Time weighs heavily on the mind of both theoretical physicist Brian Greene and Pulitzer-prize winning author Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Both writers are part of the Author & Ideas Program at this year’s Festival of the Arts Boca, which runs from March 2-12 in Mizner Park.
For Greene, author of The Elegant Universe and Icarus at the Edge of Time, time is not a static notion, but one that can expand and contract with one’s position in the universe.
“(Albert) Einstein smashed Isaac Newton’s theory of time,” says Greene by phone from his office in New York. “Newton’s image of time is one we all have in our minds. That of a big clock ticking forward.”
“Einstein showed that when you move, the rate at which time elapses for you, is different than for someone who is not moving,” he said. “He also showed that if you go near a black hole, time elapses more slowly for you as compared to someone further away from the black hole.”
“Einstein proved that time is in the eye of the beholder,” Greene says. “It depends on what the beholder is doing; you can arrange things so time goes slower for you.”
Growing up across the street from the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, Greene’s interest in science was piqued early on.
After leaving a show there feeling small and insignificant, Greene says those emotions propelled him to examine the big existential questions of life — why are we here? What is our purpose? What is the meaning of life?
“My desire was to feel connected to the universe,” Greene says. “I wanted to spend my time immersed in its mysteries.”
“We all hunger for answers to the big questions,” he says. “And, the best substitute for answers is to understand the questions,” he says.
“Physics is one approach to the truth and makes me feel more connected to the universe,” says Greene.
And, according to the laws of physics, not only can time slow down or speed up, but the notion of time travel is a reality.
“We already know how to leapfrog forward in time,” says Greene, noting that only the technological challenge of getting there is holding us back.
Would he like to time travel and to where would he like to go?
“If I could take my family with me, I’d like to travel as far into the future as possible,” he says. “Only, I’m not going alone.”
“If it is possible to build a spaceship to travel near the speed of light … to travel into space six months there and six months back, we would only age one year, but we would return one billion years in the future because time elapses differently in every place.”
The notion of time is also a challenge for Egan, who does her own time traveling in A Visit from the Goon Squad. Her novel defies the chronological linear format, fast-forwarding and jumping back in time to other characters and places and other tangential storylines.
For Egan, whose novel also won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, time is the goon squad: “Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?” her character asks.
Inspired by Marcel Proust’s musings on time in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, and the TV show The Sopranos, Egan was fascinated by marginal characters in the show who came and went and occasionally took over the storyline.
“I loved that you often didn’t know the larger story of the season, but didn’t care because each episode was so gripping, you took it on face value,” Egan says.
She was inspired to recreate that idea in a novel and penned each chapter in a different style, including nearly 70 pages of Powerpoint presentations, illustrating additional storylines and relationships.
“My stories are not happening in reality as we know it,” she says, “but in an exaggerated version of reality. There’s a lot of chance in this. My characters evolve out of time and place; that’s my way into the story.”
Growing up in San Francisco at the tail end of the Haight-Ashbury era, Egan was later taken with punk rock and the idea of concept albums such as The Who’s Tommy, and David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust.
The idea of a concept album, a story told in individual pieces of music with different sounds, was the inspiration for the organizing principle of her book.
After a tumultuous childhood, Egan, now living in Brooklyn with her husband and two children, prizes her conventional life.
And, while her life may be conventional, her books aren’t.
“I have a rich fantasy life,” says Egan. “That’s where I get my kicks. I don’t have to do anything wild in my real life; having a stable home life helps me creatively and gives me the ballast and the energy to write.”
Egan doesn’t believe in the old writer’s adage to ‘write what you know.’
“For me, writing is exactly the opposite,” she says. “I write exactly what I want to discover. To get the confidence need to write this way broadened my world. This is the gift fiction writing gives to me.”
Her newest novel, Manhattan Beach, a noir thriller set in the 1930s and 1940s about deep sea diving and the mob, is coming out in the fall.
Jennifer Egan will be speaking on Thursday, March 2, 7 p.m. at the Cultural Arts Center in Mizner Park. Tickets are $30 per person. Brian Greene will be speaking on Tuesday, March 7, at 7 p.m. at the Mizner Park Amphitheater. Ticket prices range from $30–$45 per person.
Tickets for the 11th Annual Festival of the Arts Boca range from $9.99 to $125 per person and are available at festivalboca.org or by calling (866) 571-ARTS (866-571-2787). For program details and ticket information visit: festivalboca.org.