Interview with Carissa Halston
1. “The Dual” is a homonym for “duel.” Was that intended? What connotations do you hope people will read into your title?
The homonym was intentional, yes. It’s both representative of Claire’s struggle with her anti-identity (that is, her denial over being a number-cruncher and her resistance to being a person who can live amicably with numbers) and the role many readers take on when reading. This goes beyond reading, but most people gravitate toward binary distinctions—good or bad, hero or villain, left-brained or right-brained. I hope that readers will intuit that those kinds of divisions create a sort of literary confrontation pitting the reader against the story. It places them mentally in one camp or another and nuance is subsequently lost.
2. There are a lot of numbers in your story. Is there a hidden code?
No hidden code, I’m afraid. I can say that I had a very good time writing the first half of that story with regard to the number of numbers. I put at least one reference to numbers or math in every sentence until the story became more “emotional” (read: before it referenced love). I did so to exploit that either/or dichotomy I mentioned above.
3. Would you concede that this is a horror story?
I concede that there’s a moment of horrific violence in it, but I’m not sure I’d call it a horror story. I don’t find it scary. I find it sad. I suppose it could be called magical realism or surrealism.
4. Are you good at math?
I’m quite good at arithmetic. I’m an adequate predicate logician. I haven’t thought (and I mean really thought) about algebra in some time, but it didn’t keep me up at night in high school. Per IQ tests, I’m a spatial reasoner. That has a bit to do with math, I think.
5. How are math and art related?
In literature, math can represent restrictions. Look at Oulipo. Queneau wrote a single scene 99 different ways for Exercises in Style. Calvino structured Mr. Palomar in nine cycles, with three chapters per cycle—there’s actually a fascinating little explanation at the back of the book about what exactly he was doing structurally. So math can make for some really self aware literature. However, it can also prove as a foil to character (as it does in “The Dual”) or as a method of proving/disproving epistemological issues. That is, if you can disprove a mathematical “truth,” how can anything really be “true?” In fiction, that’s an idea which could take an entire novel to tease out.
In visual art, it gets even more interesting because math allows artists to create patterns and then use them to exploit/skew reality. When three-dimensional perspective was first being rendered in two-dimensional art, the first thing that painters messed with was what they knew was visually factual. So you’d get a painting of The Last Supper (of which there are many) wherein the tiles on the floor don’t align with the patterns on the wall and there’s no mathematical way the room they’re in could exist. This led to more skewing and we wound up with fascinating pieces that blur the lines between viewer and subject, like ceiling paintings that bleed out over their ornate borders (e.g., Andrea Pozzo’s trompe l’oeil ceiling in the Church of Saint Ignazio, c. 1680s).
Combining literature and visual art, you have William Blake’s prints that show distorted limb placement and impossible scenes that were basically meant to be satirical when placed alongside these pastorals. Speaking of binary, just look at the plate for Blake’s “The Argument.” So math can influence art, but art in turn makes math more interesting. Read Edwin Abbott’s Flatland. Watch Chuck Jones’s animated short based on Norton Juster’s “The Dot and the Line.”
That’s the long answer to your question. The short answer is that fiction and art can make math more accessible.