About the book
Rural Nicolet, Illinois, is a city anchored between two opposing forces, a living history museum devoted to the American frontier and a laboratory for experiments in high-energy particle physics. When the proposal to build the Superconducting Super Collider under the town sparks debate between the scientists and the locals, two families find themselves on opposite sides of controversy that fractures the community, exposing deep cultural rifts between longtime friends
Abhijat, a scientist from India now working at the National Accelerator Research Laboratory, has a sole obsession: making a name for himself as one of history’s great theoretical physicists. The search for recognition blinds him to the burgeoning distance between him and his wife, Sarala, who devotes herself to their daughter Meena and assimilating into suburban America. Across town, Rose Winchester strives to raise precocious Lily, stitching together an unconventional marriage from the brief visits and vibrant letters of her husband Randolph, who fancies himself the last great gentleman explorer.
With incisive prose and infinite humanity, Charmed Particles traces the collision of past and progress, science and tradition, and the unimagined elements that may arise in the aftermath.
Read an excerpt here.
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Praise for Charmed Particles
Charmed Particles is a deftly constructed fable of modernity told in elegant, pellucid prose. Kolaya draws her characters with affectionate acuity and the whole reminds me—in its depiction of childhood precocity and earnest adult eccentricity—of one of Wes Anderson’s wry wonders.
—Peter Ho Davies, author of The Welsh Girl
A wonderfully impish satire, Chrissy Kolaya’s Charmed Particles is all about various cross-cultural, cross-temporal, and cross-spatial explorations as charged with mystery, magic, and possibility as the high-energy particle physics conducted at the National Accelerator Research Lab that forms the novel’s literal and metaphoric heart. What a sparkling debut.
—Lance Olsen, author of Theories of Forgetting
Charmed Particles is inspired by very real stories straight from today’s headlines, yet managed to mesmerize me in the way of an intoxicating fairytale. Kolaya’s characters are flawed, though sympathetic citizens, gazing suspiciously at one another across great chasms of misunderstanding—passionately divided. Yet in her alchemical hands we’re shown what is possible when we have the courage to venture deep within our wounded hearts: sweet magic.
—Susan Power, author of Grass Dancer
Chrissy Kolaya writes from a place of deep intelligence, humor, and sympathy about a cast of varied, marvelously drawn characters. This debut novel is an extremely accomplished and affecting story about family, ambition, the immigrant experience, and the inexorable forward movement of Time and its much-admired handmaiden Progress. Truly wonderful.
—Christine Sneed, author of Little Known Facts and Paris, He Said
Having already established herself as an award-winning poet and master of short stories, Chrissy Kolaya has proven herself—with this debut novel—to be a brilliant novelist as well. With its thoughtful consideration of community, science, and the balance between work and life Charmed Particles is an engaging, provoking, and utterly charming debut.
—Andrew Carroll, author of the New York Times bestsellers War Letters and Behind the Lines
Charmed Particles is more than an insightful, yet fictional, depiction of the human impact on different communities concerned with the late 20th-century Superconducting Super Collider. Unfolding gently through the evolving stories of two young families, it builds to a moment of colliding perspectives over pioneering progress in physics versus historical physical preservation and ultimately reveals the shared aspirations of both. You will enjoy this tender, timely, and thought-provoking first novel by Chrissy Kolaya.
