nine years, during which time I also published a novel (Jellyfish Have Eyes, IPBooks, 2014). I connected the essays as a draft for my memoir. Wanting to make more of a continuous story, I spent a little more than a year expanding and fusing the essays, which resulted in The Speed of Dark.
I try to write something every day, although life can get in the way of that at times. Some days I struggle with a paragraph or two (often deleted the next day!), while other days I am able to write several pages that work. I don’t know why some days are so much more productive for me than other days. I often (not always) go over what I’ve written earlier and spend time rewriting before I start anew. I have no writing agenda such as number of words or pages or hours a day. I don’t even consider written words the only part of writing. I’m constantly translating what I see or hear or read into possible ideas for writing, and these generate images and thoughts and sometimes wild notions that percolate in my mind. I consider this writing, something like a draft before a draft. If I have pen and paper at hand, I jot these ideas down; other times I just keep them in mind for later, which unfortunately risks forgetting them. I have difficulty turning my mind off. I also think about stopping to write for the day when I have a new thought to develop, which I heard Hemingway did. This strategy allows ideas to crystallize in the interim and gives a platform for writing the next day.

5. Do you have any unusual writing habits?
That’s an interesting question, because much of our lives are habitual. There’s no ritual to my writing beyond being driven to continue even when I feel it’s not going well. I believe ideas and inspiration come with work, not the other way around. I guess a habit of mine is to keep going even when I don’t see the light of day or when I think my story or essay is not going anywhere. I might say my habit is to withhold judgment as long as possible and consider whatever I am writing, whether good or bad, as an investment to some extent. That way I don’t think failed drafts are lost time. It seems that parts or variations of whatever I write find some use eventually. I can’t seem to run away from myself, which includes what I think and how I see the world, both of which are reflected in my writing.

6. Is writing the only form of artistic expression that you utilize, or is there more to your creativity than just writing?
Creative expression has been a large part of my life, regardless of the medium. Before writing fiction and essays, I was a molecular biologist investigating evolution and gene expression for some 50 years, which I always considered a form of artistic expression. Science is a human activity, like writing, and requires imagination, as any creative work. I always saw my research as creating a consistent personal narrative that adds to current knowledge, which I know will be modified in numerous ways as time goes on. I have written about this in my memoir and in various other places.  

I played tournament tennis growing up. Even though tennis is a sport, I considered it a form of artistic expression. Athletes are often artists in the way they move, how they strategize, how they develop innovative idiosyncrasies when they play. In tennis, artistry can be seen in what players call “soft hands,” a common expression by tennis players for a certain touch of magic.

My father said that if one truly responds to art – music or painting or whatever – a portion of the artist resides in you. I doubted this idea initially, but I have grown to appreciate it. I believe that most people susceptible to such artistic expression – art beyond its intellectual quality – would recognize how they merge with the artist at some personal level. This form of private artistic expression has been important for me my whole life.

For the last 30 years I have collected and continue to collect Inuit art. Apart from loving the art, my collection represents my artistic taste. No two collections will be the same, and I have found that collecting can be as much a form of artistic expression as other forms of creativity. I am presently bringing Inuit art to the attention of art lovers, scholars and gallery owners, many of whom are largely unaware of its artistic importance.   

7. Authors and books that have influenced your writings?
Different influences have impacted my writing. First, I have read many (thousands!) of articles and lots of books by scientists (as well as have written a great deal of science myself), which have influenced my writing fiction and essays. In general, science writing strives to be clear exposition that remains external to the reader. In contrast, stories and essays strive to let the reader in, to imply rather than declare, to bond with the characters and readers. I would not have understood this as clearly if I had not spent so many years writing science, which provides a foil to my non-science writing.

I have neither a favorite author nor try to emulate any one in particular. I read many different books, from John Grisham, who is often a compelling story teller, to Frans Kafka, who has nurtured my love of ambiguity. I have a great weakness for Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose Russian sensitivity somehow resonates with my Russian genes. Marcel Proust’s classic novel on early twentieth century French society rings true with my French background. I joined a book club that focuses on non-fiction, such as political histories, biographies and legal issues among other topics that I wouldn’t have chosen to read on my own. This has made me appreciate such excellent books as Scorpions by Noah Feldman and Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, to name just two of many. Reading diverse authors on different subjects prevents me from being too influenced by one author or one style of writing. Reading excellent books improves my writing and gives me ideas to develop; reading poor books shows me what to avoid doing, and that can be as useful as knowing how to improve my writing!  

