Catherine Chung's "The Tenth Muse" follows a prodigy's discoveries in mathematics, love, and her identity


Cathy Chung and her book The Tenth Muse

Author photo by David Noles

The Tenth Muse tells the story of Katherine, a mathematics scholar with a largely unknown personal history, through her voice. Her relationships, family, choices, and studies begin to interconnect as she advances in mathematics and simultaneously uncovers her past. As Katherine narrates her experiences spanning her childhood in the 1950s, fellowship in Europe, and family’s past in World War II, she points out pivotal moments in her life and what they mean to her. Both success and pain mark her journey of learning about herself and gaining prestige in mathematics. 

Author Catherine Chung grew up in Michigan, where her second novel, The Tenth Muse, begins. She has a background in mathematics herself and went on to earn her MFA at Cornell University. She lives in New York City and is a fiction editor at Guernica. 

Chung reads at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday, June 25, at 7 pm, and prior to her visit to Ann Arbor, she answered some questions from Pulp.

Q: In The Tenth Muse, the main character, Katherine, grows up in the fictional town of New Umbria, Michigan in the 1950s. You also grew up in Michigan. How did you decide to include Michigan as a setting? What are your connections to the state?
A: My family moved to Michigan from New Jersey the summer before I entered third grade, and I lived there until I went to the University of Chicago. My father was a computer science professor at Michigan State University, and while I always wanted to be a writer, I have fond memories of my father giving me math riddles on long car rides, and of my brother launching rockets out of our backyard and the fields outside our middle school. I remember going to the dairy store at MSU and seeing the dairy farm and learning about the four-chambered stomachs of cows. Childhood, science, and Michigan are all tangled up for me, and all play a big part in my book. I placed the setting of The Tenth Muse there because it takes up so much space in my memory. It’s the place I lived in longest in my life, the place I grew up, and the place I knew best and have loved maybe the most. I wanted to give the narrator, Katherine, a place that felt like home to me. The town of New Umbria is imaginary, but it has the feel of Michigan I remember and miss most: the wide open sky, the sudden thunderstorms, the ponds, the cool autumns. Katherine’s love of the place is complicated by her feeling of being out of place as a half-Asian girl, but also as someone whose family doesn’t go back generations. 

Q: Tell us about your path as a writer. It sounds like you’ve always loved reading and writing, and you also studied math as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. What was your decision process to give yourself over to writing like?
A: Oh, I gave myself over to writing when I was seven years old and wrote my first poem -- a haiku on the falling leaves and passing of the seasons. There was never a decision process: from then on, I always wrote. It was more a matter of biding my time until I could do that and have it be the primary way I spent my time. 

Q: You share a name with Katherine, though spelled differently. How did your experiences with mathematics inform your writing of The Tenth Muse
A: Yes, I did give Katherine a name quite similar to my own; it made me feel closer to her, which was useful when her experiences with mathematics departed so spectacularly from my own. Katherine is a math prodigy and a genius -- her experiences were very unlike my own, though I share her wonder and excitement at the vistas math can show us. 

Q: In the novel, Katherine encounters racism and sexism as she navigates a predominantly male field. The inequalities and unfairness that women faced are historically true, and the novel includes real historical figures in mathematics, such as Emmy Noether and Sofia Kovalevskaya. World War II and antisemitism also influence Katherine’s story. How do you consider these social and political issues and events through fiction?
A: In this book, I guess I use Katherine to make the experience of these historical figures and historical events personal -- we see these stories through her eyes and see what they mean to her and her own life. 

Q: Katherine meets personal challenges, as well. Her complicated family history is revealed to her slowly and piecemeal through stories from relatives and her own explorations. She has to decide between her studies of mathematics and her relationships at times. In many of these moments, Katherine describes their significance, such as this passage: “Peter and I blinked and broke eye contact. But in that long look had been a promise, and I’d recognized it for what it was -- the kind of intimacy that precedes intimacy.” How did you develop Katherine’s voice? 
A: Katherine’s voice just came to me -- I heard it in my mind, and I followed it. 

Q: Your first novel, Forgotten Country, took five years to write. How long did The Tenth Muse take? Describe your writing practice.
A: The Tenth Muse also took about five years, though there were many interruptions: I didn’t write for about a year when I took a tenure track job, and then for another six months when I was working on an experimental theater project with friends. The research took about a year, and there were about six months when I was pregnant that I was so nauseous I couldn’t write. Now that I have a child, my writing practice is far less all-encompassing than it once was. I used to be able to wake up writing and fall asleep writing, and now it’s definitely about finding moments when I can write.  

Q: Speaking of moments to write, what about moments to read? What books inspire you? 
A: Books that are tender, books that surprise me, books that feel free. Some examples: Helen Oyeyemi always astonishes me with her books, and I found her latest one, Gingerbread, absolutely astounding in its inventiveness, charm, and warmth. Women Talking by Miriam Toews is exhilarating. Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko and Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes were both so tender and full of kindness and love that they broke me. Ali Smith’s quartet -- so far only Autumn, Winter, and Spring have come out, but they are spectacular. Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic is spectacular.  

Q: You are also a fiction editor at Guernica. What do you look for in submissions? How does editing fiction inform your writing?
A: I really love editing for Guernica because it gives me the chance to step way back from my own writing and reading to consider how all these stories form a larger body of work made up of so many different voices. It gives me a different perspective, and I feel very lucky to be involved in choosing and editing some of the voices that are making up this larger conversation. When I choose books to read for myself, I’m often looking for something that I’ll like, that will please me, or that lines up with my interests and what I like to think about. When I read for Guernica, I try not to be looking for anything specific, but to open each piece with as much openness as possible. If something moves me, dazzles me, or astonishes me, I’m in. Because editing exposes me to so much more writing than I would read by myself -- a lot of it rougher, a lot of it not what I’d choose to pick up myself -- it teaches me as a writer to stay openminded, to remember how many different things fiction can do. And it reminds me that my work is part of a larger conversation that’s happening all the time.  

Q: I didn’t want The Tenth Muse to end. Is another novel or something else on the horizon? 
A: Thank you so much, that’s so kind of you to say! I am working on a children’s book and a project based on Gretel from “Hansel and Gretel” with my friend, the poet Lauren Alleyne. There’s a new novel percolating as well, but it hasn’t taken enough shape in my mind for me to talk about it yet!

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.

Catherine Chung reads from "The Tenth Muse" at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday, June 25, at 7 pm.


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