Karl Iagnemma is a mechanical engineer developing technology for the 2009 Mars rover mission, but he’s also a fiction writer who recently published a collection of short stories. Now, Warner Brothers has bought the feature rights and is adapting one of his stories into a screenplay. The producer is Brad Pitt.
“It’s funny what happens when your name is in the same sentence as Brad Pitt,” says Iagnemma, adding that soon after the word was out, he got calls from enthusiastic publishers in Italy, Germany, Japan, and Korea. “The same publishers had seen the manuscript a year ago, but they weren’t interested.”
On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction, his debut collection of short stories, was published by Dial Press in 2003. All eight of the book’s stories involve scientists and mathematicians involved in romantic relationships, tales that focus on how the rational-minded express their emotional natures.
The book’s title story –– which will become the movie –– tells the story of a young academic who draws Venn diagrams to explain his unrequited feelings for a woman; he plots her love in a mathematical equation, hoping it will help him understand her. But Iagnemma says, “the character learns that love is too complex to reduce to an equation.”
BEST STORY OF THE YEAR
“Mechanical engineering and writing are similar; both involve logic, problem-solving, and creativity,” says this research scientist, who is working to improve the navigation of the Mars rover in rough terrain. He earned a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan in 1994, then got an MIT master’s in mechanical engineering in 1997 and a Ph.D. in 2001.
As a grad student, he won the Playboy College Fiction Contest. He won a Pushcart Prize and the Paris Review 2001 Plimpton Prize. His story, “Zilkowski’s Theorem,” a love triangle among three academics, was named by Houghton Mifflin in 2002 best American short story of the year.
He insists that his stories are not autobiographical. But he says, he did draw inspiration for the book from people he has encountered at MIT. For example, in one story, a character jumps off a roof into a snow bank just for fun, a detail he included after an MIT professor told him he had done that when he was a student. And yes, Iagnemma says, just like his characters, he has experienced unrequited love, but he adds, “Haven’t we all?”
His book is dedicated to his parents –– his Dad, a mechanical engineer, and his Mom, the writer of children’s stories. It was they, he says, who by example made possible his success.
“I saw my Dad as an engineer, and my Mom always had a typewriter in the laundry room, where she wrote. When you see your parents doing this work as a kid, it’s a reality that becomes possible for you.”
Some people, he says, think that “as a writer, you get an idea that comes to you fully formed, and you just have to write it down.” But he says, telling a story “is more like walking through a dark room with a flashlight. You take a step, and you can see a little in front of you, and then you take another step, and you can see a little more. That’s how a story reveals itself.”
Iagnemma is now under contract to Dial Press to write another book –– this time a novel –– which will be published in 2006. It’s the story of a scientific expedition in the 19th century, involving a teenager and a Congregational minister. He also is working on a second novel about a phrenologist in 1850, which he plans to adapt to a screenplay himself.
Although Iagnemma is delighted that his story is becoming a Hollywood movie, his enthusiasm is guarded. “It is definitely cool, but one thing you learn on the business-side of writing,” he says, “is never get too excited because plans often change. It’s very exciting, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed until I actually see the premiere.”