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In Nell Freudenberger’s bestselling novel, Lost and Wanted, rational physicist Helen receives a phone call from a friend, Charlie, who has just died. Helen and Charlie had lost touch over the years, but the mysterious phone call brings Helen back into her friend’s orbit as she reconnects with Charlie’s husband and child. What follows is a masterful, touching story of grief, friendship, parenthood, and above all, love. We were lucky enough to ask Freudenberger a few questions, and her thoughtful answers blew us away. We hope you enjoy learning more about her writing process and inspiration.
Reading Group Center: What was your inspiration for Lost and Wanted, and how did the book change and develop as you wrote it?
Nell Freudenberger: I think this book is actually more of a love story than my last novel, The Newlyweds. When I started writing it, I was thinking a lot about a friend who was no longer in my life. The end of my relationship with her had a more profound effect on me than the end of any romantic relationship in the past—I didn’t remember those boys I’d once cried over, but the loss of this woman (and maybe the person I’d been when I was with her) still hurt on a regular basis. Since that was the case, I thought I should be able to write about it.
I often think of the line by the poet Robert Hass: All the new thinking is about loss/ In this it resembles all the old thinking. Writing about a friendship wasn’t very different from writing about romantic love, except that I was mostly spared the agony of writing about sex. (I’m thinking of Toni Morrison’s great line: “Sex is difficult to write about because it’s just not sexy enough.”) As with a romantic relationship, Helen and Charlie’s bond is most clearly revealed after Charlie is gone.
The first draft of the novel didn’t work though, maybe because the main character was too much like me. There was a secondary character in that draft based on an astrophysicist I knew in college, and I thought about whether I could rewrite the book from the point of view of a physicist. I liked the idea that I would be writing about a female physicist, because they’re underrepresented in the popular imagination, but Helen’s career was also a way of making the character strange to me—a character, in other words, instead of a stand-in for myself.
My other books take their inspiration in a very literal way from places I had visited. The surprise for me in writing this new, revised version of the novel was that I discovered I could understand at least this very narrow area of particle physics well enough to write about it. Physics became like a country I had visited and gave me the same thrilling sense of dislocation and heightened awareness that I get when I travel.
RGC: The book is about what happens after a woman finds out that one of her good friends has died. Was there anything that writing this novel taught you about how to deal with grief?
NF: I wish that novels worked that way. If anything, writing the book made me ask harder questions of myself around loss and grief. I found that the line between ghosts and our feelings about people we’ve lost got blurrier for me: what, really, is the difference? And I wondered a lot about how much of grief is selfishness and how much is real feeling for the person who is gone. I did read some brilliant writers on grief while I was working on this book, especially Stephen Greenblatt’s strange and penetrating meditation on ghosts: Hamlet in Purgatory. In talking about this book, I often quoted Greenblatt’s description of grief’s earliest stages: “The telephone rings, and you are suddenly certain that your dead friend is on the other end of the line; the elevator door opens, and you expect your dead father to step out into the hallway, brushing the snow from the shoulders of his coat.”
RGC: You wanted to write about a woman who loves her work. Why did you decide to make her a physicist, and was it important that she also be a mother?
NF: I made Helen a physicist because learning about physics gave me the same electric enthusiasm that I felt, for example, writing a poem when I was a teenager. It was all so new to me. I do still feel that way about writing, but that passion has become my day-to-day life. I’ve never been the kind of writer who can successfully keep a diary, and I usually have to trick myself into writing anything personal. Of course Helen’s feelings about her work are really my feelings, but they are disguised, and that scientific disguise proved to be the engine of the story for me.
I knew that I wanted to write about two women who were deeply involved in their work and the ways that their devotion to it developed and changed over time. I didn’t set out to write about the challenges that children would pose to those vocations, any more than I wondered, when I started out as a writer, how I would manage writing and motherhood at the same time. That struggle comes into the book by necessity, and because of the different women Helen and Charlie are, it tests them in different ways.
RGC: You don’t have a science background, but you immersed yourself in the scientific culture while researching this novel. What was the most interesting thing you learned? Was there anything that surprised you?
NF: More than a billion years ago, a pair of black holes 1.4 billion light years from Earth collided, and physicists have just now detected and recorded that collision. I found that absolutely incredible. Again and again I asked physicists if their immersion in work like this made them see the world in another way, if there was some part of ordinary life that they experienced differently than other people. But their answers to this question were so dull! (One physicist told me that he wasn’t afraid of flying because he understands how airplanes work.…) Beyond the science they do, which floored me again and again, the most interesting thing I learned is that the brains of people in the humanities and people in the sciences aren’t as different as we think, and that if we really try to understand something that has always seemed beyond our capabilities, we often surprise ourselves.
RGC: The friends at the center of your novel have drifted apart over the years. Do you think it’s important to write about women’s friendships, even ones that are difficult or strained?
NF: I don’t think that our literature is lacking in stories about women’s friendship, but I delight in reading them. Every one is different, and I hope people of all genders will continue reading and writing stories about friendship forever.
RGC: What’s one thing that you’d like for readers to take away from Lost and Wanted?
NF: I’d like readers who aren’t scientists to go on a journey similar to the one I went on while I was writing it. I’m happiest when I get a note from a reader that says they weren’t interested in physics or didn’t think it was something they could understand, but that the book changed their mind, at least a little bit. I was glad for the space at the end of the book to acknowledge the terrific books I read while researching it, and it makes me happy to think one or two readers might see those acknowledgments and go on to pick up terrific books like Louisa Gilder’s Age of Entanglement, or David Kaiser’s How the Hippies Saved Physics. Even the idea that someone might google Chien-Shiung Wu—who I think is among the most fascinating women of the twentieth century, and desperately needs her own biopic—thrills me. Occasionally someone also writes to tell me that the book made them feel less alone in their own grief for a loved one, and that means the most of all.
RGC: Which authors or specific works have influenced your writing?
NF: The short stories of Grace Paley, Alice Munro, Joy Williams, and Jane and Paul Bowles have all been very important to me. I go back and reread Anna Karenina and Middlemarch more than any other nineteenth-century novels. James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and If Beale Street Could Talk, Ha Jin’s Waiting, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Colm Tóibín’s The Heather Blazing and Brooklyn, Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills and Never Let Me Go, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, Peter Carey’s Illywhacker and The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, J. M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron, V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas and A Bend in the River, and A.L. Kennedy’s So I Am Glad are novels that I think about a lot. I can’t really claim influence from poets, but I love W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, and John Ashbery, among many others.
RGC: Imagine you’re part of a book club discussing Lost and Wanted. What topic or question would you like to pose to the group and why?
NF: I would ask the members of the club to remember a close friendship they had in their past. How is your present life different from the one you imagined you might have then, and how is your friend’s life different? Are you still close, and if not, what got in the way? I’d ask that question because we usually have the most passionate relationships with books in which we find something of ourselves. I can still remember reading certain books as a teenager and being astonished to find my own thoughts (especially the strange or embarrassing ones) right there on the page. Books are the most reliable cure for loneliness, and sometimes talking about them can bring about human connection, too.