The Beginnings of Ghostwalk


Rebecca Stott interviewed by publisher Cindy Spiegel of Speigel and Grau

In November 2003, while I was doing readings and publicity for my book on Darwin’s early years (Darwin and the Barnacle, Faber, 2003) I bought a copy of a new biography of Newton in order to compare Newton’s formative years with Darwin’s.

The book left me with a series of questions about Newton’s fellowship at Trinity, which he was awarded in 1667, five years after arriving at Cambridge as a young student: How had he been given a fellowship without particularly impressing himself on the college authorities? Had someone acted as a kind of patron? Unlike Darwin, who readily acknowledged his dependency on networks of fellow scientists in his early years, Newton appeared to be a legendary recluse. I found this difficult to believe – surely it was impossible for any scientist, then or now, not to be dependent on, and entangled in, networks of knowledge and power?

I checked a second biography for further information about the award of the fellowship which told me that Newton was “lucky” because there were extra vacancies that year in the fellowships, brought about by two deaths of fellows falling down stairs apparently drunk, the expulsion of another fellow for insanity, and the death of a fourth fellow from pneumonia caught from a night spent in a field apparently drunk. Was Newton really that lucky, I wondered. I marked the deaths with asterisks and a question mark in the book.

With some spare time in the University Library, I looked up the sources for these mysterious deaths in Trinity college, and found them in a diary written by an Alderman (city councellor) living in Cambridge in these years. He described the deaths in ways that suggested they were regarded as suspicious. There was a further Trinity death in those years between 1662 and 1667 – the death by drowning of a young boy in the River Cam, also regarded with apparent suspicion by the Alderman.

Then came the “what if.” What if Newton had been involved in some way in those deaths? What would that mean? It was an idle and speculative question at this stage. I also wondered what it might be like to be a historian who found evidence about those deaths and a possible link to Newton – what if you had a lead like that and reached the end of what was known, reached the end of the archives? What if you were really obsessed with knowing something but it was unknowable by conventional means? What would you do next?

A few days later I was supposed to fly to Spain to join a friend there for a few days. At 5 a.m. I cycled to Cambridge station only to be told that there would be no trains to Stansted airport for several hours. Just as I was about to go home, a mysterious man in a dark coat suggested that we share a taxi to the airport – a 45-minute ride. I agreed. As the taxi drove away I mentioned to him that I had read that there was a meteor storm going on up in the sky, which we unfortunately could not see because of thick fog. He was, he said, a meteorologist who was returning to Germany after a conference in Cambridge and yes, meteor showers were common in November, but meteor storms were rare and often extraordinary, even life-changing, to watch. He described the meteor storm as a series of tiny lines coming out from a still center in all directions, like wind blowing dandelion seeds from the seed head. Then he fell silent.

The image he described of the complex movements of the meteor storm worked as a kind of catalyst for all the ideas germinating in my mind over the previous couple of weeks: entanglement, love, the limits of knowledge, the tensions between legitimate and illegitimate knowledge, obsession, the dangers of certain kinds of knowledge…

Between that conversation and arriving in Stansted I conceived the plan for the entire novel – or rather it came to me complete as if out of the meteor storm: a woman in red drowned in a river, the psychic, the neuroscientist, the double murder plot, the love story, the fatal entanglements.

When I arrived at the airport I wrote it all down on a scrap of paper which I later glued into a bigger notebook. The finished novel, which took two years to complete, is almost exactly as it was conceived in that taxi ride during that invisible meteor storm.

Rebecca Stott
Cambridge, June, 2006.

A Discussion With The Author

Cindy Spiegel, publisher of Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, discusses Ghostwalk with Rebecca Stott

Cindy: You’ve written an incredibly ambitious novel with two mysteries, one contemporary and one historical, almost superimposed upon each other. And you’ve actually uncovered a real-life historical mystery surrounding one of the most revered scientists of all time, Isaac Newton. Will you talk a little bit about what you discovered and how you came to discover it?

Rebecca: Well, the novel came about just after I had finished writing a book about Darwin—his early years and the formation of him as a scientist before he became famous. I’d been very preoccupied with how a scientist comes to make himself, self-fashioning if you like. Darwin was very much in the world, very engaged with people and writing to people all the time. Newton was a recluse. He came to Cambridge in1662 as a young man in his early 20s, and he didn’t distinguish himself. Although he was doing extraordinary things in private, nobody at Cambridge really knew what he was working on. But then in 1667, when he’d been in Cambridge for 5 years, he was given a fellowship. And this baffled me. How did he get that fellowship if his exam results hadn’t been great? He hadn’t networked the way Darwin had.

