“Trajectory” is a new story by Caleb Crain. To mark the story’s publication in The Atlantic, Crain and Amy Weiss-Meyer, a deputy managing editor at the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Amy Weiss-Meyer: The story’s title, “Trajectory,” is a clever nod to flight and to the course of a life. Did you come up with the title before or after you wrote the story?
Caleb Crain: After. Math has been popping up in stories that I’ve written lately, maybe because I’m drawing on ideas and feelings that date from childhood, when math was important to me, and to who I thought I was going to be (it didn’t turn out that way). I think the title was a way of adding a connection to some of those mathematical elements, which include ideas about undecidable truths and hypothetical worlds.
Weiss-Meyer: Samuel, the protagonist of “Trajectory,” seems, like other protagonists you’ve written, to self-identify as standing apart from others. What draws you to writing about characters who are markedly different from the people around them?
Crain: To help a child express his feelings about his adoptive parents, with whom he was struggling, a psychologist once stood the parents in the family’s driveway, drew a circle around them in chalk, and asked the child to stand where he wanted to live: inside the circle if he wanted to belong to the family, outside if he didn’t. The child stood exactly on the chalk line itself—and screamed bloody murder if asked to take a step inside or outside. Oh, that’s me, I said to myself when I read the case history. (Of course, I say that about pretty much every case history I read.)