Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: We love how you approach such an unexpected aspect of Einstein’s life. How did you come to write about, of all things, his socks?
Karen Greenbaum-Maya: Believe it or not, Einstein was well-known for not wearing socks. It’s one of the little factoids that popular mentions of him bring up over and over, usually to claim that he was an absent-minded unworldly scientist, even though he was more savvy politically than most of the men in charge. The weird thing is that there isn’t much else written about his socks besides the lone factoid (and one particular photo adduced as evidence). What little amplification I was able to find, though, was that he hated spending the time on something so repetitious, particularly since his prominent big toe tended to burst through the sock at least once a week. I’m no Einstein, but I also know the feeling of craving uninterrupted time, and I know how hard it is to wrest some time out of the days’ routine.
RR: Do you find yourself inclined toward writing imaginatively about other significant historical figures?
KGM: Why yes, I do often use other historical figures as personae. I suppose it’s part of having been a psychologist, in that I am interested in people, in how they manage their inner lives within the demands of their outer lives. Every so often I find myself imagining (projecting) my way into some aspect of some person—and not necessarily approvingly. Also, if I dream of someone known in the larger world, I usually want to write from that dream. between the two, I have quite a list. It does go on: Superman, Rilke, John Lennon, Bill Clinton, Van Gogh, Wisława Szymborska, the mass shooter in the Colorado movie theater, Elvis, Theodor Adorno, Carl Jung, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Edward Teller, Mikhal Kashnikov, and, George Clooney. And, I’m currently shopping around an entire chapbook of (utterly fictional) prose poems about Kafka.
RR: We’re interested in your research process. Did you have to do research when writing this piece or do you happen to be a big Einstein fanatic?
KGM: These pieces often start with a question: Did you know? Isn’t that wild? Can you believe? As it happens, I do admire Einstein a lot. Here’s a generalization: what artists do can be done by no one but that artist—their public expression of the personal is not something that could come from any other individual. Analogously conversely, what scientists do could often be done eventually by someone else. Given that research arises from problems that are public knowledge about the state of the field, it’s a matter of someone working it out from the public facts sooner or later. However! This is not always the case! Only Einstein was able to work out the images, the strategies, the formulations that he produced. Others worked on it but never found the way. In that sense, his was not only a once-in-five-hundred-years brain, but the parallel to an artistic brain. And sure, I looked around online and in some of the books on our shelves to make sure I wasn’t getting the facts entirely wrong, and to see what other bits might contribute to what I was writing. (My husband is a retired organic chemist and rocket scientist, yeah that’s right, so we have all kinds of books on our shelves.) All this by way of saying, I don’t have to do research, but I find it stimulating and fun to do so some.
RR: Can you discuss the balance between making a piece factually accurate while also developing your own creative voice?
KGM: My creative voice finds plenty of room to speculate in and around the facts and events. People are interesting! Patterns are all over the place! I do like to get some grounding info so that what I let loose bears some connection to the person I’m projecting upon. With due modesty, my process is not unlike Einstein’s thought experiments, in which he would set up a situation and let it play out according to the requirements, the limits, of his question. People are full of surprises, but they don’t become someone else.
RR: Do you prefer to write flash nonfiction, or do you find yourself writing longer nonfiction as well? Can you tell us about any new projects that you’re working on?
KGM: I have only just realized that my personae pieces qualify as flash nonfiction. I had mostly thought of them as speculative prose poems. In my psychology days I wrote longer nonfiction pieces, such as neuropsychological evaluations, and I reviewed local restaurants for five years, but no nonfiction otherwise. I am a good storyteller, but I can’t make up a plot to save my life. My voice goes to poetry, and in many forms.
Karen Greenbaum-Maya’s work in Issue 5.3: