Alan Lightman, the physicist and writer, held a joint MIT professorship in science and the humanities. His prose alternates between nonfiction and fiction. His most recent novel, “Mr g,” tackles nothing less than God’s creation of the universe. “The Accidental Universe,” his latest nonfiction effort, collects essays about how cutting-edge science informs the meaning of life. Lightman ponders big ideas at his home in Concord, his vacation house in Maine, and sometimes in Cambodia, where he runs the nonprofit Harpswell Foundation, an organization dedicated to empowering women.
AN OFFICE FOR ALL SEASONS: If I really have to concentrate hard for a long stretch of time without any interruptions, I go to my little office in the garage. That’s where I do most of my writing. It’s like a large closet. There’s no telephone, and I can’t get distracted by anything outside the window because there are no windows. It’s very isolated. But if I have a shorter amount of work to do, an hour or less, I work in the library in the house. It’s more pleasant. I have a third office in my summer house on an island in Maine . . . with a beautiful view of the ocean. I’ve found that all three of these places — even the one that’s a windowless closet — work equally well for my writing. After about 20 minutes, I’ve totally lost myself in my work, all sense of who I am and [any sense of] time. It doesn’t matter where I am.
MAGIC BOOKS: There are about 25 books or so that I have embraced over the last 40 years that are very, very dear to me. I like to be near them . . . [They’re] a combination of fiction and nonfiction: Mikhail Bulgakov, “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino, Michael Ondaatje, “Mrs. Dalloway,” “White Noise.” I keep them in the little windowless office . . . [and] I have a duplicate set in my office on the island in Maine. When I travel anywhere for more than a month, I take them with me. I reread them from time to time, but . . . there’s sort of a magical aura that surrounds them, and I feel like I’m in the presence of great writers. It’s inspirational.
CASTING ABOUT FOR A GOOD HOOK: It’s always a challenge how to begin, how to get into it and interest a reader. I spend a lot of time thinking about the first paragraph, and sometimes I spend a couple of days on the first sentence.
CALL A FRIEND: Inevitably . . . while you’re writing, you realize there are certain areas where you thought you had the information but you realize you need more . . . The Internet has been a great help in doing research, but sometimes I need to talk to experts. It’s been a great benefit living in the Cambridge area — it’s such a great reserve of intellectual firepower. I’ve been on the faculties of Harvard and MIT, so I know a lot of people there. I can just get on the phone and call someone.
SMASH THE PEDAGOGY: The area of science that I work in, theoretical physics, is very heavy with philosophy, and I’ve been inclined, since a young age, to ask idea-type questions. [Ideas are] the commonality between my fiction and nonfiction, but ideas don’t necessarily make for great fiction. You can stumble on ideas when you’re writing fiction and end up with a pedagogical novel, which is usually not good — the characters don’t come to life. When you’re writing fiction, you have to handle ideas like high explosives: You’ve got to be very careful with them, so that they don’t dominate the work. My strategy is to place a main character in a situation where they have to confront an idea . . . and then I get out of the way.
Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached eugenia.williamson @gmail.com
Correction: Because of an editing error, a headline in the print version of this story misidentified one profession of Alan Lightman. He is a writer and a physicist.