Q&A with Eileen Pollack, author of “The Professor of Immortality”
What inspired you to write this book and how long did it take to write?
Not long after I arrived in Ann Arbor in 1994, the Unabomber’s manifesto was published in The New York Times. Ted Kaczynski’s brother recognized the language and ideas and, after much turmoil, turned him in to the FBI. That’s when we learned that Ted had been a graduate student in math at the University of Michigan, where I had just started teaching creative writing. One of his professors said that Ted had been his brightest student and earned the only A+ the professor had ever given. I’d had many bright but angry white male students, and I immediately began to wonder what I would have done if I had read the manifesto and recognized the language and ideas as belonging to a former student. Also, it turned out that a graduate of the MFA program in which I taught had been one of the Unabomber’s victims; that added to my interest and reassured me that I wouldn’t be tempted to sentimentalize anything about Kaczynski, even as I was trying to understand what turned him into a serial murderer. After that, the book took nearly eight years to research and write.
Did your background as a professor at the University of Michigan play a part in the inspiration for the book?
Yes, very much so. As I mentioned above, I’d always been drawn to students like Kaczynski, if only to try to help them express the truth of their lives in their assignments for my class. Reading so much of their writing over the years had given me insights into their anger and pain. I’m also interested in many of the topics Kaczynski warns about in his manifesto, especially the effects of technology on the environment and the quality of human life. I thought if I made my main character a professor who studies such questions, I could use her classes to help explore those topics in a natural way. I love my students, and I wanted to get their voices into the discussion. But I wanted the main viewpoint to come from an older woman because we so rarely hear from women when we’re thinking about technology and the future.
This novel very closely resembles the true story of the Unabomber, who was a student at the university where you taught for many years. Your character the Technobomber is not only angry at the ways in which technology is destroying the environment and ruining the quality of human existence, he also is deeply lonely and enraged by his inability to find a girlfriend. Today we might call such a young man an incel. Please talk about what you find fascinating about the Technobomber and the connections between his political anger and his sexual frustration.
The more I read about Ted Kaczynski’s early years, the more I empathized with him. He was very, very bright and felt isolated from his peers in childhood. He was bullied. He was ostracized at Harvard for being working class and was the subject of some bizarre and sadistic experiments by a crazy psychology professor. By the time he got to Michigan, he was desperate for a woman to love, a woman who would love and hold him. But he had no idea how to connect to women, or even to other men. At one point, he was going to lie that he was transgender and convince the doctors to turn him into a woman because then he would be able to put his own arms around himself and be held by a woman. After that, he just snapped. The ideology came later, as a justification for his murderous rage at a society he felt had left him unequipped to be loved. I think that might be true for other young men who turn hateful, who channel their rage at women and minorities, who look for a larger cause, a larger “family” to belong to, even if that family is a group of white supremacists (or, for that matter, leftwing terrorists).
Your protagonist, Maxine Sayers, not only has lost her husband but also is suffering from the disappearance of her son, who, some months prior to the opening of the novel, suddenly quit his job and vanished without a word. What is the connection between Maxine’s professional life and her personal losses? Why have you given her such burdens to bear?
Most writer subjects their protagonists to a maximum of stress and conflict, not because we’re torturers but because that’s what reveals a character’s deepest passions and beliefs and fears. Maxine has always been terrified of dying. That’s why she studies immortality—the effects that extended human lifetimes might have on our culture, our way of living. But the more losses she experiences, the lonelier she becomes and the less she wants to keep on living—even for the next day, let alone for eternity. At some point, her loneliness echoes the loneliness of the student who became the Technobomber. By the end of the novel, Maxine says society ought to put more resources into studying loneliness than how to invent the next gadget.
Your protagonist directs something called the Institute for Future Studies, whose members try to predict the effects of technology on human life. Why did you choose such an unusual profession for your main character? What about the future interests you?
Everything about the future interests me! My undergraduate degree was in theoretical physics. My senior thesis was on whether we would ever contact life on other planets. I want to live forever and find out how everything turns out! When Ray Kurzweil predicted immortality was just around the corner—but out of reach for me, given that I might die a decade or two or three before we reach what Kurzweil calls “The Singularity—I could stand the frustration. (Now, I’m more accepting of the idea. I might not live forever, but I will live a lot longer than if I had been born even a hundred years ago, let alone a thousand years ago.)
Maxine’s specialty is the study of human immortality. Do you really think that human beings will someday be immortal?
Maybe not immortal. But we will live hundreds and hundreds of years, though not necessarily in our biological birth-bodies.
Do you agree with any of the points the Unabomber raised in his manifesto? Do you think that the dangers of global warming, which threatens the fate of millions of human beings and entire species of animals, might ever warrant the sort of radical action your character the Technobomber advocates?
My heroes are people like Greta Thunberg—and my son, who works passionately for a better society—rather than terrorists like Ted Kaczysnki. If you read the manifesto, you can’t really disagree that the dangers he is warning us about are real and will result in millions of human deaths and extinctions of other species. But I don’t think the answer is destroying everything we’ve built and returning to a subsistence agrarian life. Or terrorizing the population to make that happen.