- Guest Author -
Welcome to my interview with an interesting and smart man.
Welcome, Ted ...
1. TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF AND HOW YOU STARTED AS A WRITER.
Well, I began first grade in a rural American one-room schoolhouse, made it through West Point and the Vietnam War, and eventually became a mathematics professor. To survive the academic gauntlet, I had to publish regularly. That process taught me early on how to develop one of every writer’s most useful tools – a good thick skin. I already knew that I loved scientific research, but it was a pleasant surprise to discover that I also loved the writing-up part.
2. WERE THOSE ALL TECHNICAL PAPERS?
In the beginning, yes. But then I also started to write articles on scientific topics for a general audience and tried to pack them with the same energy and surprises and AHA! insights of a good travel adventure story.
3. DID THOSE MAKE IT INTO PRINT?
I was fortunate to have American Scientist publish four of my articles. Fun but also serious subjects like how to cut a cake fairly, how to select a spouse, and how to avoid tax audits using a nineteenth century statistical phenomenon. It’s a real treat to see your writings in living color on the newsstand!
4. HOW DID YOU BEGIN TO WRITE ON NON-MATHEMATICAL TOPICS?
During my early years as a college student and teacher, I often missed the physical adventures from my Huckleberry Finn boyhood, so I alternated semesters of studies and lectures with escapades from panning for gold in the Andes to a VW camper trip deep behind the Iron Curtain. Around campfires and between departmental meetings, I would share the stories with my companions, and soon began keeping “after action” notes of the adventures. Those formed the basis for this memoir.
5. HOW DOES WRITING NONFICTION FOR A GENERAL AUDIENCE COMPARE TO WRITING FOR A MATHEMATICAL AUDIENCE?
Scientific papers typically follow a rigid logical format – no emotion, no detours, no humor, and no surprise endings. It took me several years of apprenticeship under Marylee MacDonald to learn how to write non-mathematically, not only to engage and enlighten the reader, but also to entertain.
6. WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT WRITING FOR A GENERAL AUDIENCE?
I get a chance to use humor, to paint pictures of events in great detail, and to introduce my audience to many of the colorful characters I’ve met on and off the beaten track. I tempt readers to relive or time-travel back to the iconic Sixties and the Cold War and Third-world political upheavals, and hopefully make them laugh out loud at some of the shenanigans I’ve managed to survive. You never get an opportunity like this writing scientific papers!
7. HOW IS THIS BOOK DIFFERENT?
Many people think that a career in mathematics is necessarily boring and sedentary. Au contraire – the opportunities for globetrotting and adventure are unlimited. For example, I’m the only mathematician I know who was shot at and locked up by the police, and perhaps the only Vietnam War veteran invited back to Hanoi and Saigon to speak on his scientific discoveries.
8. WHAT SHOULD READERS WALK AWAY FROM THIS BOOK KNOWING? HOW SHOULD THEY FEEL?
I hope they will get a sense that physical and scientific exploits reward you with similar adrenaline highs, and that interweaving the two can be sweet indeed. Some readers will gain insights into college life, either looking forward or back to their own experiences. Armchair travellers will be rewarded with first-hand descriptions of low-budget third-world travel, and younger readers may reap survival ideas from hearing about the simple and practical pleasures of living a bohemian life on very limited resources.
9. WAS IT DIFFICULT TO GET THIS BOOK PUBLISHED?
Yes! I’ve been working on this manuscript for decades, with many, many rejections. One literary agent had to pull out for personal reasons, and another simply up and died. Suddenly, and most unexpectedly, two professional societies simultaneously took an interest in it and decided to risk it. I say “risk” since the book doesn’t contain a single formula or mathematical symbol, and in places uses street language that editors would never dare publish in a traditional science book.
10. DID YOU HAVE THIS BOOK EDITED BEFORE PUBLICATION?
Yes, at two different stages I enlisted the help of professional editors, and this helped tremendously. Hillel Black, the publisher/editor for M*A*S*H, helped me see that underneath the collection of individual adventure stories was a thread that tied them all together, namely, my unique odyssey into and through science. Then Beth Rashbaum convinced me to reflect on how my worldview was shaped, and to share emotional details that enrich the original narrative. And of course the final publishers provided a copy editor.
11. WOULD YOU LIKE TO HAVE THIS BOOK MADE INTO A MOVIE?
That depends on how true-to-life the film would be, of course, and how well done. It would be a fine pleasure indeed to share some of these experiences with a completely different audience.
12. WHAT IS THE BEST THING ABOUT BEING A WRITER?
We have no bosses, and no constraints – the sky is the limit. I like to think that if I’d lived in prehistoric times, I would have been the revered village storyteller. Writing gives me the chance to be that storyteller on a much grander and more permanent scale.
13. WHAT IS IT ABOUT YOUR LIFESTYLE THAT FACILITATES WRITING?
No impedimenta. I’ve never been married or had children, never owned a TV or fancy car, and until I was sixty, never owned a house. I spent nearly thirty years living in condemned houses, enjoying the pleasures of a very simple life. Free to travel and take off whole years at a time to live in places like Amsterdam, Kauai, and Costa Rica.
14. DESCRIBE YOUR PERFECT DAY.
Start with an hour of strenuous exercise hiking or mountain biking in nearby Montaña de Oro state park, followed by a solid breakfast, catching up with correspondence, writing or revising for a couple of hours, a late lunch, more writing or brainstorming, playing dominoes and cribbage with my partner Erika, and watching an old movie.
15. DO YOU SUFFER FROM WRITER’S BLOCK?
Not really – I try to keep three different in-depth projects going at a time. When I burn out on one, I switch to another, and then back.
16. DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE WRITING PLACE?
Absolutely. I have a small rustic octagonal cabin, picture windows on all sides, overlooking Morro Bay, the open Pacific, and the Santa Lucia mountain range here on California’s Central Coast. It has electricity, running cold water, and a Swedish fire pit. So I alternate splitting firewood, pipe dreaming in the rocking chair, stoking the fire, and writing true first-hand adventure stories and mathematics.
17. WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT?
I’m working on several more non-fiction books. One is a collection of travel adventures that did not fit into this memoir story line, including some harrowing experiences hitchhiking and picking up hitchhikers from Australia to Africa. Of course I am also working on several mathematics projects I find personally compelling, such as why beach stones have oval and not spherical shapes.
18. WHO IS YOUR FAVOURITE AUTHOR AND WHY?
Mark Twain, for his superb humor and storytelling. He even wrote a story in my own speciality of mathematical probability called Science vs. Luck.
19. OTHER THAN WRITING, WHAT ELSE DO YOU LOVE?
Friends are the greatest joy in my life.
20. DESCRIBE YOURSELF IN FIVE WORDS?
Sounds like a loaded question, but here goes – curious, creative, energetic, persistent, optimistic. Did I mention persistent?
21. WHAT WOULD MAKE YOU HAPPIER THAN YOU ARE NOW?
Learning that scientists have just made friendly contact with extra-terrestrials who have advanced science and art and music to share with us, and have learned how to live together in harmony.
22. ANYTHING YOU’D LIKE TO ADD?
Yes – I would like to thank you, Clancy, for this opportunity to share some of my thoughts with your readers. Best of luck to you and your readers on your own writing adventures! I hope you enjoy the ride as much as I do.
Author interview with Mike Breen:
Clancy's comment: Thanks, Ted. Well done. It's been a pleasure.