Interview: Christopher Meeks

I’m very excited to bring you a fun and informative Q&A with Christopher Meeks, author of Love at Absolute Zero, among others.
As you’ve already read yesterday, probably, I loved Love at Absolute Zero, so I thought the joy should be multiplied and shared. Therefore, at the end of this post you’ll find a giveaway of this awesome book, open internationally.

About Christoper Meeks:

Christopher Meeks began as a playwright and has had three plays produced. Who Lives? A Drama is published. His short stories have been published in Rosebud, The Clackamas Literary Review, The Santa Barbara Review, The Southern California Anthology, The Gander Review, and other journals and are available in two collections, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea and Months and Seasons. He has two novels, The Brightest Moon of the Century, a story that Marc Schuster of Small Press Reviews describes as “a great and truly humane novel in the tradition of Charles Dickens and John Irving,” and his new comic novel, Love At Absolute Zero.
(info from Premier Virtual Author Book Tours)

Q & A WITH Christopher Meeks AT Butterfly-o-meter Books 

~Gunnar Gunderson, the MC of your book, is a brilliant physicist. What made you choose that field of expertise for him?

I knew only a few things about the book at the start. One was that Gunnar Gunderson would be a professor, and a brilliant one, but that he had to be clueless about women and clueless about travel. From women I’ve known, this covers most men.

My wife worked in the astrophysics library at Caltech when I first got to know her, and the scientists I met there pushed the envelope. That is, they were particularly brilliant in their fields, yet a good number seemed socially challenged. That was perfect.

Also, I knew I’d be sending Gunnar to Denmark to work, which meant that to get a work visa, whatever he did, he had to be so specialized that no European would fit the bill. I happened to spend my junior year in Denmark, and I’d met a lot of American physicists there. They weren’t taking European’s jobs. Gunnar would be a physicist.

I’m not a physicist, but I’m a great researcher, and science fascinates me. I was able to get the director of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, Nils O. Andersen (now a dean at the University of Copenhagen), to help me decide what kind of physicist Gunnar would be. He said the hottest field was the ultracold—what happens to matter near absolute zero. Many laws of the known universe change at that temperature. The subject I found fascinating.

~Do you believe the Scientific Method can be applied to find a compatible pair?

Certain aspects certainly do. I once met the head programmer for EHarmony on a ski lift in California, and he said with the questions he’d developed, he could match people who were exactly alike—virtual clones of each other—but he counseled the company head against doing this because the spice of life is our differences. Core values have to be similar, but enough things need to be different.

This showed me science could be involved. Yet the romantic I am, the umbrella of romance is built with the chaos theory. Love is like weather—very unpredictable. Additionally, to quote the Doors, people are strange. That’s where the humor of life comes in.

~What or who inspired you to build Kara they way she is? Do you blame her for her actions? Do you think your readers will dislike her?

I want readers to love her when they first meet her and then to feel differently when Gunnar gets to Denmark. As I mentioned, I spent my junior year in Denmark. I got there after I stepped on a young woman’s toes… (Now I blush.) There are other similarities to my life, which I find funny in hindsight, but there are plenty of differences, too. The young woman I knew was 18 at the time and in college, and Kara is older and a kindergarten teacher. What’s universally true is that the glow of a new love is always filled with fantastic expectations and hopes. No one can be as perfect as you first hope.

~Gunnar’s experiences while being in Denmark are rather intense, and they certainly get one thinking. Do you believe, as Gunnar thought, that some Americans know little of some foreign countries?

Americans are clearly too culturally isolated. As Ambrose Bierce once said, Americans don’t know about a foreign country unless we fight a war there. (How much more we know about Iraq and Afghanistan now, eh?)

When I lived in Denmark, the U.S. and many countries were in the Danish news daily. Think how little most Americans know about Denmark. (My book should help there.)

There’s the stereotype of the Ugly American abroad. I just traveled with my family to Venice, Paris, and Denmark. In our Paris hotel, we heard Americans a few tables over disparage the coffee and croissants and ask for toast and, as they told their waiter, “American coffee—you know, regular coffee?”

As much as we like the think the world should revolve around America, it doesn’t. We are part of the global community now. It’s good to try new things. And those croissants and the café au lait were incredibly wonderful.

We’d brought our 21-year-old niece who’d only flown on an airplane once and had never been outside of California. She had major cultural shock when we landed in Italy. She felt embarrassed—that she should have studied Italian for years before traveling. Was she going to learn French and Danish, too?

