The Big Idea: Jim Ottaviani
For Jim Ottaviani, it wasn’t enough just to write a graphic novel about Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman (with Leland Myrick illustrating). In the process writing itself he found inspiration from his subject, and discovered that Feynman’s own maxims and ideas had direct application to his own work. If you’re a writer, might they have application to yours as well? It’s time to find out in this Big Idea. Take it away, Mr. Ottaviani.
What would Feynman do? That’s the question I’ve asked myself almost daily since beginning to write a book about him, and I’m still answering it now that it’s about to come out. For starters, he wouldn’t (didn’t!) limit himself to one big idea, so I’ll follow his lead and talk about three.
1. “Funny looking pictures”
If you drew a Venn diagram and labeled the three circles and labeled them ‘non-fiction,’ ‘graphic novels,’ and ‘scientists,’ you’d expect a small area of overlap. You’d be right, but even though you can touch all the walls surrounding that area without stretching your arms (metaphorically, anyway), it’s a great place to live and work. That’s because it makes sense.
Scientists communicate with pictures. If you don’t believe me, drop by your local library — a college or university library would be best, but a public library will work almost as well — and compare the literary magazines to the scientific journals. I guarantee you’ll see more pictures per feature in the science stuff. Yes, some of the pictures will be graphs, and none will look as good as the drawings Leland Myrick did for our book, but if you want images, science has ’em. And if you happened to pick up a physics journal, you’re likely to have run across a few pictures named after Richard Feynman himself. He called them “funny looking pictures,” but the rest of the world calls them Feynman Diagrams and uses them to solve difficult-bordering-on-intractable problems in quantum electrodynamics. They’ve done so since he introduced them in the 1940s. He thought it would be a kick if serious articles started to feature these funny looking inventions of his. They did, and it was.
Yes, the diagrams allow physicists to cut through horrible thickets of equations and visualize what goes on when light interacts with matter, but that’s not what Feynman meant when he talked about getting rid of crap. Or at least not specifically; he meant that it was important to stop focusing on, or thinking about, things peripheral to the question at hand.
And he was a guy who always had questions at hand, ranging from how superfluidity in helium worked to how best to get a date with a showgirl.
When the question is how to cram a life as vivid as Feynman’s into a single book, figuring out what to get rid of killed me because there was no crap. His work on the Manhattan Project, his safe-cracking exploits at Los Alamos, his drumming, his moonlighting as an artist, his best-selling books, his roles in nanotechnology, supercomputing, and a space shuttle accident investigation? None of it crap. And then there’s the physics, and two great love affairs, and the famous lectures and the adventures he made sure he had in his free time. No crap there either. And the Nobel Prize? Well, Feynman considered it a burden, and said he’d rather not have accepted it. But still, it’s not crap.
This is where my editors, Tanya and then Calista, brought the focus onto the best parts of the story and the question at hand: Does this scene tell us who Feynman was, and why readers should care? With that, the peripheral stuff revealed itself as, if not crap, at least not central to the story. And they’re gone. It tore a piece out of heart each time, but that’s life.
Making a graphic novel takes a long time. I researched the book for years, took another couple of years to hammer a script into shape, and then it took Leland over two years to draw the whole thing. Add in some additional time for copy-editors and colorists and designers to do their (fabulous, in this case) things and my memory starts to get unreliable as to what happened when. All by way of saying I may have the timing mixed up here, but as I remember it, when the folks at First Second took my proposal for a book about Feynman seriously I had two responses. They came milliseconds apart, which is why at this remove I’m not sure which came first, but they were “You mean you’ll pay me for something I was going to do for free?!” and “Wait. I’m not ready.”
I’m still not ready, but the good thing about the long gestation period is that now that I’m asked to talk about making the book and do all the other promotional stuff authors get to do, I come to them fresh, almost as if someone else’s name is on the cover. That helps make writing for the Big Idea, and the upcoming tour, and doing all the various things for all the various venues more fun, and easy to say yes to.
That leads me back to Feynman, because that’s what he would say if something sounded interesting or challenging or even just amusing. He knew that if nothing else came of saying yes to a new thing he would at least get a good story out of trying it.
So I wrote the book, and yes, I’m glad I did.