Ginger Moran’s debut novel, The Algebra of Snow: A Bedtime Story for My Mother, is an intelligent, metaphorical, and beautifully written novel of decent and rebirth—a story centering around the relocation of self and a revisiting, decoding and scrutinizing of the past. Moran’s protagonist, Amelia, is a mathematician who attempts to apply the laws and solutions of mathematics to the thorny problems of life and in the end questions, “I wonder not for the first time in my life how any of our instincts survive self consciousness” (131). Moran’s prose is precise but never terse—the beauty of her language flows, the imagery springing alive from her words.
The reader follows Amelia into her icy decent into winter and ever-deepening solitude, her cabin becoming a second skin. The tone of the novel, an encapsulation in snow. Amelia is an observer of her own life, serving as witness with a detachment that is visceral yet distant.
Melissa Corliss DeLorenzo: The story flows as a descent into dream state—a sinking into winter, seclusion and solitude. Did you plot the book into this introspective spiral or did it evolve as such?
Ginger Moran: This novel was more a matter of spelunking than anything else. I’d written a short story by the same name that was a story that kept drawing me back. When I was in graduate school at the University of Houston creative writing program, I did an independent study on the transformation process Virginia Woolf went through when she turned her short story “Mrs. Dalloway on Bond Street” into the novel Mrs. Dalloway. I could see from her journals and the essays she wrote at the time that what she did was to explore parts of the story that seemed like they had more material to them, a kind of going deeper under the surface of different parts of the story to see if there was anything there. She found, of course, an entire marriage, early courtship, social calendar, and despair in a high-born woman and parallel war trauma and suicidal despair in a man her main character never meets. When I was faced with the prospect of writing my dissertation I could have either tried to put together a collection of the short stories I’d written or do what I’d always wanted—write a novel. I have a theory that aspiring writers are what they read—if short stories, then a short story writer; novels, a novelist. I don’t really care for short stories and don’t naturally gravitate toward the intense, lyric sentence structure or overall form that they require. So I decided that was as good a time as any to try out Woolf’s technique. What happened was I used the established short story structure as my overall structure—it starts with Labor Day and ends with Beltane, too. But there were miles of caves underneath—the miscarriage, for one, most of the hallucinogenic moments, the whole fantasy of the dark man.
MCD: Amelia remarks that algebra “is the most refined form of what mathematics is: a system for moving symbols across a page.” For her, math means locating solutions and she attempts to apply math problem-solving to the problems of her life. Why did you choose math as Amelia’s means of developing an understanding of her life and its meaning?
GM: I’m very skeptical of writers who say that something “came” to them—that they have no idea why they did what they did in a story. That said, I honestly don’t know why Amelia had to be a mathematician. I am awful at math—it amounts to a real disability. I did do well in algebra in high school, though, and I think it was because equations are something like sentences, and I found the presence of letters comforting. I also am very skeptical of the workshop saw that you must “write what you know.” I have a firm belief that it is okay—even great—to write what you don’t know. What is fiction, after all, if not something invented? So when Amelia was turning out to be an algebra professor, I let her have her take the bit in her teeth—or chalk to the chalkboard—and go. I did sit through a lot of college algebra classes, read a lot of books, and had a mathematician on my dissertation committee who read it as I wrote it and corrected me when I was off. I was studying a lot of high level literary criticism at the time. I won’t attempt to recapture my thoughts now, but a lot of high level theoretical scientific and philosophical theory starts to overlap at a certain point, so I mostly used those theories and tried shifting them into math, then got them checked out by the mathematics professor. I’ve had one person say that algebra is a way of finding what is missing and that certainly is the case in the book. Amelia is, throughout, solving for the x of her mother’s absence in her life.
MCD: The book is subtitled “A Bedtime Story for My Mother”—the stories she tells her mother seem to revolve around a means of refining and retuning and finding herself. Do you think this kind of deep introspection is necessary in returning to the source of ourselves?
