Author of ten books ranging from literary criticism to biography and founder of the Science Writing program at MIT, Robert Kanigel has spent much of his career finding engaging, human perspectives on fields as diverse as mathematics, urbanism, and classical studies. Writing from his Charles Village rowhouse since 2011, Kanigel has turned his lens inward with Young Man, Muddled, a memoir of his young adulthood in Baltimore between 1966 and 1970. An inviting depiction of a particular time and place, Young Man, Muddled maintains a tight focus on young Rob’s first experiences living on his own, falling in and out of love, finding a path out of his initial career in ballistics engineering and into the writing life. 

Over the course of those early years in Baltimore, Kanigel went through a familiar process of self-discovery—a winding road with more than a few potholes and breakdowns along the way. A shy boy from a bookish family, Rob had a hard time taking risks or putting himself in unfamiliar situations, arriving in Baltimore fresh out of engineering school with a safe job designing bullets for an ammunition manufacturer—a job he left the day after the 1967 March on the Pentagon. Even before his anti-war sentiments took hold, Rob felt unsettled, a screening of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries enough to spur him into looking down alternative paths and unceremoniously dumping his fiancée, Bev. “The Sixties swept our confused young lives onto new paths. That’s what happened to me,” Kanigel writes, and the following years swept him into a romance with a Johns Hopkins PhD student named Maura, overseas and back again—a complicated relationship that did not end well, but played a key role in transforming Rob from a reluctant engineer into a driven freelance writer.

Kanigel’s memories—warmly written and fondly recollected as they are—do not shy away from points of wrongheadedness or deep shame, of honestly exploring his youthful fear of jumping into the unknown, of recognizing the myriad times, as he says at the beginning of our conversation, “I f—ed up.” The result is a lived-in, highly relatable portrait of a young man trying to figure himself out against the vivid backdrop of Vietnam-era Baltimore. On a Tuesday evening in October, Kanigel invited me into his beautiful rowhouse to talk about memory, regret, and a lifetime of writing.

Baltimore FIshbowl: Your account of living in Baltimore as a young man felt so familiar to me. It seems like 20-somethings never change—reading the book, I kept thinking, “Man, I was exactly this kind of idiot.” How did you get back into that mindset of being in your early twenties?

RK: I think about 15 years ago, I started thinking about some of the things that had happened and how much I owed Maura. There was a long time where I wasn’t doing what you’re asking, where things came out that I remembered from back then and I wrote them down and they just accumulated. It was only four or five years ago that I actually thought of making something out of it, and that required more conscious thinking back. What helped is that I had saved a lot of stuff, so I had a lot of paper—but not like a full file cabinet.

I applied some of the research skills that I’ve learned in writing more conventional, popular histories, popular biographies, and started applying it to me. Then it was a question of trying to remember what things were like. Sometimes in the act of revising it, I would force myself to remember what something looked like, not always successfully. I’m not a particularly observant person. So I had to use various other means to reconstruct that world.

Having letters helps. Don’t be so quick to throw things away. I had all these photo books that sometimes I relied on to construct scenes, and then sometimes just to bring back memories and feelings of that time.

BFB: That can be an intense process.

RK: Tell me about it. People warned me that really delving into yourself is not always so easy, and it’s not always pleasant encountering parts of yourself. Maybe you won’t be 100% pleased with the person you meet. And that wasthe case. I’m very grateful that I did it. It was like a free course in therapy, just conducting it by myself with the help of some of this correspondence and various other props. But it was very hard, especially later on. I let a few people read parts of the book and they had some questions—”Is that what you were really like?” And I got a sort of a third degree about Bev. People really called me on it, how I had just dropped her like that. I started feeling genuine remorse for how I treated her, and that was painful.

As far as I can say, it happened the way I wrote it. People make things up. People have faulty memories. People remember some things and forget others. But the fact is, something very close to the way I wrote it is what happened.

BFB: I’m interested in the structure of this book. It’s nonlinear—you cut between the main narrative of moving to Baltimore and these moments from your childhood and adolescence. It’s a very intuitive kind of structure that drives home the themes. Was that something that came naturally, or did you have to fight with it?

