INTERVIEW: Austin Grossman, author of “Professor Incognito Apologizes: an Itemized List”

Austin Grossman’s first novel, Soon I Will Be Invincible, was nominated for the John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize, and his writing has appeared in Granta, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. He is a video game design consultant and a doctoral candidate in English Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, and he has written and designed for a number of critically acclaimed video games, including Ultima Underworld II, System Shock, Trespasser, and Deus Ex. His second novel, You, came out from Mulholland Books in 2012, and his short fiction has also appeared in John Joseph Adams’s anthology Under the Moons of Mars: New Adventures on Barsoom.


Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

It’s about the great and terrible dimension of marriage, that has sent so many of our finest scientific minds spinning into evil and madness.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

The premise – which I won’t spoil entirely – is pretty simple. You share a house and a bed and a kitchen table and a bathroom with someone. Digging inside yourself, what is the one thing which you will not, must not, cannot possibly tell them. And then you’re forced to admit it anyway. Once you’re backed into the right corner, the words just come.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

Not once I had the premise straight for myself, at that point it was just a matter of inventing the oddest possible behavior and creating the most outlandish possible justifications for it, followed by a matching set of even further overinflated counter-accusations. You know, like in a real relationship!

Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

None, and indeed I resent the question. I have no relationship to any real or alleged “Carnival of Crime.” The so-called “diggings” beneath my legal residence have been inspected and declared both Luminous and Sporadic by multiple, un-drugged, non-hypnotized members of the civil service.

I, for one, have nothing to hide.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

My story is based on the soundest scientific principles available in this period of the mainstream timeline of your “Earth” civilization. But I had to do a little extra checking about atoms, tigers, couples therapy, the U. N. Security Council, the present Martian civilization.

What is the appeal of mad scientist fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write it? Why do you think readers/viewers love it so much?

Once you get started it’s a frighteningly natural mode of thinking. Because there are times when what’s inside your head is so madly, disproportionately bigger than the reality around it, when the difficulty of finding the correct change starts to feel like a massive yet whimsical research project, or setting a date for a party ends up feeling like a massive war of good against evil, science against the forces of ignorance.

Or in less trivial terms, one of the core conceits of the mad scientist identity is that no one else realizes how important the things you care about really are, in fact people probably laugh at your greatest ideas. It’s a real feeling, and it helps to tell stories about it.

What are some of your favorite examples of mad scientists in fiction–or fact!–(in any media), and what makes them your favorites?

There are so many great ones, but personally I always gravitate back to Lex Luthor. Luthor’s a scientist, and he’s ambitious, and he’s decided to make it personal, to pick a fight with the biggest bully in comics – the biggest bully in all fiction, maybe, this side of Paradise Lost. Superman sets the bar impossibly high, because of the gifts he got just by being born. He isn’t even human! Luthor steps up anyway, an unaugmented normal, on the idea that being smart is worth something and makes a difference, even if the game is rigged, even if the entire rest of the world is rooting against you. That, sir, is character.