8. What are you working on right now? Anything new cooking in the wordsmith’s kitchen?
I write blogs regularly that are posted on my website ( and have averaged about two a month for the last four years. I am presently coalescing some into essays, which I hope to link with a series of other essays into a book. I am exploring what might be a good theme for my collected essays and may even connect them with a few short stories. It’s all in my wordsmith’s kitchen.
I’m also planning to write a book on my Inuit art collection. I have exhibited selected pieces of the collection recently at the World Bank in Washington, I speak occasionally about Inuit art, and am in the process of establishing a website for the collection. A book on my Inuit art collection is bouncing around in my mind.
What else? Well, I want to write another novel, but that’s for another interview!

9. Did you ever think about the profile of your readers? What do you think – who reads and who should read your books?
This is probably the most common question I’m asked: who am I writing for? No one asked me that when I was writing scientific articles for professional journals, since it was self-evident: I was writing for scientific colleagues. They will read my articles. But when I was writing a science book (Gene Sharing and Evolution, Harvard University Press, 2007), many colleagues asked me what audience I was targeting – other scientists, students, laymen? The audience would, of course, strongly influence the style, direction and scientific detail. The only answer that made sense for me (but that might not be the case for others) was that I was writing it for myself. Indeed, my greatest motivation to write the book was to test the generality of gene sharing, a concept I developed studying genes expressed in the lens of the eye. Perhaps by not targeting a specific group, I reached out to a more widespread audience who might be interested in their own way in the subject matter. It was their problem whether or not to read the book, not mine!
When I started writing non-science, I naturally wanted to reach as large and diverse an audience as possible, but again, I didn’t think of a particular genre. I was reaching into myself to find expression that resonated with who I am and tell a story that made sense to me. I was pleased that some people who read my novel, Jellyfish Have Eyes, included an array of diverse readers. The same seems to be true for my memoir. I hope that will continue to be the case for my collected short stories and whatever else I write.

In retrospect, I conducted science in the same way: I investigated problems that caught my attention, not just those that were popular at the time. This led to my doing research on the eyes of jellyfish and scallops (yes, these species have eyes!), obscure (and fascinating) topics that I was able to bring to the attention of the scientific community. I guess I was mostly concerned about opening doors and exploring new terrain. This may limit the audience at times, but at least it makes me feel useful and authentic.

10. Do you have any advice for new writers/authors?
That’s difficult. Everyone has different needs and desires, different talents and fears, and different ways of thinking and seeing the world. That makes literature fascinating and each writer unique. However, despite my caution in advising a new writer, I would encourage him or her as I did scientists in my laboratory: Listen to everyone but think for yourself. I don’t believe it’s successful or particularly gratifying to follow the footsteps of others, although it’s prudent to learn from them. Write what feels right and arouses your curiosity, and hope for the best. And remember, you’re unique. There has never been anyone like you before or alive today. So, you have a lot to say that’s new and interesting.

11. What is the best advice you have ever heard?
It’s hard for me to distinguish the best from excellent advice, so I’ll mention a few important viewpoints that have influenced me. Before establishing my laboratory at the National Institutes of Health, J. Edward Rall, the Deputy Director of the National Institutes of Health at the time, warned me that not everything works. Expect failures, he said. Don’t worry about failure, keep trying. What works is what matters. Good viewpoint.

My father emphasized the importance of sticking with people who “push me up” and stay away from those who “pull me down.” He didn’t mean up or down in terms of advantages gained or opportunities lost; he meant befriend people who inspire me and stay away from those who discourage me. How right he was.
My mother always said it’s okay to bend, just don’t break. Sound advice. I keep it in mind.

When my wife Lona saw me looking raggedly discouraged and complaining that my writing is hopeless (more than once!), she reminded me that it’s a book, not my life. Keep writing, she said. I did and will. That’s what writing is all about: writing.

