This interview is an excerpt of a conversation—edited for concision and clarity—between Mark Mayer and Kelly Krumrie that took place in May of 2022 just before the release of Kelly’s book, Math Class. We began by reading moments from Math Class as well as Mark’s story “Solidarity Forever,” which is in his collection Aerialists (Bloomsbury, 2019). Here we discuss adolescent characters, saints, and how to contend with mathematics in (and) fiction.
Mark Mayer: I want to start by gushing a little bit about how much I loved Math Class. It’s like no other book that I have ever read: its voice, its patterns of observation, its method of plot. All felt very new to me and sometimes strange. But I found myself constantly recognizing my own most intimate patterns of thought in the development of the story. It’s a book about a class of sixteen-year-old girls at a Catholic school learning math and physics and dealing with the kind of vulnerabilities of the body. But it’s more precisely attentive than anything I’ve read to that time in life where the kind of crude metrics—but also infinite metrics we learn in math and physics—start to become tools for understanding ourselves and our bodies and our paths and our places, or maybe for measuring out how kind of incomprehensible all those things are. So for me, in really kind of spooky ways, this book recognized how dull work of plotting points on a chart or drawing electric circuits ends up changing everything for us. I think it’s a really amazing book.
Kelly Krumrie: Thank you so much for saying that, Mark. I’m so excited that you read from “Solidarity Forever” because you just said the word “spooky.” I reread “Solidarity Forever” this morning. It’s the first story of yours that I ever read, and I totally, totally love it. As I was reading it this time, I thought about how spooky some of these ideas are. The character Jacob imagines the grid of his floor tiles extending out into other parts of the world. . . . That it never stops and he can’t control it really freaks me out.
It still freaks me out. Grids are so spooky. They really are! Because all you need to do is start drawing a few vertical lines and horizontal lines. You have your little tic tac toe board, and it seems like it’s contained. But you start looking at its pattern and you realize nothing’s going to stop this thing. There’s no reason for it to stop here. Now that we’ve started measuring out the intervals, they go on forever. I’m not going to draw them forever, but they do go on forever. And that’s quite a thing to kind of wrap your head around.
You were a math teacher. You taught math classes yourself. I thought maybe we could start there. What were some of the things that you liked to do with your students, or what were some of your favorite ideas to teach?
Well, I guess I should begin by saying that I became a math teacher by complete accident. I was never ever interested in it. In school, I failed every math class. I had to take the remedial classes. I was constantly in the principal’s office for my grades and things like that. I hated it more than anything in the world. I distinctly remember turning in blank tests with teardrops on them. Like, just because I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t see it.
When I was a little bit older, in my late twenties, I started teaching at a Montessori elementary school as an assistant, and I had to help students with their math. In Montessori, much of the work, almost all of it, especially in math, is hands on. It’s material movement. When you’re doing division, you’re dropping little beads into a tray to show division as sharing out; the fractions are little pie pieces. It suddenly totally revealed itself to me. It clicked in a way that it never had. I ended up taking over a middle school program where I had to teach all the subjects. The principal asked me how I felt about teaching math. And I was like, I guess I’ll try! I studied and studied, and I went to training sessions, and I watched YouTube videos. I think it’s important to know that I’m very much a novice. My favorite thing to teach was geometry because of the visual element. When I was teaching seventh and eighth grade, we would do pretty advanced geometry. Much of the Montessori curriculum centers on the history of mathematics, so while we were studying geometry, we were looking up things about Pythagoras and Euclid and Hypatia and Thales and Hippocrates and all these people—lots of storytelling and drawing things out. That really resonated with me. And that’s what launched into this project, actually: my fascination with learning about those figures and methods. Illustration also was a big part of it.
Your book borrows from the language of ancient mathematics, and you have some quotes from Euclid sourced in the back of the book. We’ve talked before about the beauty of lines like “a point is that which has no part,” which really is like a Zen koan to meditate on for the ages. When you were learning more about these ancient mathematicians, were there artifacts you found in the language of their work and their proofs that really spoke to you? How did you find yourself working your way into this ancient language?