RK: I get a lot of what you call intuitive, momentary ideas—“I could do this, I could do that.” But most of them don’t make it. There’s always the test of coherence, of interest—”Does it make sense for me to be talking about my mom and dad here? I think it does.” I think that’s what it means to write a book. That’s why writing books is harder and more interesting to me than writing anything else. I came up as a freelance writer. I wrote hundreds of magazine articles and essays and reviews from ‘70 to about the mid-eighties and even later. But at some point after I wrote my first book, or certainly after my second book, I was sold. 

The special problems of writing a book are the ones that give me so much pleasure to work on. And there are all sorts of differences between writing a book and writing something shorter simply by virtue of being longer and almost automatically inviting structural issues to make their way in. If you’re writing 800 or 1200 words about something, yeah, you have some decisions to make. But usually it’s right there in a couple of pages and you can make sense of it. And the longer you’re writing the more complicated some of those decisions get.

You’re always testing your ideas by diddling around with them and seeing how it works and hoping that it does work and trying to be truthful. Nothing is automatic. That’s the thing. Nothing is automatic. You can go in 100,000 different ways, and that’s what makes writing books really interesting.

BFB: There are parts of the book where you describe Maura’s Ph.D lab work and that research environment. I was struck by how clearly presented and detailed that was. Obviously, you’ve written a lot on math and science—usually with a human angle—and in 1999 you started the Science Writing program at MIT. What is it about that world that appeals to you as a writer?

RK: My last book is about a Homeric scholar, Milman Parry, and his study of the language in the Odyssey, in the Iliad. It’s not science and math, but it’s a discipline. It’s something difficult and big, and I don’t see how it’s possible to write about something where scholarship is part of the thing that you’re writing about and then you don’t f—ing write about it. “Oh, they were doing experiments in the lab. They were staying up all night.” Great. Okay, we got that cliche, but if we’re not in touch with the person who feels such love and interest for the science that she’s up until three in the morning in the lab, we’re keeping remote and distant from what we should be pulling up close to if we’re serious about writing about it right.

I certainly came up against that in the Ramanujan book, the book about the mathematician [The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan]. I took sort of a glancing blow at this very hard math, but I wanted to give it some flavor. And I do feel a responsibility or a natural interest to write about the—you can call it technical detail, but that kind of language is sort of minimizing—“Oh, it’s just a f—ing technical detail. Who cares about that?” And there are people who are fabulously successful in the world who run corporations and run governments who don’t know anything about the technical fields they’re talking about, and I don’t respect that. I really don’t. 

BFB: In the memoir, you wrote about your motivations for writing the book and how it came together. But I’m curious why now felt like the right time to pull these threads together that you had been accumulating? 

RK: I’m sure it has something to do with being of that age where you find yourself thinking back in one way or the other. And I think a lot of people get to my age and do that—you know, “What does my life mean? What have I spent my life doing? What have been the satisfactions of it? What went right? What went wrong?” Feelings of regret. Things that you didn’t do are as much a factor as things that you did do.

BFB: Is there a particular audience that you hope reads this book? 

RK: Everybody? [Laughs] That’s the teenage answer. 

When I was a young person I was kind of shy, reading constantly, and that gave me tremendous pleasure. I want my readers to have that experience, and the subject is almost secondary. If I’m writing about the Antioch mosaics, or I’m writing about the efficiency expert, Frederick Winslow Taylor, if I’m writing about religion, I’m interested in and I want my reader to have that experience of being taken along by the elbow like we’re a guy and a girl walking down a street—her arm through his. And I’m taking my reader into that world, whether it’s Maura’s molecular biology, or mathematics, or in the case of this book, my life. I’m guiding the reader into the sensibilities that I had years ago, with the extra complication that it’s all being filtered through an old man’s sensibility looking back at his young life. I don’t want people to labor through any of my books. I don’t want them to feel that, “Sh–. Here we go again.” I know that I fail a lot, but I am always determined that the reader will have a good time on the journey.

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Mark Wadley

Writer, critic and multimedia artist Mark Wadley is the editor of BRUISER [bruisermag.com] and a contributor to Maximumrocknroll, Post-Trash and Kirkus Reviews. Find more of him at markwadley.com.

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