About the book:This evocative, moving, and gorgeously detailed novel is the story of Alex Soberano, a contemporary man in crisis. A tremendously successful New York businessman, Alex finds it difficult to embrace joy and accept love. When his life threatens to boil over, he escapes for a brief respite on the West Coast. What waits for him there is something he never could have imagined.
Intertwined with Alex’s story are the stories of three people from different times and places whose lives affect him in surprising ways:
• A woman from the South American city of Anhelo in 1928 that everyone knows as "Vidente." For decades, Vidente, has been one of Anhelo's most celebrated citizens because she has the ability to read colors that speak of a person's fate. However, during one such reading, she sees her own future – a future that includes her imminent death.
• A man named Khaled who left his home in Bethlehem in 1920 to seek fortune in the South American town of Joya de la Costa. He has barely begun to gain a foothold when he learns that the wife and three children he left behind have been murdered. When a magical woman enters his life, he believes that destiny has smiled on him. However, destiny has only just begun to deal with Khaled.
• A nineteen-year-old student named Dro who flies from the South American country of Legado to Boston in 1985 and immediately walks onto the campus of MIT expecting instant admission. Dro's skills at mastering complex, ever-changing differential equations intrigues the associate admissions director. However, the person he intrigues the most is the celebrated US ambassador from his country, and his relationship with her will define his life.
How the stories of these four people merge is the central mystery of this arresting work of imagination. Differential Equations is a story that will sweep you up in its magic, enrich you with its wisdom, and compel you with its deep humanity.
Interview with Lou AronicaLou, what inspired you to write Differential Equations?
Julian and I were inspired to write this novel by the great magic-realists. Julian grew up in South America reading García Márquez, Amado, and Cortázar and I was growing up on Long Island doing the same. When we met and started comparing notes, we realized we both wanted to write this kind of novel. Differential Equations was the result.
What do you hope readers will get from this book?
At its heart, Differential Equations is a novel about a fractured soul coming to terms with the experiences that caused him to lose his way. I think many of us have a moment in their lives that separates “then” and “now” and try to survive without ever understanding that. Maybe this novel will turn a light on for some of them.
How did you come up with the title Differential Equations?
Among other things, Julian is a mathematical genius. He mastered differential equations when he was a teenager, which is so far beyond me that I have trouble even understanding what he understood. A differential equation is a formula with multiple variables and it dawned on us that this was an apt image for the journey the characters go through.
Do you outline or write by the seat of your pants?
I’m a dedicated outliner. I storyboard every novel before I start writing. I’ll still make changes as I go, but I find this structure an essential part of the creative process. By doing this kind of planning up front, I can be free to concentrate on the prose and the characters while I’m writing.
This was especially important with a collaboration. Given the range of our imaginations, it would have been very difficult for the two of us to stay on track with this novel if we didn’t have a strong structure in place.
Do you have a routine for writing? Do you work better at night, in the afternoon, or in the morning?
I tend to write in three-hour slots. I find that I can’t spend more than three hours a day on a novel because the work gets very poor after that. I spend the rest of the day working on my publishing company and writing nonfiction. I don’t write fiction for a fixed three hours, though. I tend to move things through the day to keep them fresh.
Name one thing you couldn’t live without.
This is probably going to come across as cheesy, but the one thing I couldn’t live without is my family. My wife and four kids are the foundation of everything I do and when I’m away from them for even a few days I feel diminished.
Would you rather be stranded on a deserted island or the North Pole?
That depends. Is Santa’s workshop on the North Pole?
Of course. Although right now might be a bad time to visit. Do you ever get writer’s block? What do you do when it happens?
I think every writer experiences some form of writer's block at some point. What I’ve come to realize is that the best thing to do when it hits is just accept it, avoid stressing too much, and switch gears in some way, like editing existing work or even reading some of my older material.
I totally agree. Is there anything in particular that you do to help the writing flow? Music? Acting out the scene? Long showers?
It’s funny that you mention this because I was at a conference last weekend and another writer showed up late for a meeting saying that she’d started talking to her characters in the shower and lost track of time. I’ve tried writing with music, but I find it breaks my concentration, though there’s always something playing in my head. My favorite thing to do is meditation. I find that clearing my mind in this way makes writing substantially easier and often allows me to see story complications in new ways.
If you could take a trip anywhere in the world, where would you go? (Don’t worry about the money. A publisher is paying. Oops, that's you. Well...pretend.)
