Tacoma native Dan Boyle’s newest novel, “Housecleaning,” is about Tom, a physicist who seeks to develop the long-sought unified theory of space, time and place, as he deals with his mother’s strange form of dementia that is triggered by the personal items she finds in her house.
Question: How did you became interested in memory and string theory and how did you weave it all together into a rather complex framework with an intriguing plot?
Answer: I started wondering at one point in my life whether we are nothing more than our own memories. I have a character in my first novel, “Huddle,” who asks this same question. I wanted to explore this in my next novel by creating an aging woman who basically lives in her memories, which then brought me to various concepts of time. That’s when I came up with the idea of having Maude’s son be a physicist who studies time and space. And then, I had to make him a string theorist because string theory is such an amazing concept, with its 11 dimensions the idea that we are all made up of strings whose vibrations determine all mass and energy in the universe.
Q: How did you decide to incorporate philosophies and influences of Mandela, Gandhi, Einstein and others into a work of fiction? Is any of what you fictionalized based on fact? How did you depart from history?
A: I departed from history all the time in the book. For example, there’s no evidence that Einstein ever conceived “music” as an ultimate theory as described in my book. However, there is truth that Einstein believed in a one-world government, and I wanted to use this idea because my novel deals with the collective unconscious and the connectivity of all people.
Q: Are your own theories about multiple dimensions, string theory, perception, time, the unknown and the knowable, faith, alternate universes, as well as gay politics, relevant to the writing of this novel?
A: Regarding time and faith, yes. Time is a major theme in my novel, and Maude’s falling back into time and Tom’s desire and inability to bring back the past is necessary for this exploration. Faith, and how it is not necessary contradictory to science, also is a major theme. That is why I make Tom a string theorist, because so far there is no way to empirically prove string theory. It is a beautiful mathematical concept, but right now scientists can only believe in it by faith.
Regarding gay politics, I wanted to create someone who happens to be gay, but that is only one part of who he is. Tom is very universal. He happens to be gay, but that doesn’t make him different. His one true love was an African-American. That’s never meant to be shocking. It just how it is. Tom and Maude never see anyone by whether they’re black or white, straight or gay. It goes back to the connectivity of all people, how we are all one. How we are universal.
Q: What’s your educational background? Who are some of the people who have inspired you over the years?
A: I graduated from Western Washington University in 1982 with a bachelor of arts degree in English and Journalism. There was an English professor there at the time, Reed Merrill, and he was the first person who got me hooked into philosophy and novelists of ideas, such as Tolstoy (my very favorite writer), Dostoevsky, Lermontov, Hesse, Mann and Camus. Socrates is my favorite philosopher. I’ve also always found Einstein fascinating, and even more so as I researched him for this novel.
Q: Does your job now have any influence on what your books are like?
A: I currently work as director of media relations for Providence Health & Services for its California region. Knowing about medicine and the health-care industry has proven valuable in writing “Housecleaning,” as Maude often ends up in the hospital. I was also fortunate to run my ideas about Maude and her dementia in front of a neurologist I admire and whom I work with at work.
Q: What does the title mean, to you?
A: Literally, it is called “Housecleaning” because Maude falls into the past whenever she’s cleaning house and comes upon mementos from the past. This is also a family drama, and so Maude and Tom are “cleaning house.” Then again, the “house” can be interpreted as the universe. I believe there can be unlimited interpretations of the title.
Q: How might this book be different if it were not set in the Pacific Northwest?
A: Anyone who has lived in the Pacific Northwest all their life should move away for a few years. It’s the only way for you to really see what makes the Northwest so special. I find it the most tolerant society in the United States. Its beauty is amazing, compared to the brown hills here in Southern California. The Northwest has a landscape that induces personal reflection — its gray skies, its mountains and bodies of water. It was important for Tom to leave the bustling city of Los Angeles, which moves so fast you rarely have time to think, and return home to Tacoma and Seattle to reflect.
Q: How are the relationships among the family members important to the plot and themes of this book?
A: There is a connection between Maude and Tom — mother and son — that they do not see. At least Tom does not see it, at first. This works into my concept of a universal connection among all people. The same is true with Kate, Tom’s sister. She has cast herself away from the family, is no longer connected. But in the end, Tom and Kate recall at the very same moment, a memory, of when they body surfed a great wave as children. It is then that they have reconnected.