12. How many books do you read annually and what are you reading now? What is your favorite literary genre?
I don’t know how many books I read annually. I never counted them. Somewhere between five and ten, I think, probably a few more, depending on the year. I finished The Museum of Innocence by Orphan Pamuk several weeks ago, which I loved, and I read essays in Illuminations by Walter Benjamin last week. I found his essay Unpacking my Library terrific, because of its excellent writing and because it’s about collecting, which hit a responsive nerve. I struggled to finish Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner a few weeks ago since I had difficulty keeping straight what was going on!

I don’t have a favorite literary genre. I read biographies, novels, short stories, essays, fantasy, histories. I love good writing wherever I find it. But if it’s written poorly, I don’t persist. Time is too valuable and there’s too much great literature out there.

13. What do you deem the most relevant about your writing? What is the most important to be remembered by readers?
Another difficult question. I do my best to be specific, but try to make the general significance clear, a message of some sort that hopefully will carry over to readers in the way they see fit. I keep in mind that people often hear their own stories when they read. I also deem important to write a compelling story well and keep the reader continually in the story. In other words, the writing itself is important to me, not just the subject. I rewrite a lot. I want my books to flow smoothly as well as be interesting, and to be remembered as such. 

The different things I write – blogs, fiction, essays – have different points that I would like to convey to readers. In my novel, Jellyfish Have Eyes, I would like the reader to appreciate the creativity of basic science, the role of serendipity in destiny and the value of family. I would like readers of my memoir to get a glimpse of my life and point of view, but especially I want it to relate to their lives, regardless of background, and be inspiring. For my short stories, on the other hand, I would like readers to take a journey into fantasy with me and enjoy how imagination can relate to reality and everyday life. As for essays, well, each has its own character and message. So, there isn’t one answer to your question about relevance of my writing or a single most important point I want remembered. Writing is too rich to boil down to one or even a few points. I see writing for exploring and exposing rather than for convincing readers.

14. What is your opinion about the publishing industry today and about the ways authors can best fit into the new trends?
It’s hard to overestimate the role of marketing in writing. I started writing because I wanted to express myself in ways that could be understood by anyone, not just scientists. I was motivated to write for its own sake. However, writers need readers and that requires extensive marketing, which I had never done before as a scientist. Modern technology, social media in particular, stress marketing, and I think it would be a mistake to ignore the need to reach out to readers by taking advantage of technology. One way I have tried to do this is by blogging, which keeps writing as the central activity while utilizing the widespread coverage of the Internet. However, I’m careful to not spend too much time on the business end of writing and to concentrate on the writing. Times are always changing one way or another, so I do my best to appreciate those changes, but keep in mind that writing itself is the goal, with faith that a really good piece of writing will ultimately be recognized.
Perhaps the biggest change for authors today is the rise of independent publishers, as well as electronic and online publication, which have opened the floodgates for writers. Attending the latest Frankfurt Book Fair gave me an opportunity to compare independent publishers with traditional ones. I was impressed by how vibrant many independent presses are and the diverse nature of their books by talented authors. Thus, while it’s easy to be discouraged about the difficulty of finding a publisher these days, independent publishers provide a golden age for authors who take writing seriously. Independent publishers offer freedom to explore different subjects and experiment with different genres yet maintain high standards of excellence. They are about opportunity and growth and are certain to give rise to many significant books. 

15. What is your opinion about your publisher – Adelaide Books?
A perfect question to end the interview! As I understand, publishers are inundated with inquiries and they must choose from a multitude of authors to find those they like and are marketable in their opinion. Stevan Nikolic of Adelaide Books responded promptly to my inquiry about my memoir, read the whole manuscript and offered me a contract within a week! I could hardly believe my good fortune. That he liked the book is critical and crucial for an author. Adelaide Books has lived up to every promise, promoted my memoir extensively, and has given me a home as a writer. They are publishing Spanish and Portuguese translations of my memoir as well as my collection of short stories. In addition, they have recently published a couple of my short stories and an essay in Adelaide Literary Magazine. What more could I ask for? Thank you.

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