I think it began with “a point as that which has no part,” truly. I ran a seminar where we read Euclid’s Elements. Sitting around a table of seventh graders talking about what is this and what does it mean? “A point is that which has no part”—what is that? We talked about it for like an hour. We had to stop and take a snack break. It was fascinating for two reasons: One is that I kept saying to them, “It’s like a poem.” We’re taking apart the language and thinking about what it means like we would with a poem, and that helped them. That became our approach. We read the whole first book of the Elements together. The second thing was that they always wanted to draw. With every bit of language that we would encounter, someone would hop up to the board and grab a marker and try to render it visually. I found this to be fascinating and important, which I guess speaks to the illustrations in Math Class, too. I have a strong impulse to draw out any kind of thinking in that realm; it really helps me. I guess the puzzling language and the Zen nature of it . . . I was hooked from day one.
Oh, I wish I’d been in that class. That sounds amazing. I would love to have had that introduction to geometry and to have read through the Elements with you guys. I think my geometry experience was pretty traditional, maybe the same course that Euclid charted long ago. But it was proof by proof and a lot of homework. The ideology of math education, as I experienced, was like some people are math people and some people aren’t math people. And even if you are a math person now, you’re going to get to the level where you kind of tap out. You know, maybe you’ll make it through calculus, maybe you’ll make it to linear algebra. But at some point you’re going to reach the limit of your aptitude. And it made this way of seeing math as this kind of exterior, thorny wilds that you could beat your way into, but only so far, instead of the sense I get from your description of the Montessori approach, where you’re interacting with your own internal logics about what division is.
Math becomes this way of exteriorizing something that’s internal to you, that’s your own. That’s also the sense I get from the drawings in the book, which I want to talk more about. They’re not doodles exactly. They’re demonstrating mathematical ideas, but they have the kind of doodle energy in that they seem to be ways of thinking, ways of playfully exploring an idea the way that I’m doing right now talking with my hands. I have to wave my hands around in order to figure out the shape of what I’m saying. Tell me a little bit more about how you found yourself doing these drawings and when you figured out that they had to be part of the book you were building.
I think it was just part of me processing and thinking through some of the concepts, because as I was drafting the book, early on, I would begin with an idea, like a geometric transformation, for example, a figure sliding across the plane, flipping with reflections and symmetrical relationships between shapes, and then I would try to render that in scene: put it to a body. So as I was thinking through and playing with those, I would sketch movements and sketch lessons I would have taught the students, the way I would put it up on the board.
I had only a handful of them when I finished the book, and they were back with the sources. The drawings were like citations. Derek White at Calamari Archive asked me early on in our conversations if I would be interested in making a drawing for every vignette or whatever you want to call them. I spent about a month, I think, digging through source texts. My husband is an engineer, so we have tons of physics textbooks and calculus books and thermal transfer and who-knows-what mechanical engineering texts. . . . I created a huge mess of books all over the floor to try to map conceptually a drawing with one of the stories. I’m really pleased that I did that. It was a lot of work, but I think it turned out really nice. I like what you said about how they have doodle energy but aren’t quite a doodle. That was a challenging line.
You described them as demonstrations of movement but abstracted in some ways too. I love that as, sort of literally, you’re talking about a rotation or a projection. But even the ones that aren’t demonstrating a particular mathematical movement do feel like they have a kind of secret kinetic energy to them. It makes me think—I don’t know if this is a connection for you—but it makes me think of another source text that I saw in in the back of the book, Tropisms by Nathalie Sarraute, which maybe you can talk a little bit more about. The idea of these kind of abstract movements that she’s trying to demonstrate through prose are critical to that book, too. You could think of the illustrations as kinds of tropisms that you’re developing. Do you think that that’s fair?