Soon enough, though, she became comfortable with trying words as she learned them. She saw how people in other countries live and think. The trip opened her eyes. Traveling helps us understand others.

~After chasing an ideal halfway around the world, Gunnar finally finds the woman he’s been looking for. Do you feel guilty at all for not showing us more of their happiness? *stares pointedly*

The days of happiness they have are so wonderful—but happiness in a book can only be for a brief time because happiness is inherently boring.

Additionally, I’m not someone who loves tidy, perfect-in-a-box endings. On the sixth draft of this novel, it finally struck me that I had the ending wrong. It had been too tidy—and with the wrong woman. I changed the whole book radically because I realized who Gunnar really should be with. I want to leave the reader picturing them after the book ends. Additionally, it’s a book meant for rereading. There are more layers to be found there. You’ll see the happiness.

~We often think of women’s biological clock, less often about men’s (at least that’s my case). Would you say your book portrays a realistic man, or more of an ideal one?

That’s a very interesting question. Gunnar is far from ideal. A few reviewers have wanted to throttle him yet embrace him, too. Most of my stories take average people and put them into crisis. Gunnar is an above average physicist—and one with a fabulous curiosity—but I bet many men can relate to him. Most of us are not male underwear models. He’s realistic—and men have clocks, too.

~What if Gunnar would have won Kara back, would they have been happy together? Would he have been happy in Denmark?

Ha! This tells me you really got into Gunnar and Kara. I’ve sometimes wondered what if things had gone well for me and my Danish girlfriend. Would I be like my friend, the film director Bob Swaim, who married a French woman, had French children, and makes French movies? Maybe. One of my former students just wrote me from France, where she’d been studying. She just married a Frenchman. She may be living there the rest of her life.

There could be worse things than being an expatriate. And Denmark is supposedly the happiest country on Earth.

~It’s less often that one reads a romance story with a male MC. What made you decide to go with Gunnar, and not a Gunnar-ette?

Nick Hornby is one of my favorite novelists. People might know him from the movies of his books—High Fidelity and About a Boy. I love his novels. They’re always about a male wrapped up in the woes of life and love. They’re charming and funny.

Thus, Hornby’s fiction gave me permission to write the way I do. By far more women read fiction than men, but my hope is that women would adore to see love from a male point of view. They can see how truly clueless we are when it comes to the heart. Men don’t have to be a physicist to be this way. We are Gunnar.

Perhaps I can get movement going for men to understand how we need women. Women are our flashlights into the dark.

~What inspired the name, anyways? It has quite the exotic ring to it, doesn’t it?

I wanted to give my protagonist a memorable name because I pictured him as a memorable man. I also was thinking of how Joseph Heller’s characters’ names in Catch 22 are unusual and funny, such as Yosarian and Major Major. I pictured the tone of my novel to be as off-centered as Catch 22.

On a practical level, he has a Scandinavian name because there are so many Scandinavians in Wisconsin. Additionally, one of my science teachers in high school was named Daniel Daniel Danielson—one of the more amazing teachers I ever had. He had such enthusiasm for his subject. I thought Gunnar’s first name should be part of his last name the way my science teacher’s name was. It’s my nod to an amazing man.

~Did you at any point doubt that the book will have a happy ending? Were you tempted to think that real life doesn’t really have “happily ever after”-s that often, so this story shouldn’t necessarily have one either?

My original ending, while I suppose it was happy, too, was less clearly so, yet it was too predictable and orderly. While some people might have thought it perfect, I didn’t.

Now while the book ends on a clearly happy note, it’s also one of uncertainty and chaos. That’s about as real as it gets. Again, traveling teaches you that the best laid plans can blow away in a second—that you have to be fast on your feet and adaptable. It’s the same with any relationship.

~It’s a beautiful experience, reading Love at Absolute Zero. How did you feel writing it? Did you hit the infamous “writer’s block” while working on this amazing book? (If so, how did you manage to overcome it?)

Thank you. No, I never had writer’s block. I had the best time writing—all six drafts. Still, the other five versions had problems. Not at first—I had to sit with each draft a while. I’d have different people read each draft, where I’d then catch problems.

Originally, the book had a different title, The Laughter and Sadness of Sex. My mother hated that title. She’s always loved my work, but she didn’t like that title, and she was only lukewarm about the book. She couldn’t put her finger on it, and I trusted her. I knew it needed a new try it at.

However, I had an agent who loved it. After 40 submissions, however, no one bought it. Three editors actually loved it, found it funny, but their marketing departments said no. The last editor at Algonquin Books said while she admired much of it, the pacing was wrong. I realized she was right.