Since I don’t have to worry about the money, I think I’d love to go to India or the Far East. I’m fascinated with ancient cultures and my most memorable trips have always involved virtual excursions into the distant past. I’m also a foodie and, since money is no object, I would love to explore these cuisines at both the fine dining and street level.
Excerpt from Differential EquationsAnhelo, Legado, South America, 1928
With her eyes closed, all she could see were waves of brown. The woman sitting across the table from her wasn’t troubled or damaged in any particular way, as that color sometimes indicated; her spirit and her future simply seemed featureless.
“Vidente, you have been quiet for a long time,” the woman said tentatively. “If you see bad things, you must tell me. I must prepare.
” People had been calling her “Vidente” for so long that she couldn’t recall the last time she heard her real name spoken aloud. Some in the community preferred to call her “Tia Vidente” as a form of endearment. Even her sons called her “Madre Vidente” now, having long ago accepted their mother’s place in the lives of the townspeople. After these many years, she had even come to think of herself by that name.
She opened her eyes slowly and her vision began to fill again with color. The violet and red of the tapestry that hung on the far wall. The ochre and bronze of the pottery on the shelf. The cobalt and white of the figurines on the cupboard. The terra cotta of the antique cazuela and the copper of the chafing dish, both presents from a grateful recipient of her services, neither of which had felt fire in Vidente’s home. The saffron of the sash that billowed over the window. The crystals and pewters and golds and greens; the room was a rainbow visible nowhere else in the world – a Vidente rainbow. A rainbow for a woman who sensed color beyond her eyes and who liked those colors expressed in the finest things available. Vidente’s home was her palace, a testament to her station as one of Anhelo’s most prominent and prosperous citizens.
Finally, Vidente focused on Ana, the woman seeking her help who, in contrast to the brown that Vidente saw with eyes closed, wore a bright orange frock with lemon embroidery. Ana had called on Vidente several times in the past year and she’d encountered her at church and in the shops. At all times, Ana wore brilliant clothing. She wants color in her life, Vidente thought. How sad that she doesn’t seem able to hold any in her soul.
“I am not seeing bad things, Ana,” Vidente said, tipping her head toward the woman.
“But you have been so quiet.”
Vidente patted the woman’s hand. “Sometimes the images come very slowly. That doesn’t mean you have anything to fear.”
Vidente truly believed that Ana had nothing to worry about regarding her future – except that it was likely to be a life without incident. The brown was everywhere. Sometimes darker, sometimes lighter, but always brown. The color of inconsequentiality and an abundance of self-doubt. For reasons Vidente couldn’t discern, Ana wouldn’t absorb the colors she wore so boldly in her clothing, though she seemed entirely capable of doing so. There were places Vidente didn’t plumb, for the sake of Ana’s privacy, but she guessed that if she looked there she might find why the woman avoided what she so wanted.
Ana’s brow furrowed and she looked down at her hands. Vidente wanted to offer her something, some suggestion that days more vibrant lay ahead. Vidente never lied to anyone during a reading, even when she believed the person wanted to hear a lie. However, she had many times kept searching and searching until she found a way to offer something promising.
“I am not finished, Ana,” she said as the woman looked up at her. “I will use another technique with you today. I need to look farther with this technique. I may not open my eyes or speak with you for several minutes.”
“I will be patient, Vidente.”
Vidente closed her eyes again. Usually, what she saw in colors was enough to give her useful messages for those who requested readings from her. The colors had always been reliable to her. Sometimes, though, she needed to extend her vision. If she sent herself deeply enough into the space outside of herself, she could see actual images. Occasionally, entire scenes played out in front of her. Vidente had come to learn that these visions weren’t nearly as reliable as the colors; unlike the colors, they were mutable. Still, they sometimes offered direction when none other was available.
The waves of brown appeared again. Like molten chocolate wending its way through a sea of caramel. It was necessary for Vidente to look past the color. She focused intently on the darkest of the brown and in doing so made the message of the brown drop away. It was like stepping through the fog and coming to a clear space. Here, though, the space offered only shadow. She could see the faintest movement. Was that a man? Ana wanted a man so badly; one who would finally erase Oscar’s humiliation of her. The image Vidente saw here was so indistinct, though, that it could as easily be a deer, a sloth, or even a vegetable cart.