GM: I do think that my mother was, as probably many mothers are, the omphalos, the beginning of my self and thus at the very center. Amelia has gotten off-track and is smart enough to know it. So she does follows that siren call back to the beginning. I know it’s a largely psychoanalytic approach, without the analyst, and thus rather hazardous, but I’ve had in affirmed by many mathematicians and their friends and family members that they truly are extremists and will follow things all the way down or out, no matter the risks. For Amelia to get back to where things went wrong for her—which she finds preceded even her mother’s death when she was a child, she has to go back to the beginnings of her self, when she failed to individuate from her mother, thus making the mother’s death not only tragic but catastrophic to Amelia’s development. To go back that far is to risk annihilation.
MCD: The book brings forth the idea of the tentativeness of the belief in knowing oneself fully and the realization that one is not in possession of that knowledge at all. The sense of isolation and disorientation puts me in mind of Atwood’s Surfacing. Does Amelia’s journey represent a larger contemporary tension and anxiety or is her experience entirely personal?
GM: I am so honored that you would mention Surfacing in connection with Algebra. That book was for me, as probably for so many of us who came of age in the second wave of feminism, an absolutely crucial text. Along with Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Surfacing was a sort of guide book to identity for me, both as a woman and as a writer. The willingness—even the need—to go into madness to find the roots of self seemed so true to me then and still does. I like to think of Algebra as a post-modern descendant of these great books. The need to find the real self I think can remain, even for a career-driven, already profoundly self-sufficient woman who doesn’t seem to lack confidence or belief in herself.
MCD: There is something of a feeling of self-indulgence in Amelia’s experience. Does this speak again to a wider sense of the modern obsession with self-scrutiny or more one of reflection with the intent of locating truth and meaning?
GM: I agree that this book has an element of self-indulgence to it. I would say that the exploration of self, the establishing of a good knowledge of and connection to the authentic self, is crucial to authentic connections to others and is, thus, both crucial and political. I would also have to confess that I had such anxiety about writing a novel when I launched this project—I am so madly in love with great novels and so in awe of the beauty and power of, say, any of Thomas Hardy’s novels—that I was afraid to have more than one character, essentially. Of course, that turned out to be its own risk and hazard, as it’s very hard to write a one-person novel where practically nothing happens! I’ve written two other novels since then and they both have healthy numbers of characters and one is a mystery and the other is a thriller, so I’ve learned how to get more people on the stage and have them do things since then!
MCD: In the end, Amelia imagines the consequences of her mother having lived and concluding that she is better off for her mother’s death. Do you see this as a rebirth of sorts for Amelia or did you intend something different?
GM: When I re-read Algebra I keep thinking, why didn’t I end it there, or there, or there? The endings seem to pile up, like in The Lord of the Rings. Stop, already! But I had to keep going with the spelunking, I think, and there was always another layer. Amelia is so caught in the story of her mother’s death when Amelia was young that she failed to imagine what her life might have been like with her mother there. And her mother was so attached to Amelia that she has to excise that—to free her mother, in a sense, let her go. Amelia has always felt that she betrayed her mother in her own life—she has lived such a masculine one and her mother was so feminine. It is a radical move for her to free her mother, and then to free herself from her story about her mother—to grant them both autonomy—and it runs the risk of letting her loose in the universe, like an astronaut cut loose from the tether to the mother ship. What she finds is so primitive, so wild, so fragile, and so driven by other forces, it’s almost inarticulate.
A teacher, published writer and single mom of two boys, Ginger Moran‘s areas of expertise are in fiction and creative nonfiction writing, editing, and creative survival. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Houston in Literature and Creative Writing and Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in English from the University of Virginia. She has published in Salon.com, Oxford American, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and Feminist Studies among other journals and magazines. Her first novel, The Algebra of Snow, was nominated for a Pushcart Editor’s Choice Award and was published in the spring of 2012. She edits the University of Virginia Women’s Center magazine, Iris, and serves as the Associate Director. She is the author of three novels, one essay collection, and numerous articles both journalistic and scholarly.