I think that’s fair for sure. I’d have to think about it further with relationship to the drawings, but I think with relationship to the figures in the book, the girls themselves, I think I probably had Tropisms running through the back of my mind. Are they humans in Tropisms? No? The girls here are figures in a way. I mean that in a mathematical way. I mean that in an illustrated drawing way, or like a sketch way. They’re moving through these environments almost like puppets mastered either by me or by their school or by what they’re studying or the Catholic church in some instances. The push and pull of control was important to me for sure.
To me they became very real as characters, even though I know what you mean. Maybe it would be nice for us to say for people reading that for all the experiments, you could also describe Math Class as a coming-of-age novel. At the center of the book, you have Jo, the sixteen-year-old who loses her right leg and right arm in a train derailment accident. Other girls at St. Agatha’s School are dealing with what’s happened to Jo but are also dealing with what’s happening to them. There’s a girl named Lucy who’s losing her vision. There’s romance. They became very individual and real along the way. Maybe you can talk about the way that this emerged as a novel, and how you found your way into Jo’s story at the center of it.
Thank you. I’m glad to hear it. I mean, I guess I don’t truly believe that there’s, like, invisible figures moving about. They do have worlds, but I think they’re operating on multiple levels in that sense.
How did it come to be a novel? At first, I was writing what I imagined to be short stories. But what happens to me is I get really hung up on an idea or hung up on a character and I just can’t shake them. So I end up writing story cycles, I guess, or characters just keep having these similar or different experiences. I think it was Joanna Howard, who was my dissertation chair at the University of Denver: when I gave her this packet of stories, she said, what you have here is a novel actually. I hadn’t thought about it that way. Then as I progressed—it was about half written at that point—I started thinking about it more holistically and more conceptually as a thread. I had fragments of different girls and different situations and had to find a way to pull them together and fill in places to build a more cohesive picture.
Injury is a theme that connects the novel. There’s Jo who loses her arm and leg in this accident. There’s Lucy, who loses her vision. The school itself is named after Saint Agatha, who’s famous for amputating her own breasts and then serving them on a platter—amazingly so. I don’t know if that was a conscious thing or not, but there’s a kind of subtraction, I guess you could say, that is fascinating to the project and connecting some of these different vignettes.
Definitely addition and subtraction. Alongside these mathematical ideas, there is Catholicism. I went to Catholic school, and I sat through math class and wore a dumb skirt, and I hated it. There is a part in Math Class where Kat is in the library because she has to write a saint report. I did that too: We had to write these saint reports every single year. I always did Saint Catherine of Alexandria. No one ever picked up on the fact that I kept doing the same saint—or no one said anything to me. She was the first one I plucked off the shelf: the book of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. It had a pink cover with what is now called a Catherine wheel in gold. She’s a fascinating figure: Did you know that she was maybe Hypatia of Alexandria?
No, I didn’t!
Yes. So oddly enough, my “confirmation saint” is Saint Catherine of Alexandria because I simply did not want to do more research, and I already had written the paper a bunch of times. I’ll come back to this idea of disfigurement, too. But just in brief, when I was studying ancient Greek mathematicians or ancient Egyptian mathematicians with my students, I read a biography of Hypatia, and in the back of the biography, it proposes that Saint Catherine of Alexandria is actually a rewriting of Hypatia: that Catherine never actually existed, that she’s just an invention to soften the fact that the Christians murdered Hypatia. They tore her down from her chariot and stabbed her to death, and then Catherine became this murdered figure to replace that narrative. I was trying to learn everything about Hypatia, and then I found out that this saint I had been researching my whole childhood was actually maybe her. That was a weird coincidence I experienced just before starting Math Class.
In connecting my experience of being trapped in math world and in Catholic school, I kept thinking about how horrific it is that I wrote a report every year about this woman. She was an adolescent. She was fifteen or sixteen and was beheaded. She was put in the middle of a big Colosseum-type place, and lions were charged at her. They tried to crush her with these wheels, and then they chopped her head off. That’s ridiculous, right? Agatha cutting her breasts off. Lucy plucked her own eyes out and also put them on a platter like Agatha with the breasts. Being in fourth grade and having to write a little paper about this and present it as a book report in front of the class is kind of absurd. I’m still kind of obsessed with that imagery and martyrs’ stories, these stories that we keep telling over and over. I think that was how and why the additions and subtractions came to the book. But I think we could read the book metaphorically, too, in thinking about the adolescent body as having these additions and subtractions, whether by your own will, such as one of the girls stops eating and becomes incredibly thin. That’s within her power, but some of the others don’t have control over their situations.