Vidente concentrated further, pushing her soul toward the shadow, encouraging her will to be in the same place as the shadow. Something was definitely moving around and she could now see that the shape was human. Male? Female? Young? Old? None of that was clear. Nor was it clear why there was such a veil over Ana’s future. This had nothing to do with the woman’s health. Vidente would have seen that in the colors. For some reason, the spirits did not want to offer the images they usually gave so generously.
She so didn’t want to disappoint Ana. Once a month Ana came to her, gaily dressed and bearing a tray of the delicious pastries she made, eyes gleaming with hope but shaded by desperation. Vidente always found a vision to encourage her; the visit of a favorite nephew, a celebration Ana would attend, the birth of a neighbor’s child. These visions were never what Ana truly wanted, but she always left Vidente’s house viewing the world with a little less desperation. And she always came back.
Several minutes passed, but the images remained indistinct. I must go beyond sight, Vidente thought. She rarely used the process she was considering, and she was not entirely comfortable with it, but she knew it was possible to close her eyes completely. To allow her other senses to tell her what her vision did not.
Vidente tipped her head slightly and felt herself falling backward. With this sensation of falling came absolute blackness. There were no colors here, no shadows, nothing nearly so brilliant as brown. It was as though she had never seen anything at all, ever in her life. The feeling of unease that always accompanied this technique rippled her skin. Vidente had never stayed long in this place and she knew she could not linger here now. However, there had to be a reason why the other techniques eluded her, and she would spend a few sightless moments here for Ana’s sake. She liked the woman too much to let her go away with nothing.
She felt cooler suddenly, as though someone had opened all the doors and windows of her home at once. The air was different. It was crisper and thinner. It smelled of loam and oak. Vidente knew, though she wasn’t sure how she knew, that she was somewhere very far away. Was Ana going on a trip?
Maybe to some distant mountains in Europe or even America? The only thing Vidente knew for sure was that no place in Anhelo or anywhere near it had air that felt this way.
Just on the edges of her hearing, Vidente found the sound of moaning. These were not moans of pleasure. Nor were they moans of pain or suffering. The moans held a sense of sadness and loss, but not the dissonance of true grief. As she extended herself to try to make more of this sound, Vidente felt a moist softness on her forehead followed by a silken brush across her face and then warm pressure. Moments passed and she felt the same series of sensations again. More moments passed and the experience repeated itself. Each iteration felt slightly different but materially the same.
As this happened for the fifth time, Vidente caught the scent of perfume. A floral and consciously unrefined smell, one that announced itself as its bearer entered a room and lingered for many minutes after the visit was over. It was unmistakably Ana’s latest perfume. No one else in Anhelo wore it. But the scent was not coming from the Ana who sat across the table from Vidente. It came instead from the scene Vidente sensed in her temporary blackness and it grew stronger as Vidente again felt the pressure on her body. Vidente heard a sob and then the pressure lessened. Soon the smell of Ana’s perfume diminished. It was then that Vidente realized that Ana was a part of this scene, but she was not the focus of it.
Kisses on the forehead. Unreturned embraces. Repeated multiple times.
Vidente’s eyes opened involuntarily, causing the colors in the room to close on her vertiginously.
“Vidente, your expression; it frightens me.”
Vidente tried to stop the swirling of colors, tried to fix her eyes on Ana without scaring her further. “You have no reason to be frightened,” she said.
As her vision corrected, Vidente saw Ana’s hand go to the cross at her neck. “How can I believe that when you go into your trance for a long time and then come back looking like the devil was chasing you?”
Vidente took Ana’s free hand and clasped it with both of hers. “Believe me when I say that I didn’t see anything that should cause you fear. I just couldn’t get a clear image for you and this frustrated me.” Vidente stood abruptly, holding the side of the table to guarantee that she wouldn’t stumble. “I am sorry, Ana, that I could not do better. Maybe next month.”
Ana rose slowly, thanked Vidente, and left, her eyes more clouded and confused than when she entered. As soon as the woman was gone, Vidente sat down again, feeling the need to close her own eyes once more, but worried about what she would experience if she did so. If what she’d already felt was true – and it was important for her to remember that only the colors were always true – she would soon take a journey that would send her to a place of crisp, oaken air.
And then, before Ana changed her perfume again, Vidente would die.
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Julian Iragorri lives in Manhattan. He has worked on Wall Street since the early nineties.