—Adrienne Kolb, co-author of Tunnel Visions: The Rise and Fall of the Superconducting Super Collider
“Ambitious theoretical physicist Abhijat is consumed by his quest for new discoveries at the National Accelerator Research Lab outside Chicago, leaving his wife, Sarala, fresh from Bombay, largely alone as she tries to adjust to the strange quiet of small-town American life while caring for their highly intelligent daughter, Meena. Rose traveled the world with her explorer husband until returning home to this former farming community to raise their daughter, Lily, a true prodigy, while Randolph continues his expeditions. On the foundation of these parallel households, debuting novelist Kolaya adeptly builds a magnetizing, deeply perceptive tale of the clash between outsiders and insiders, personal obsession and family, tradition and change, dream and delusion. Writing with bright tenderness, piquant humor, and supple wisdom, Kolaya emulates, ever so subtly, the fleet dynamics of particle physics as she orchestrates a mesmerizing plot of revelation and adaptation. As the two brainy girls bond, the two marriages come under strain, and the town and the lab face off over plans for a Superconducting Super Collider, Kolaya investigates urgent questions of ignorance and fear, authenticity and deceit, of bridging gaps between cultures and individuals, and of recognizing and embracing what truly matters.”
“Part immigration story, part Midwestern pastoral, Kolaya’s charming debut maps the schisms of a small Illinois town that’s divided over a proposal to build a Superconducting Super Collider at the local research lab.”
In Charmed Particles, first-time novelist Chrissy Kolaya incorporates physics, cultural assimilation and family friendships into a story of small-town political conflict.
When the U.S. Department of Energy announces that it is considering building a Superconducting Super Collider that would replace the National Research Accelerator Lab in Nicolet, Ill., theoretical physicist Abhijat Mital is excited by what it could mean for his career, but many of Nicolet’s citizens don’t share his enthusiasm.
Mayoral candidate Rose Winchester opposes the SSC, and popular opinion, fueled by fear of the project’s environmental impact and resentment over the potential loss of homes to its construction, seems to be on her side. However, Rose’s scientifically inclined teen daughter, Lily, aligns herself with Abhijat, the father of her best friend, Meena, in support of the project. Meanwhile, Meena and her mother, Sarala, more attuned to their community than Abhijat is, both have reservations. Sarala has spent more than a decade since moving from India trying to assimilate into the Midwestern suburbs, and is torn by understanding both her neighbors’ concerns and her husband’s hopes for the project; Meena just wants to fit in with her high-school class.
The early chapters of Charmed Particles are largely episodic and focused on developing the characters; by the time the SSC proposal is introduced, the reader has become invested in these people’s lives and how they will be changed by it, no matter what the outcome. Kolaya’s emphasis on personal relationships helps her portray the public controversy over the SSC with sympathy to all sides, and the result is a story that engages both heart and mind. —Florinda Pendley Vasquez, blogger at The 3 R’s Blog: Reading, ‘Riting, and Randomness
“In poet Chrissy Kolaya’s debut novel, plans to build a Superconducting Super Collider (google it) divides the rural town of Ricolet, Illinois, home of the renowned National Accelerator Research Lab. I’ll be straight with you: I got a C+ in Physics, so I was less-than-thrilled by the esoteric science-iness this book’s overview promised. But I soon discovered that Charmed Particles is less about quarks and more about the personalities that enliven this small, special town. In particular, Kolaya paints subtle but affecting portraits of the Mitals, who immigrated from India so that Abhijat, a theoretical physicist, could take a job at the Lab; and the Winchesters, whose patriarch travels the world as an explorer, leaving matriarch Rose alone to raise their precocious daughter. The breaking apart and coming together of the individuals, the families, and the town creates a kind of magic within these pages, which I’m guessing is not unlike the magic of physics itself. (But someone who didn’t nearly fail the subject can back me up on that.)”
“While many books are hyped by publishers, publications, and readers, most rely on word of mouth to find an audience…Now that I’ve read Charmed Particles, I regret not doing so as soon as it arrived. It is a thought-provoking novel of ideas that will charm you with its soft touch. It deserves far more attention and acclaim than it is getting.
Kolaya … deserves kudos for the quality of her writing. Her prose is smooth and fluid, and the narrative voice she has created is as satisfying as floating downstream on a sunny day. You will find yourself halfway through the book before you look up to see what time it is. Charmed Particles is that rare novel that lacks even one clunky sentence.
