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Prime Time: Paolo Giordano Discusses His First Novel

An Italian physicist Paolo Giordano turned novelist releases his first book in the U.S., "The Solitude of Prime Numbers."

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Paolo Giordano

Photo By SIMONE MOTTURA

It’s commonplace for a first-time author to feel nervous about his literary debut. When his previous work experience has been mainly relegated to laboratories and research facilities, the anxiety register creeps even higher.

“I was very scared that what I could write might not be interesting, so I needed a different perspective on reality,” says Paolo Giordano, whose U.S. publication of his first novel, “The Solitude of Prime Numbers,” comes on the heels of the completion of a Ph.D. in theoretical physics. “It was mainly due to my fear of being a beginner as a writer.”

Fear, as is sometimes the case, served to produce the most successful of results: “The Solitude of Prime Numbers” is at once charmingly oddball and universal in its emotional poignancy. The book, out now, introduces the reader to two young social pariahs whose ability to fit in with others is as difficult as the division of prime numbers. Mattia and Alice both suffer tragic events during their respective childhoods — Mattia loses his mentally handicapped sister; Alice is almost fatally injured in a skiing accident. As they grow, Mattia and Alice are naturally drawn to and repelled by each other in a magnetic attraction that spans decades and national borders.

It was only after he finished writing their story that Giordano realized he had infused his characters with many of his formative phobias.

“When I was a child I was afraid of any kind of sport, especially skiing. So I gave Alice these fears, “ says the author, 27, who grew up in Torino, Italy. “And I was also very scared of disabled people. But at the same time my mother has always worked with [mentally] disabled children. This contradiction was very hard for me to handle and I think I transferred it to the book.”

Mattia’s adult life as a mathematician also proved to be unconsciously autobiographical.

“He has a very similar way of looking at things that I have, always focusing on very small details. He’s kind of clumsy in very easy things in life. I always felt a bit like that, clumsy in things that people find absolutely normal,” says Giordano, adding, “I’m not any kind of nerd!”

Giordano can be forgiven for any mock defensiveness, as his background on paper suggests “science geek” more than “literary star.” The son of a teacher mother and gynecologist father, Giordano was always a huge reader and considered studying philosophy at university. But he went with physics for pragmatic reasons.

“I thought that in the times where we live, a scientific background is more up to date somehow. It gives you more tools to understand the world around you,” he explains.

Though he was passionate about his chosen specialty, as the research piled on, he “quite soon got a bit bored of it. So that was when I started to write. I think I was trying to dig my way out of it,” he recalls.

His escape tool has now become his primary focus: Giordano is already at work on a second novel and still reeling from the prestigious Premio Strega award he picked up last year when “The Solitude of Prime Numbers” was released in Italy.

“It was quite scary, actually. I never think about it. It’s like I did it and then I immediately forgot it,” says Giordano of receiving the highest Italian literary honor. “Because anytime that I think that I won this prize it’s like, ‘What am I to do now?’ So I kind of forget it to preserve myself. You always need something to aim at.”
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