Family and physics part of debut novel from Morris author
MORRIS — When asked to come up with a punchy, concise description of the plot, characters and themes of her debut novel, "Charmed Particles," novelist Chrissy Kolaya struggled.
"This book is weird and difficult to explain concisely," she said.
"Charmed Particles," out Nov. 10 from Dzanc Books, is set in a small, rural Illinois town that is home to both a living history museum and a laboratory studying high-energy particle physics. The scientists and residents of the community co-exist, until the town is named a finalist in the search for a location to build a new superconducting supercollider in the late 1980s. As one might expect, conflict ensues.
While the concept of the novel may seem complicated, at it's heart "Charmed Particles" is a recognizable story about family, ambition and community. At the center of the novel are two families. Abhijat is a theoretical physicist from India who immigrated to Nicolet with his wife, Sarala, to work at the lab. Their daughter Meena's best friend, Lily, is the daughter of a local politician, Rose, who finds herself standing in opposition to the collider.
The spark for the novel came from Kolaya's experience moving to a suburb southwest of Chicago in 1988 that was an actual finalist to house a particle accelerator. On one of her first days of high school, Kolaya remembered seeing protesters of the facility outside the building.
"That really imprinted on me, this event," said Kolaya. As she started doing research years later, she realized the checkered story of the supercollider would be an interesting backbone for a novel.
In 2010, Kolaya was awarded a travel grant to visit the Fermilab, America's premier particle physics laboratory, in Chicago, Illinois.
Her visit to the archives and opportunity to speak with scientists who worked at the lab during the time period of "Charmed Particles" helped bring texture to the novel, she said.
By 2011, Kolaya had a working draft of the novel, but wanted to gather more feedback from readers.
"I knew I was tackling a potentially alienating or intimidating topic — when you tell people you have this novel about high energy particle physics they get a little nervous," said Kolaya.
Using social media and connections in Morris, Kolaya — an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris — launched what she called the "Feedback and Serialization Project." Each week, interested readers would receive an e-mail with a few short chapters of the novel for them to read and share feedback on, to whatever extent they felt comfortable commenting on the draft.
"For me, the project was an experiment in avoiding the pitfall of being a writer who writes only for other writers," Kolaya said. "I especially sought feedback from participants who identified as readers but not as writers. ... Everybody brought really different things to the table that I might not have gotten otherwise."
Kolaya's team of beta readers eventually included members of Morris' Kiwanis club, former students, a local banker, a neighbor, a university librarian, colleagues across disciplines at UMM, a high school student, and some of the physicists from Fermilab she interviewed during her research trip.
Throughout the process of finding an agent, continuing revisions, and selling the novel to a publisher, Kolaya said she continued to get support from those local readers who were curious about what was happening to the book.
"It felt like there was part of our community that knew about this and was cheering it on," said Kolaya. The process was so successful, Kolaya said she hopes to try something similar as she works on her next novel.
The community is invited to a reading and book signing for "Charmed Particles" on Wednesday, Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. at the LaFave House (305 College Avenue).