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The Universal Physics of Escape

Written by Joe Ulrich, Arts & Culture Desk and WITF Host | Dec 1, 2015 11:43 AM


There's a man traveling to Centralia whose job is to return abandoned mining sites to their original conditions. A music student helps her teacher remember her first love.  And a mother ponders a life and family in which she doesn't feel she belongs and strikes up a strange relationship with an octopus. 

History, location, choice and inevitability all come together in a debut collection of short stories by Lancaster author Elizabeth Gonzalez called The Universal Physics of Escape. And the locations in the book will be familiar to Pennsylvania readers. Altoona, Centralia, Tremont, Harrisburg. Gonzalez herself moved around a lot as a child, and so the use of location in Gonzalez's work isn't incidental.

"Growing up having to constantly restart in a new place," Gonzalez explains, "I think one of the things that developed in me was the habit of looking at people within their context from an outside perspective, and always trying to see 'what makes them tick here, what do you do here and what don't you do here, how do you talk here?' It's true that people are the same everywhere you go but they're also very much a product of their place in kind of a cool way."

The title of the book, The Universal Physics of Escape is the name of the last story but is also a key to thinking about the rest of the stories. "That is a really strong line of thinking through it," she says. "This idea that you're on a trajectory in life, how much of those choices are dictated by things that weren't choices at all. That question of time also as a ruiner; really, time is the one that comes in at the end and makes the big decisions and cannont be undone. So I think that is something that I think a lot about. Escaping the weight of your own choices in the past or your own personality or your own personal history is a really big question."

There's the piano teacher who never went after the man who she loved, the reclaimation specialist who kind of fell into his career. And Zeke who accidentally shot and killed his brother years ago and befriends a woman whose son was killed in a car accident. Gonzalez's stories make us look at  trajectories and ponder what could have been different and how we got to where we are.

Gonzalez's own personal trajectory has led her to some success, including her work having recognized in Best American Nonrequired Reading as well as other publications and awards. She says this was especially gratifying because it can be hard to judge for herself whether her work is good or not. "The trouble is with fiction you can make an entire career and never really know if you're good," she says. "I think that's the toughest thing about it. Because even now you can be a best-seller and people might say, 'Well that's not really good fiction.' You can be obscure and writing the best stuff on the planet and someone will pull it out and you'll get a hit and someone will say, 'This is good' but that might be the only champion you have during your lifetime. You never really know for sure unlike a basketball player or somebody who builds a bridge and people actually drive successfully and no one falls in the water. With fiction it's always going to be very subjective. For me working in total obscurity to hit Best American, something like that says at least across the board I must be getting somewhere, I must be doing somethings right."

Which is good to know, because as she explains, writing is not always enjoyable.   "I would say there are enjoyable moments among the tortuous moments rather than the other way around. Kazuo Ishiguro wrote about this, that he found it quite a miserable exercise and it is, I find, very unpleasant to go through," she says as she laughs. "And yet addictive and rewarding at the same time. The process itself is laborious but when I finally say something that was really important to get out and I begin to understand myself what I was thinking about, that's big for me. That's almost like company."

The Universal Physics of Escape is available now. More information is available at Elizabeth's website.

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