This is a novel that deserves a wider audience. Kolaya has written a story with the perfect blend of ideas and people, and readers will find themselves thinking about all of them when they close the book.”
Read the full review here.
In Praise of Curiosity
About the Superconducting Super Collider
The Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) was a real project under consideration at a number of locations around the United States in the 1980s. Scientists believed the collider would help them to understand more about the matter that makes up the universe, and as such, would help them to understand the circumstances under which the universe came to exist.
For many years, the United States stood at the forefront of physics research, and many proponents of the SSC believed its construction would help the United States retain that position. But this was the era of Chernobyl, of Three Mile Island; mistrust of the government was strong, and questions about the safety of scientific facilities were on the minds of many citizens.
Much like in the novel, physicists hoped the SSC would help to prove or disprove many of the theories about particle physics that were under consideration at the time. In the 1980s, the Department of Energy began the process of searching for an appropriate location for the collider; one of the locations under consideration was Fermilab and the surrounding communities. At the end of a long process that included environmental impact studies and public hearings, Waxahachie, Texas, was selected as the site of the future SSC.
Construction of the SSC began in 1991, but by 1993, with increasing costs, the U.S. government pulled the funding, having already spent 2 billion dollars on the project. The Waxahachie location, where construction had already begun on tunnels and buildings, was abandoned. For many years, the partially completed site of the SSC stood empty, vandalized and filling with rainwater. (You can find some really interesting photographs of the abandoned site taken by some urban explorers by searching around on the internet.) Recently, though, the site has been acquired by a company who uses it as chemical blending facility and who have, in an interesting twist, preserved the initialism SSC, which now stands for the “Specialty Services Complex.”
Had it been completed, the SSC would have been the most powerful accelerator ever constructed, three times as powerful as the LHC, currently the world’s largest and most powerful particle collider. Many scientists believe that had the SSC project gone forward as planned, discoveries such as the Higgs Boson (frequently referred to as the “God particle”) would have happened earlier and would have been made in the United States.
The story of the SSC has much to say about American attitudes toward science and the challenges scientists and science writers face with when communicating about such complex research for lay audiences.
About Fermilab, the inspiration for the National Accelerator Research Lab
Much like the novel’s National Accelerator Research Lab, Fermilab is a particle physics laboratory located in the Chicago suburbs. The lab focuses on research into one of the most the enduring mysteries of science—what is our universe made of and how did it come to exist? Named after renowned Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, Fermilab houses the Tevatron, which ceased operation in 2011 but was for a time the world’s highest energy proton-antiproton collider. Its technology has since been outpaced by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland, where scientists recently confirmed discovery of the Higgs boson and a new class of particle called Pentaquarks. CERN has also been the subject of numerous conspiracies and much speculation about the creation of black holes, time travel, etc.
The story of the founding of Fermilab is fascinating—the campus is located on land that was once the town of Weston, Illinois, a town that no longer exists. Weston was annexed in the 1960s to allow for the construction of the Fermilab campus. As in the novel, many of the former town’s homes are still in use today as offices and to house visiting scientists and their families.
When Fermilab arrived, the area was still very much a small, rural community. Suddenly, this small farming community found itself home to a number of internationally renowned scientists; over the years this, other forces, and changing land-use patterns have been at the root of the area’s transformation into a busy suburban community. For more information about the founding of Fermilab, I recommend Fermilab: Physics, the Frontier, and Megascience, which was invaluable to me in my research.
In the late 1980s, Fermilab was one of the sites under consideration to house the proposed Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), a project eventually begun in Waxahachie, Texas. Today, Fermilab is still considered by many to be the premier laboratory for particle physics in the United States. In recent years, Fermilab scientists have focused on experiments on dark matter, dark energy, and some really interesting projects, including an experiment called MINOS in which beams of neutrinos were sent underground all the way from Batavia, Illinois, to the Soudan Mine in northern Minnesota to help provide scientists with a better understanding of neutrino oscillations.