I then found a wonderful editor, Lynn Hightower, who is also an acclaimed mystery writer. For her, each chapter had to pull its weight. I chucked out two chapters. I added three new characters: Gunnar’s two research partners and Gunnar’s friend in the theatre department, Jeet. These people became important foils. Plus I changed the ending, which changed the whole book’s structure.

Structure is underplayed, but it’s everything.

I’d once been an editor at a publishing house, and I knew I couldn’t be my own editor. Lynn gets my humor, and she pushed me when I needed it. I’m working with her now—on a mystery.

~Do you feel this novel is substantially different from your other works? Tell us more about them.

They’re different, yet I can see my humor in all of them. It’s simply a part of who I am.

My first book, a collection of short fiction called The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea, was the first time I stuck my neck out. Most of the stories had been published in literary journals, yet that’s a different experience because it’s not typical to hear from readers or reviewers. I hoped my book would be reviewed, yet having once been a book reviewer, I was nervous opening up myself to them.

My first review was in the Los Angeles Times, and I nearly spit my breakfast milk on the paper when I came across it. My heart beat fast. Would I be ridiculed to the whole city? It was a good review—and a few months later Entertainment Weekly even mentioned it. I’m more sane about it now. Most reviews are not only positive but also offer insight, and I appreciate that. It’s hard to write an honest and interesting review with more than just was it good or not.

Also it’s important to realize that books are subjective, and not everyone is going to like something. Look up The Great Gatsby or The Kite Runner on Amazon, and you’ll see most people love them—but a few give one or two stars to them.

The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea and the next collection, Months and Seasons, are brief looks into lives of ordinary people who come under pressure of one sort. Short fiction is different from novels in that short stories are meant to be layered, compact, and often with endings that seem open-ended. Mine fit that paradigm, yet if you read the stories again that just seem to stop, you realize it’s all there. Raymond Carver’s stories are best known for doing this.

I’d been intimidated to write a novel even as my agent kept saying, “Write a novel.” My favorite novels such as those by Kurt Vonnegut and J.D. Salinger were strongly about something. What was my “theme” that ate at me? Also, the length scared me. Then I’d read A Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank, and I realized her novel was really a collection of short stories using the same characters, and it was about, in part, how time changes us. So is the current (and brilliant) A Voice From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. I could do that, I told myself. Thus, between chapters in The Brightest Moon of the Century, years go by. Each chapter is contained, and together they comment on how we change.

At that point, I really liked the form of writing, but I knew my next novel, Love At Absolute Zero, needed to be more driven the way J.K. Rowling has her Harry Potter novels, which I teach in my children’s literature class. Rowling makes page turners because we like the characters and they always get in dire situations. Gunnar is similar—likeable and if worse and worse situations.

~If you were to describe your book (Love at Absolute Zero) in only 6 words, what would those be?

Physicist ties quantum mechanics with love

~What are your thoughts on the “ebook boom” phenomenon? Do you believe it’s ebooks or books, or rather ebooks and books that will rule the future of reading?

What books are seeing in digital is no different than when music went digital—but that took two steps. First came CDs, then came downloads.

It’s not the medium but the content. Thus, I loved Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon first on vinyl, then on CD, now on my iPod. Love At Absolute Zero is beautiful in print. The book designer, Daniel Will-Harris, did some great things. I love the drop caps at the start of each chapter, for instance. Still, the book on a Kindle is just as strong. If people can bump up the font size to read it better, I won’t argue.

I like books so I can underline and write notes in them—be interactive with my books. While I can write notes using my Kindle, it takes a little longer. Yet my Kindle has a search feature that books don’t have. Both books and eBooks will be around for a while.

~Speaking of the future of reading, can you tell us anything about your next project(s)? Give us something to look forward to.

It’s a mystery called Falling Down Mt. Washington, and it’s about a frustrated Ph.D student in theatre who, while he’s applying to a Starbucks in a bank lobby, is kidnapped in a bank robbery gone awry. His kidnappers look to kill him so he has to act. He does, and it changes his whole life. Still, one kidnapper is like the Terminator and keeps trying to kill him.

As much as I tried to write a straight mystery, humor has seeped in. I don’t fight it. I realize it’s part how I see the world. My editor is enjoying all the surprises I’m throwing her way. I expect it will come out next year.

~Where can your readers find you?

I’m on Twitter @MeeksChris, and there’s a Christopher Meeks Facebook fan page that was just started.


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