Failure is a relative thing. Just ask any admirer of Nikola Tesla, one of the most unjustly obscure figures of the 20th century. The Serbian-born scientist (1856-1943) harnessed AC electrical power and invented the radio — before Marconi. Yet he died with the reputation of a “mad scientist” and was eclipsed in the public mind by his longtime rival, Thomas Edison. Over the years, Tesla’s strange career has inspired plays and cultish devotion, among both science-minded folks and believers in the paranormal. (He claimed to have received radio transmissions from Mars.) Now it has inspired a novel called The Invention of Everything Else, by Samantha Hunt, who reads from her work of historical fiction this Wednesday at the Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne.
Brooklyn resident Hunt, 36, is returning to old haunts on this leg of her national book tour. The New York native moved to Burlington in 1989 to attend the University of Vermont and ended up staying for a decade — working as art director of Seven Days for several years. In 1999, she moved to the city to “try something new” and launched a promising fiction career: Hunt’s first novel, The Seas, won her an award for writers under 35, and one of her short stories landed in The New Yorker.
Hunt appeared in the prestigious mag again last month, when a reporter called and asked for a tour of the historic Hotel New Yorker — where Tesla died and much of the novel is set. She also weighed in on a recent episode of NPR’s “Studio 360” called “Nikola Tesla: Strange Genius.”
Is it time for a Tesla revival? Hunt thinks so. “He had a way of thinking about science and invention that is a lot more similar to an artist thinking about writing or painting,” the novelist says in a phone interview. “A traditional liberal arts education used to marry science and art. We’ve allowed them to become so separate. I think the interest in Tesla is people wanting to return a notion of creativity to science.”
Hunt approached Tesla from the artist’s side: “I have almost zero science training,” she says, though she adds that science — particularly its enigmas — “is often what inspires my writing.” She spent four years researching and writing the novel, perusing Tesla biographies and primary sources on the inventor’s life at the New York Public Library.
The result is a book that nimbly interweaves fact and fiction. Hunt says it was “difficult” to imagine the inner life of 86-year-old Tesla — an obsessive-compulsive whose best friends in his last years were the pigeons he fed on his window ledge. “I ended up feeling very close to Tesla when I was done, but it took a lot of writing and rewriting.”
Hunt gave herself creative latitude by inventing the central character of Louisa Dewell, a chambermaid in the Hotel New Yorker who was raised by a widowed father fascinated by both science and superstition. When her dad’s even odder friend shows up after a mysterious absence, claiming to have invented a time machine, Louisa must ask herself how much faith to put in human ingenuity, and when imagination becomes irrational.
The question certainly applies to Tesla, too. “You have to have a certain amount of irrationality to be an inventor,” Hunt suggests. “If you can think freely, you’re going to get better ideas. Tesla had no corporate affiliations; he didn’t have to design by committee, water down his ideas.” In the world of corporate and academic science, she says, “I’m not sure that happens so much anymore.”
One of Tesla’s farthest-out-there — and perhaps most prescient — ideas was a form of “alternative energy” drawn straight from electrical forces in the atmosphere. In the novel, Hunt has him muse about why the powers that be would oppose such an invention: “They’ll say there’s no way to draw free power from the sky. They’ll say the only way to get things done is the way that makes them the most money. Coal. Oil.”
Did Tesla really fantasize, Al Gore-style, about clean, sustainable energy? “That’s not fictional,” Hunt says. “He thought about the fact that fossil fuels were in limited supply.”
In the novel, one character suggests the far-thinking Tesla is literally from the future. But Hunt suggests that such fanciful explanations of genius are less interesting than the reality — particularly in Tesla’s case. At one point in the novel, the inventor tells Louisa, “I don’t want to be magic. I want people to understand that things they never even dreamed of are possible.”
Samantha Hunt reads from The Invention of Everything Else on Wednesday, February 20, at the Flying Pig Bookstore, Shelburne, 7 p.m. Free. Info, 985-3999.