April 17, 2015

CERN physicist gives talk on metaphysical mystery novella

Tote Hughes (AB’11), returned to campus on Wednesday to read selections from his metaphysical mystery novella, Fountain, at the Seminary Co-Op Bookstore. Hughes answered questions about his literary career, studies in high-energy physics, and his time at UChicago.

Fountain, which Hughes began to write in the spring of 2013, is his first novella. It was published by the Miami University Press this past November and has since won the Miami University Press 2014 Novella Contest.

Hughes’s novella is a work of fiction that blends philosophy, mystery, and humor. The protagonist is a columnist named Pinson Charfo who finds a note by his bed one morning written by one stranger and addressed to another. The ensuing plot is what Publisher’s Weekly calls an “absurdist, episodic quest” that involves plagiarized manifestos, narcotized cultists, the search for pornographic prints, and a fountain whose runoff forms an underground lake. The Publisher’s Weekly review concludes: “This is an intelligent, perceptive novel, but it leaves the reader adrift.”

At the event, John Wilkinson, Associate Chair for Creative Writing and Poetics in the English department, spoke briefly about his experience teaching Hughes in his core class on creative writing. Hughes’s unique anti-realist style made an early impression on Wilkinson. “It is unusual for an undergraduate to present for their first creative writing class something that has nothing to do with his or her family or miserable or ecstatic love life or any other autobiographical stuff,” Wilkinson said. “This unusual student seemed engaged by what fiction alone might make possible in the way of thinking.”

Writing is secondary to Hughes’s main pursuit—physics. He lives in Geneva, Switzerland, where he is working at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, and pursuing a Ph.D. in high-energy physics.

“I’ve always written a little as a thing to do outside of science and other things… But at one point I decided I needed to write a novella because I had written short stories and somehow I accidently promised my dad I would write a novella,” Hughes said. “Once it was done I think it was better than other stuff I had written and that’s why I wanted to get it published.”

Hughes admits he had to force himself to write Fountain. He committed four hours every day to writing about 1,000 words. Regarding his process, he said, “If I had said, ‘okay I’ll wait for something to come,’ I would never write anything.”

Hughes credits UChicago with instilling in him an appreciation for logic that is evident in both his writing and his chosen field of study. “I think that’s one of the reasons I study physics. It’s really logical. And I think that shows up a lot in my writing. People having theories that they try to defend logically even if they don’t make sense. I wouldn’t have written something like that if I hadn’t gone to UChicago or a school similar.”

The Chicago alumnus has already begun on his next work, a novel called Bend, about a boy who inherits a town in the West after his father elopes with a Chinese laundress. “The narrative is simpler and easier to follow and the language is different, but I think it will be quirky and whimsical as well. I’m like a sixth of the way done…but it ends in disaster.”