About the Academy
The Academy is based on the Illinois Math and Science Academy (IMSA), a residential high school for gifted and talented students founded in 1985. Leon Lederman, Nobel prize winning physicist and director of Fermilab at the time was one of IMSA’s founders.
How did the idea for this book originate?
In 1989, my family moved from Indiana to the Chicago suburbs. On one of my first days at my new high school, I was surprised to find protesters gathered out in front of the school. The school was hosting a public hearing, and I was curious to know what it was that the protesters felt so passionately about. I later learned that the hearing was on the proposed Superconducting Super Collider. The area near our school was part of the area proposed for the location of the collider. In watching how the issue polarized our community, I’ve been interested in the importance of communicating effectively about science.
What inspired you to write the novel? Where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
I’ve found that the best things for me to write about are the things I’m insatiably curious about. For this book, I drew inspiration from my childhood love of encyclopedias, from a number of texts that make an appearance in the book, from my early memories of the SSC conflict in the Chicago suburbs.
I had great fun researching this book. It felt very much like playing—imagining these people into being, this town into being. I immersed myself in books about physics, gentlemen explorers, and the fabulously weird Secret Museum of Mankind. These are what began to get the wheels slowly creaking, and then, once they were moving, I drew much inspiration from the interviews I conducted at Fermilab and at a nearby living history facility.
How do you develop your characters? Where do they come from?
I wouldn’t say that any of my characters are based on one particular person I’ve known. I’ve tried that, but it feels very limiting in terms of the fun parts of writing fiction—imagining, embellishing. I’ve found that the characters I most enjoy writing are a collage of character traits, personality ticks, and back stories, cut and pasted from people I’ve encountered, and stitched together, with a whole lot of imagining and embellishing mixed in. I tend to write about the types of people and the personality ticks I’m most curious about, though not necessarily those that are most like me.
One of the fun parts of writing this book was that because so many of these characters are so bookish, I had the chance to do some character development through the books and texts that are most important to them. That was an interesting way to get inside the characters and learn and understand more about them.
What about the story of the SSC intrigued you?
When I moved to the Chicago suburbs at the beginning of high school, the area where I grew up was in the midst of a great deal of conflict over the issue of the SSC. One of my first memories from my new school was a public hearing that was held there on the matter. Becoming aware of this conflict was for me a very real part of coming to understand this new town we were living in. What’s funny is that in writing the book, I talked with many of my fellow high school classmates who had been long-term residents of the area at the time, and this barely registered for them. For me, there was something about the idea of this being part of my first impression of the area that made it register in a way that it perhaps didn’t with my contemporaries.
As I learned more about the issue, I was struck, as Meena is later in the book, that the main problem seemed to be that the two sides were unable to talk to one another effectively. In many ways, they don’t speak the same language. And I think this is a situation we see replicated in lots of situations, politically, academically, culturally.
You write both fiction and poetry. When you start a writing project, how do you know which it will be?
I haven’t yet figured out how that works, beyond saying that I feel like I know once I start thinking about the writing. Partly it has to do with length: poetry allows you to focus on a moment, fiction on a world, a life. In many ways, poetry is freeing—not having to worry about plot and character development, or things like moving a character from one room to another. With fiction, though, one can create whole worlds, and as a writer you feel like you have more space in which to work.
What has been the toughest criticism you’ve been given as an author? What has been the best compliment?
As a writer, any time you’re told “no”—and it happens so often—it’s very difficult to maintain faith in your abilities and your vision of the work you’re doing. I think the toughest part of being a writer is just continuing to do it, no matter how many times you hear no. Of course, part of what’s important is listening to what information comes with that no—that’s where you have an opportunity to learn and improve
As for the greatest compliment, for me it’s the idea that someone reads my work and is engaged with it. As a writer, especially an emerging writer, there’s such a sense that your work just floats out into the ether never to be seen or heard from again. It’s a rare treat to be reminded that there are eyes on those pages besides your own.