There’s also Tessa who chops off her hair at one point. So there’s a volitional kind of subtraction in that case. That’s totally fascinating. There’s a funny scene where Kat is saying she’s doing her saint report, and she says she’s switching from one Saint Catherine to another.
Saint Catherine of Alexandria to Saint Catherine of Siena. I’ve been to Siena, and you can see Saint Catherine’s shriveled head in this like bell jar. It’s really gross. You can’t get very close to it, though. She cut her hair off, too. They probably all did.
It seems like these subtractions in some ways are many things. In part, it’s like if we’re looking at Hypatia being more or less lynched, there’s all the repressions of who would it be, the Catholic Church, and all of the violences that that are inflicted on women’s bodies. At the same time with these characters, there seems to be a desire to study the body and how it comes apart in order to figure out a system of measure, which is a really important word in the book, and how the kind of space of the body can be mapped onto or connected to the space of the world around it. You grow taller up against the wall, and you can chart that and draw a line to map out the pattern of your growth. It becomes a way of knowing oneself and giving shape to what has been kind of amorphous. I thought that all of the attention to forms of measure in the book was really fascinating, and maybe that’s something you can talk a little bit about, too. Are you fascinated with measure and measurements? Are you someone who likes to take and keep measurements?
I am fascinated by measurement. How can I chart, and how can I know, and how can I understand this experience that I’m having? What you’re saying about Math Class is right, and especially in adolescents younger than these girls, in like junior high, that’s the greatest period of physical growth, second to infancy. Literally your body is physically just like out of control in so many different ways. There might be an impulse to, or maybe I created an impulse to, track that. But one thing that is tattooed in my brain is the poet Bin Ramke saying to me that when you measure something, you’re always measuring against. There’s always a tool, there’s always a standard, there’s always a rule. There’s always something that you’re measuring against to determine the measurement. How fast I run is a measurement of time across distance. (I do track my runs, and I do keep logs of things, but not obsessively, just, like, casually, I guess.) In thinking about adolescent experience, or maybe the spiritual or transcendent experience of knowing the self: What are you measuring against? For teenage girls, it’s often one another. There’s a scene in the book where two of them are standing with their arms out as if they’re comparing their wingspans.
Well, I think that’s part of what narrative itself is seeking. Narrative is an attempt to find some shape to experience, to figure out a way of understanding whatever this strange, mysterious thing I’m going through is like. How does it map onto experience itself?
There’s a line in the book that I underlined: “What is the shape of an event? How many dimensions?” For some measures we have the yardstick. We have it figured out. We know how to—if we’re trying to measure an event, sure, we can measure how long the event took, or we can measure how big a space the event occupied. But neither of those things is complete for the description of what the event really is. How many other dimensions would you need to include? I think that’s what I really value in more experimental fiction is this resistance to the idea that the measure of the shape of an event is known. That there are all these other dimensions of experience that we haven’t clocked yet, we don’t know what they are. And we need to continually be seeking new forms of narrative and new ways of storytelling in order to be true to the weirdness of adolescence or whatever experience that we’re talking about.
Mark Mayer’s first book, AERIALISTS (Bloomsbury 2019), won the Michener-Copernicus Prize and was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. His stories have been published in American Short Fiction, the Kenyon Review online, Guernica, and the Iowa Review. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Memphis.
Kelly Krumrie is the author of Math Class (Calamari Archive, 2022). She holds a PhD in English and Literary Arts from the University of Denver, and she lives and teaches in and around Denver. More information and work can be found at kellykrumrie.net.
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