The Interview | With Terrence Holt

New marriage of science and fiction

By Anna Mundow
Globe Correspondent / November 15, 2009

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Terrence Holt taught writing and literature for a decade before becoming a physician, and “In the Valley of the Kings,’’ his first published collection of short fiction, daringly maps the shadowy terrain that exists - in these pages at least - between the physical and the unearthly. “My Father’s Heart,’’ for example, is a queasy tale of a son caring for a heart now beating in a jar; three other stories are futuristic refetellings of Greek myths and the title story returns an archaeologist to ancient Egypt.

Holt practices and is on the faculty at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. He spoke from his home in North Carolina.

Q. Is this science fiction?

A. I avoid the label for a couple of reasons. In fiction, generic distinctions between what’s real and what’s fantastic don’t make much sense: It’s all fiction. And as part of a larger tendency to isolate things that make us uncomfortable, I think such distinctions are dangerous. The sky is not a dome separating us from space: Earth is in space. But I am drawn to science, some aspects of it. Space, chiefly. The first story I wrote in this collection, “Charybdis,’’ got its start when I was taking Carl Sagan’s astronomy course at Cornell. He described sending a probe into the Great Red Spot of Jupiter, which is a hurricane about the size of Earth. The idea of diving into something that big, that powerful - the grandeur of it just seized me. It makes perfect sense we named everything up there after the gods. When you set a story there you get a free pass into the realm of myth.

Q. Why is Poe such an influence?

A. Love. I’ve loved his stories since grade school. And I often need a voice that can blur the lines between rationality and lunacy. That turns out to sound a lot like Poe. I’m happy with that. I’m happy doing anything that makes people think about Poe.

Q. Why do you so often set your characters adrift?

A. Perhaps it’s because, early on as a writer, I spent months trying to ditch everything in my writing that I didn’t understand well enough to make it do what I wanted. After I was done, there wasn’t much left: I felt adrift myself, and the world that was left for my characters was pretty spare. But I also felt I could work with what remained. I often write in a form that resembles a journal for the same reason. I can’t hold more than a couple of paragraphs in my head at a time, so it helps to break things up that way. The pieces that aren’t in that form tend to be short.

Q. Does that form also create suspense?

A. It makes it easier to manage structure. I think suspense arises from a tension inherent in the making. I never outline. In the early stages I have no idea where a story is going: I’m worried. Milton has Satan getting out of Hell by laying paving slabs over Chaos. I think of that often when I’m writing.

Q. Are you dismantling reality - and reason - in these stories?

A. I like limits and liminal places, border zones in general, where you get to lift the scenery and see the machinery backstage. Put it another way: Everything we know, we know through representation. Photons hit our retinas; proteins warp and ions flow; neurons fire in the back of the skull; and we think we’re seeing. I’m drawn to places where this constructedness of things becomes perceptible. We really do see as through a glass, darkly, and these stories are as much about the glass as about the image in it.

Q. Why do you play with time in these stories?

A. I play with it, but I try to play fair. I think of myself as a literary realist, and tend to be obsessive about working out the details: orbital mechanics, hieroglyphs, anatomy. I’ve spent hours, for example, making sure that I have the mechanics right, say, of something adrift in the rings of Saturn. Not that I think it matters to anyone else, but it matters to me. There’s an inherent tension in telling stories that seem to be entirely fantastic and yet tethering them to the world that science describes. So there has to be a time scheme as well. If it seems obscure it’s because these stories are about trying to wrest meaning out of obscurity.

Q. Does your experience as a physician influence your writing?

A. I do medicine for the same reasons that I write. Medicine explores one of the great boundary zones: It’s a pretty dark place sometimes, and there are real monsters in it - like suffering, like death. I write partly in order to map that terrain. Because of that, these stories can seem grim, but for me they’re really celebrations. I think they’re about joy more than horror; they’re about love more than loss. They’re about why anyone would ever want to be a doctor. They’re about why we love life and why we should love each other. Life is fleeting. Love is hard. We need to know these things or we’re missing the point of everything.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached by e-mail at ama1668@hotmail .com.

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