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A metaphysical evening with British author Rebecca Stott

A ghost walks into a bar ...

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Lydia Brooke, the protagonist of Rebecca Stott's debut novel Ghostwalk, has a very specific appearance in my mind. She has a bright, pretty face framed by tight, dark curls. Her wide eyes turn ever so slightly downward at their corners, so she always appears to be on the verge of looking up, which, in concert with her British composure, gives her the air of a religious statue, sublimely gestural, with a lively face that paradoxically alludes to an act of frozen genuflection.

The face I've given Brooke is, of course, Stott's face, pilfered from her dust-jacket photo and superimposed on her narrator, who, like Stott, is a Cambridge-based writer, equally interested in the metaphysics of alchemy and the annotated certainties of historical science. So when Stott walked into the Federal on a drizzly Monday afternoon, there was a moment of cognitive dissonance for me—it was as if the character in the novel in which I'd been immersed for a couple of weeks had walked out of its pages and into reality, an apparition cloaked in flesh.

This is entirely appropriate, as the semi-porous membranes between past and present, life and art, science and magic, comprise the form and content of Ghostwalk. In the book, Isaac Newton scholar Elizabeth Vogelsang is on the verge of uncovering some startling new details of Newton's alchemical experiments and the methods by which he attained his fellowship at King's College when she's found drowned in a river by her house. Vogelsang's son, neuroscientist Cameron Brown, enlists his erstwhile lover, Lydia Brooke, to go through his mother's notes and complete her book. To say more is to reveal too much—suffice it to say that, as Brooke moves into Vogelsang's studio and delves into her notes, 17th-century Cambridge begins to overlap modern Cambridge like a palimpsest. Stott performs an alchemy of her own, transforming the cramped facts of historical record into the expansive stuff of speculative fiction, leavening the conceit with suspense, murder, romance and supernatural intrigue.

Stott is an academic—she teaches creative writing and her first book was about Darwin's study of barnacles—but during our tête-à-tête, she revealed herself to be something of a mystic as well. We discussed travel's potential for the renewal of vision, poetry as an act of attention, and the world's generosity to those who remain open to its gifts. One such gift was the impetus for Stott's novel, or at least the missing piece that bound it together: a chance meeting with a nameless meteorologist in a taxi cab, who described a meteor shower to her as "a series of tiny lines coming out from a still center in all directions, like wind blowing dandelion seeds from the seed head." This image catalyzed the novel's various "entanglements," a part of quantum theory about how subatomic particles can affect each other despite being separated by time and space. The encounter became a scene at the end of the book, which was dedicated to the mysterious astronomer.

Stott is a seeker, and seekers generally find. A most remarkable thing happened at her reading, another echo between art and life that's so of-a-piece with her book as to be uncanny. The character Elizabeth Vogelsang was based in part on the Newton scholar Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs. Dobbs' daughter (and Indy contributor) Kate Ariail showed up at the reading to introduce herself and to present Stott with an early lecture her mother had written, one that Stott had never seen. So on the same night that my Lydia Brooke walked into a bar, the daughter of Stott's Elizabeth Vogelsang showed up at the Regulator—yes, it was quite a metaphysical night in Durham, a night when, just as in Ghostwalk, the membrane between the real and the imagined showed signs of serious wear.

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