So I dug a bit deeper and I discovered that in that year, Newton was lucky and the biographers kept talking about the fact that Newton was really lucky because there were more vacancies in the year that he applied for a fellowship than there had been in previous years. The biographers talked about this peculiar luck that he had—that in that year, two Trinity fellows had fallen down the staircase at Trinity apparently drunk in the early hours of the morning. A third had been expelled from the College on the grounds of insanity. A fourth had been found in a field and had died from pneumonia caught while he slept in the fields, again, apparently drunk. So I took one more step and tried to find the original sources for these mysterious deaths. I found them in a diary that was written in 1667 by an alderman, a city councilor, who was recording all sorts of interesting things about Cambridge. But he recorded these deaths in a way that made it absolutely clear to me that he felt they were suspicious because he had written phrases like: “it was supposed that…” or “it was thought that…” What if Newton had been involved? What if he directly benefited from these deaths? What would that mean? And then the next question came – what if you were a historian working on Newton’s early years in Cambridge and you’d come across these deaths and, like me, had become convinced that Newton had been involved? What if there was no further evidence to support that speculation but you had this hunch?

If you were that obsessed with Newton, as biographers become—I’d become very obsessed with Darwin—and you had this hunch yet there was no way of proving any connection at all, what would you do next? If you’d reached the end of the archives; if you’d reached the end of what was knowable and provable? And then my story came out of that.

Cindy: Right, and Newton had the keys to the private gardens where they grew all of the deadly herbs, a further reason for suspicion. Alchemy seems really hot these days. On August 1st, the New York Times published an article about it in which they wrote, “Historians of science are taking a new and lively interest in alchemy, the often mystical investigation into the hidden mysteries of nature that reached its heyday in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries and has been an embarrassment to modern scientists ever since.” In your novel you discuss how most biographers of Newton prefer to skip over his involvement with alchemy, to pretend it didn’t exist, but the fictional historian in your novel, Elizabeth, is writing a book specifically about Newton’s alchemy and she winds up dead, floating down the river Cam. Can you talk a little bit about Newton and alchemy and why it’s impossible to ignore Newton’s interest in it?

Rebecca: It comes back to this tension again that the book is so centrally about between legitimate and illegitimate knowledge. For us, alchemy is kind of beyond knowing in a way. It’s so secretive and so caught up in networks. There were people who had been initiated into those networks of knowledge and others who hadn’t been. You couldn’t be an alchemist by yourself; you had to be initiated into alchemy, trained. You had to learn certain kinds of languages as well. The alchemical texts, some very ancient that had been handed down partly translated, were passed around in coded language. And I do think that these days—the article you just referred to is absolutely right—historians are now not so embarrassed as before, but many of the older biographers whom I was working with wouldn’t acknowledge that alchemy was terribly important to Newton’s work. You know 1/6 of his writings—Newton wrote a tremendous amount—was caught up in alchemical knowledge in one way or the other and he believed that there were secrets to be uncovered, that the ancients had this great knowledge. They knew the secrets of nature in a way that had been lost and it was for each new generation to rediscover those secrets, which were embedded in certain texts in coded form. So that the work of alchemists was not just to play around with potions and furnaces and mixing all those extraordinary alchemical formulas together, but was also to decode texts and find the secrets and the links between one chemical and another. In many ways the birth of chemistry comes out of that alchemical practice.

Cindy: You also discuss a theory in physics called entanglement. And you use it both as metaphor and also as a possible scientific explanation for the way the events in the novel seem to occur simultaneously in the 17th and the 21st centuries.

Rebecca: Entanglement theory is a really important part of quantum physics, and the theory (as far I understand it, and it is very complex) is that if you take two subatomic particles and they become entangled with each other—they’re influenced by each other; they hang around each other for a particular period of time—if you move those two subatomic particles to opposite ends of the universe separated absolutely by time and space and then spin one one way, the other, wherever it is, will shadow it. That seemed to me to be very much part of the central metaphor of the novel. It’s about the terrible entanglement that happens between two people in a love affair, but it’s also about the entanglements of time. So that, for instance, this moment in Newton’s life in the 1660s, in which those murders or mysterious deaths occurred, could in some way be mirrored in our time, that two moments of time could become entangled like those subatomic particles. And that’s what I was trying to do with those two plots. They don’t just mirror each other in some simple reflection, but a spin will spin here and now as well as in the past, and the historical past spins also in the present. What’s extraordinary about entanglement theory is that those people who discovered it were so appalled by its seeming irrationality; it seemed so implausible, so unlikely, so unexplainable. There are mysteries in quantum physics as extraordinary as alchemy. Mystery in science doesn’t go away; it just reinvents itself.

Cindy: And that’s what I love also about your novel. It seems to me that the best fiction does the same thing, that if you read a novel it somehow has this mystical power bigger than itself to change you and transform our lives, and entangle us with the characters and other worlds, to bring us beyond our own lives and make us think about our own lives differently.

Thank you, Rebecca. I’m really honored to be publishing Ghostwalk.

Listen to Rebecca’s interview with Woman’s Hour on Radio 4

Read: Interview with British publishers, Weidenfeld and Nicolson