Brianna Duff on Her Novel and Her Audience

Carolyn Braganca ’15

In honor of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s visit to campus today, this post will highlight a brilliant Elon student who also seeks to make science more interesting and understandable to the general population.

Brianna Duff is a senior creative writing and physics double major, an Elon College Fellow, and a Lumen Scholar. Not content with the traditional collection of short stories, Brianna tasked herself with writing a novel for her research project. As if the prospect of writing a novel wasn’t already ambitious enough, she also decided to write a story centered around advanced physics concepts. And just because she is that kind of visionary, Brianna also decided on a young adult audience—one that had little to no knowledge of such concepts.

Brianna Duff and her research mentor, Drew Perry

Brianna Duff and her research mentor, Drew Perry

The following is an interview with Brianna, focusing in particular on why she chose her audience and how the audience affected her writing.

Carolyn: Could you provide a quick synopsis of your novel? 

Brianna: My novel, titled I Travel Light tells of a world where the laws of modern physics have stopped applying only to the micro or the macro and have moved to operate on our everyday scale. While the physical situations themselves are impossible, the science behind them is honest and works to explain real theories and phenomena in the fictional context. The novel revolves around four stories: there’s Kate, who can communicate with herself in a parallel world; Hadley, who can run at the speed of light; Sam, who’s town has been plagued with an anti-matter disease that’s causing people to disappear; and Claire, who starts her story standing at the edge of a black hole that’s opened up in the middle of her college campus. The novel nests and builds like a series of equations, moving first in reverse chronological order to reveal each character’s beginnings and then going forward in time to reveal their ends. It explores the complex human responses to a world gone strange and unfamiliar, and it works to merge together the scientific world and the literary sphere. 

What made you choose a young adult audience as opposed to an adult audience? 

Physics often seems unattainable to younger students, particularly female students. It is a primarily male-driven field, and young girls are often inadvertently discouraged from pursing it beyond the high school level. I wanted to write a novel that would help challenge this slow-changing status quo. I wanted to expose young readers, particularly the female readers that currently dominate the young adult genre, to the beauty of physics. I wanted to encourage them to be curious and to ask questions and to see the world in a new way, and, maybe, to put the book down mid-way through to research just exactly how relativity works. It would be amazing to have someone read my book and be interested enough to call me out on the fact that running at the speed of light really is impossible and explain to me exactly why. I also wanted the opportunity to write a female character who was interested in pursing physics and who was smart and aware. There weren’t any in the books I was reading, and I hoped I could change that and help other young women see the potential for something similar.

How did you research your audience and the conventions of young adult literature? What did you find? 

My research consists mostly of reading all the time. I make it a goal to read a book a week and I always try to keep up with what is current in the YA genre. There is so much that can be learned by simply paying attention to the big names out on the shelves. John Green, for example, was (and still is) a big voice in YA literature when I started the novel a few years ago, and his voice has been a big influence on how I write. There are some great sci-fi writers I’ve read who build wonderful dystopian worlds that I try to emulate (Beth Revis, for example, and Marissa Meyer). I also read literary fiction meant for older age groups because I think most young readers are aware of these books, and I don’t want to patronize my readers (David Mitchell, for instance, has been a massive influence on this book). Reading constantly reminds me not to fall into the trap of “dumbing down” my characters just because I’m writing for people younger than me. It’s easy to do, but I’ve found characters mean so much more when you let them breathe on the page and just say what they want to say, regardless of stereotypes or expectations.

How did you consider your audience while writing about advanced physics concepts? 

This was, I think, the key point to my research. I talked to a number of science writers and science outreach professionals about what it looked like to write science for a general audience. It wasn’t so much that I was considering my YA audience particularly; it was more just an understanding that I was writing for a group of people who would likely not have any basis on what I was talking about. When I interviewed with Dr. Alan Lightman, a physicist and author of Einstein’s Dreams, he told me to put as little science in as possible; he said he wrote books he thought had barely any science in them and they were critiqued for being science-heavy. So I made it my policy to focus on just a few concepts in the story I was telling. I couldn’t fit the entirely of black hole physics into 60 pages, for example, so I chose my battles. I chose what interested me—event horizons and spaghettification and time dilation—and I built the world around those. For me, that’s what its all about: finding the few basic concepts that would get people intrigued and letting them delve into the rest on their own.

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  1. Posted April 2, 2015 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    When it comes to physics and most scientific pursuits, the point that “young girls are often inadvertently discouraged from pursing it beyond the high school level,” is certainly and unfortunately true. As someone who loves young adult books and hopes to one day be involved in the publishing of those books, it’s very encouraging to see someone writing these subjects for that audience. It also just sounds like a really exciting story. Wonderful interview!

  2. Posted April 5, 2015 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Introducing concepts of physics at a young adult level is a very interesting and excellent idea. The more scientific concepts appear in entertainment, the more accessible they become to us. I think its great that in this case Brianna is focusing on a younger audience. Developing an interest in physics early on could definitely encourage teens and especially girls to pursue the subject later on.

  3. Posted April 22, 2015 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    I’m excited to see how Brianna synthesizes physics and literature in a way that is appropriate for a young adult audience. I love this concept because it introduces physics concepts to an audience that may not be familiar with them. To me, the novel seems to almost bridge on the side of science fiction which I think could also have an appeal for a variety of audiences.