Caleb Crain on Math, Solitude, and the Nature of Time

“For a long time, I was a pretty strict realist, but lately I seem to be relenting.”

Peter Terzian / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: Read Caleb Crain’s new short story, “Trajectory.”

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.)

Weiss-Meyer: Where did you get the idea for a character who has memories of flying?

Crain: From a recurring dream. One of the odd things about being middle-aged is that now, when I redream a recurring dream, I seem to be aware that I have a history with it. I feel aware, even while inside the dream, that my experience of it has changed over the years, and so have the feelings and concerns that I have while dreaming it.

When I was very young, many of the stories I wrote were drawn from dreams and were full of fantasy elements, which I gave up after I came out of the closet. Maybe free-flying (as it were) imagination seemed too much like hiding, whereas my new task was to do justice to reality. For a long time, I was a pretty strict realist, but lately I seem to be relenting.

Weiss-Meyer: The turning points in “Trajectory” arrive when Samuel comes into contact with others. When he meets the god, for instance, he becomes ambitious and eager to impress. But we learn little about the other characters beyond the effect they have on Samuel. What do you see as the function of these secondary characters in the story, and more generally of secondary characters in your work?

Crain: There’s a lot of romance in the idea of oneself as a loner, and someone like Samuel is very susceptible to it. But even a loner experiences his self to a large extent as something that happens to him through other people. He can only discover some of its contours in the company of other people.

Weiss-Meyer: In a single sentence, a daring leap in time occurs and we find ourselves with an older Samuel. Had you always imagined this temporal transition happening seamlessly in the story?

Crain: In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark folds the future death of one of her characters into the novel’s present, and in “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street,” Mavis Gallant collapses years and years of regret into a parenthetical. The uncanny thing is how familiar this kind of collapse starts to become, once one is old enough to be aware of oneself as existing along a particular span of years, and only along that span. A friend from childhood dies, and while remembering him, and trying to mourn him, at a certain point you suddenly feel like you can see and hear yourself and him at 12 years old again, not knowing what’s going to happen over the next 40 years.

Weiss-Meyer: Samuel considers death as he “falls away” in the sky and again when he’s being tossed in a turbulent ocean. Does fear possess a unique ability to reveal truths about human experience that other emotions don’t?

Crain: It’s a great motivator! On the other hand, as punishments go, death may be a bit too final to be considered instructive.