36 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY MAY 9-15, 2024 www.montereycountynow.com FACE TO FACE Chat over coffee with Jennifer Carson and you would never know she is a scientist—and not just any run-of-the-mill scientist; she holds a degree in physics from MIT and a doctorate in astrophysics from UCLA and researched gamma rays at Stanford. But Carson prefers elevated and lively conversations about literary fiction. While she still teaches physics at Santa Monica College, in 2020 Carson moved to Pacific Grove and started To the Lighthouse. Best described as a literary organization, To the Lighthouse facilitates book clubs (both in-person and online), organizes author events such as book signings and panels, and hosts writing retreats. Speaking of retreats, Carson practices Buddhist meditation and has taken part in some 250 days of silent retreat—not just one-day affairs, she holes up sometimes for a week or more at a time. And her activities do not end there. Carson writes book reviews for such publications as the New York Times. She also writes fiction, with one novel on the shelves and two more on the way. Weekly: Who mixes literature with science? Carson: I was always a reader. I had wonderful literature classes at MIT. Part of why I left research was because I had ignored the creative part of my brain for too long. Why facilitate book clubs? There are a lot of them in town. The P.G. one has been wonderful. It’s a great group of readers. Everyone brings something different to the discussion. There’s a richness in that variety—everyone benefits. It’s amazing how different people’s interpretations will be, and how sure they are of their interpretation. It’s often said the reader finishes the story. And the best books are trying to allow the reader to bring something to the story. The one I’m starting this month is fiction and nonfiction around a topic, climate change. I wanted to do a climate change one because I was inspired by an article by Rebecca Solnit. She edited a collection—Not Too Late—full of positive solutions. Now you are mixing fiction and nonfiction? I mostly read nonfiction. People tend to divide into those camps. They have strong ideas about what’s useful and enriching. Fiction gives me the freedom to get closer to the truth I’m trying to explore. People connect to fiction on an emotional level. Do you think running book clubs— reading—helps your writing? I do. Every writer I know reads avidly. I think the more broadly you read, it will strengthen your writing. I hear all the time “I appreciate this book more after discussing it.” You can appreciate a book, even if it’s not your cup of tea. You can learn everything from macro to micro. You can look at three or four sentences of Virginia Woolf and talk about it for half an hour. What about something not on Woolf’s level? Can you learn from something mediocre? It’s like reading empty calories. I’m so afraid I’m going to imitate it. Why write? I get an idea that won’t leave me alone. You have an idea and you have to see where it takes you. I’m opening up to something coming through me. It’s creating, and this is the kind of art I love. Loving writing makes me a better club facilitator. I can get people to start thinking about a book. Do you have favorite books? Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. I love everything Annie Dillard has written. Toni Morrison’s Beloved. She won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Song of Solomon, but I like Beloved. There’s a beauty in the prose. Toni Morrison is extraordinary. I like books that are very voicy. I gravitate to books with a Buddhist underpinning. Housekeeping is the best book on impermanence I’ve ever read. Speaking of which, how can you do a silent retreat? Well, I love them. It’s the meditation that’s hard, not the silence. The silence is a container. When the mind settles down it can be seen. It’s essential to have periods where you absent yourself from the world. What’s so powerful is you witness a level of stillness in the mind you did not think was possible. And what opens up because of that stillness—that is when you solve problems, and writing is about solving problems. As soon as I allow my mind to turn to a problem, a solution presents itself. Book Learning Jennifer Carson started a company to facilitate book clubs and champion literature. By Dave Faries Although she started professional life as a research scientist, after earning a master’s degree in writing from Bennington College, Jennifer Carson finds great value in reading and writing fiction. DANIEL DREIFUSS BIRTHDAY GIRL Lovely Sylvia is turning 14 soon! She would love to celebrate in a new home. Yours! This sweet, friendly girl lost her elderly guardian right before the holidays last year and longs to return to a world where she has a special human to call her own. 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