A Writer’s Insight: Lucas Southworth

Lucas Southworth’s story, “Quantum Physics,” appears in the winter 2022 issue of The Southern Review. Here, he discusses the narrative promise of tennis, the relationships between parents and their athlete children, and looking at a character’s life through the lens of quantum physics.

Jake Zawlacki, Editorial Assistant: At the beginning of the piece, you give “Andre Agassi” an after credit. His presence is everywhere in the story: the titular character, the father’s coaching style, and the issue of hating tennis. Are there other ways in which his influence makes it into the piece?

Lucas Southworth: My initial idea when starting research for the story was to write a story from the perspective of the real Andre Agassi. I’d been playing around with historical fiction and some fiction from the points of view of real people—Buster Keaton and D. B. Cooper—and I wanted to try one from the point of view of someone more recent. Originally, I wanted to follow a single classic Agassi match from beginning to end. Then I read Agassi’s autobiography and found the book so insightful and so good that I had nothing left to add. Agassi and his ghostwriter J. R. Moehringer had already covered everything! So, I started working with the idea of a kind of Agassi copycat. The character Andre Agassi in the story now comes after the real Andre Agassi. It’s a literal “after,” but it’s also an “after” the way poets sometimes use it—a riff or a mimic. That works especially if we think of Agassi’s tennis, his life, and his persona as a kind of poetry. Which I do.

Since tennis is an individual sport and since many players turn pro at the cusp of adulthood, it makes for a fraught relationship between parents and children as money, success, winning and losing, fame, etc. all come into play. Although Agassi’s father only coached him for a short time, elements of that relationship inform the parent/child relationship in the story. The father in the story, for example, builds a court in the backyard without knowing how. That’s a direct nod to Agassi’s father. There are, of course, other places where the relationship between the character Andre and her father is nothing like the way the real Agassi describes his relationship with his father in the autobiography. So instead of telling the story as historical fiction or alternative fiction (a term I just made up), I got to pick and choose which details I wanted to include.

JZ: As someone who played sports as a young adult (although not to this degree of competition), I can relate to a lot of the frustrations and insecurities felt by Andre. Was any part of this piece in conversation with your own experience with sports?

LS: I started playing tennis in seventh grade after I realized, in classic heartbreaking fashion, that I didn’t have the talent or body type to make it as a baseball or basketball player. But I ended up really loving tennis and playing it in high school and in college. As a young player, I dealt with a lot of angst on the court. I threw my racket, shouted, made a scene, all that stuff young tennis players do. I’m not the type to have public outbursts otherwise—usually I keep those things inside—so I look back on my behavior on the court with a lot of interest. Was that really me or was that the furthest I’ve ever been from myself?

Last year, I realized I know more about tennis than just about anything else. I also realized I’d never written a story about tennis. So, I set out to do so. As I wrote, I started to investigate who I’d been as that young player. The mental part of the game often dominates in tennis, so when the character Andre starts to ruminate about monsters on the court, about battling who you are out there, and about using outbursts to hide vulnerabilities that might otherwise be on full display, I was really speaking from my own point of view. I never had a crowd larger than 20 people watch a match of mine, but being alone under that kind of scrutiny is a singular experience, and kind of a horrible one. Tennis is one of those sports, too, where, even when you’re playing well, you fail as much as you succeed. The only way to improve is to make peace with the fact that you can’t be perfect even as you strive to be perfect. I didn’t understand that as a teenager. I understand it now, but I still haven’t convinced myself. Once I do, I think I’ll be a far more content person.

JZ: In that vein, this story takes a close look at the role of family in competitive sports. On one hand, Andre spends a ton of time with her dad traveling and practicing. On the other, Serena rarely sees her family while attending an academy. Both seem to be the main avenues towards professional sports success in the United States and, wisely, the piece never states if one is better or worse. Do you think there are alternative models to the two archetypes characterized in Andre and Serena?

LS: I didn’t want the story to commit to any specific statement about how we should raise talented kids. I wanted it to investigate the complications of that. Before I wrote the story, I’d been watching quite a bit of tennis and observing some of the parent-as-coach/child-as-player relationships in the sport. Richard Williams might be the most famous; his coaching of Serena and Venus even inspired a movie. But I was also paying attention to others: Sofia Kenin and her father, Stefanos Tsitsipas and his father, Denis Shapovalov and his mother. I was also listening to the Tennis Podcast, where the three hosts do a marvelous job of breaking down some of these relationships as well. What I realized was that a young player competing at a professional level is making a great sacrifice, and the young player’s coach, or whoever must guide that player, is making one as well. I hope readers see Andre’s father as someone who loves his daughter and just can’t help but let his ambitions and insecurities get in the way. To get a player to Andre’s level requires pushing her past what is reasonable. The real Andre Agassi’s father, for example, set the goal for his son to hit a million balls a year. I don’t think they ever got there, but they tried.

In the story, Andre the character is also lonely. Before she befriends Serena, her main relationships are with two adults. She’s homeschooled and much of her schooling consists of reading books while she’s on the road. At one point, she mentions Oliver Sacks’ book on musicality and an essay about the “gift” of perfect pitch. Sacks points out that many of those people feel trapped in their own talent, and I thought it made sense to have Andre connect with that idea. I, sadly, do not know the answer to the last part of the question. I don’t think anyone has figured it out. I don’t know if it’s possible.

JZ: The action scenes read so fluid and fast, but when I look closely, I notice most of the action takes place inside Andre. What were some reasons you decided to write the scenes this way?

LS: Those scenes were really fun to write. I wasn’t consciously trying to write the action as internal, but, I think, those scenes probably turned out that way because I was writing about what it feels like to be on a tennis court. As Andre points out in the story, there’s so much time to think between points, and yet during points there’s barely time to think at all: you just react. I find the interaction between present, past, and future really interesting in tennis as well. When playing a point, your sight kind of zooms in on the ball. The more you play in the moment, the more you focus on each individual stroke, the better. But the match, the competition, is still there, and then, when the point ends, everything rushes back. It’s true what Andre tells us: if you allow yourself to think too far into the future or remember too much of the past, you’ve let your concentration stray and have, in essence, lost the match. “Quantum Physics” also takes on the idea of history repeating itself and how, as much as sports fans say they don’t want history to repeat, they seem to crave those repetitions and encourage them. That’s one of the reasons the character Andre plays the character Becker. I wanted the crowd to embrace—or even force—a moment where history kind of repeats.

Since I’d never written about tennis before, I also wanted the story to be an argument for the sport. I wanted readers who didn’t know much about tennis or thought it was boring to see what they’ve been missing. To reconsider it. For example, I never used to connect with soccer. Then I watched a match in the Netherlands with a group of Dutch fans and, suddenly, I understood what made the game exciting. I certainly don’t blame anyone for not getting into tennis. The sport doesn’t do a great job of translating or communicating to people who aren’t already players or fans. That’s part of the reason it comes off as elitist. So, I wanted the action scenes to be riveting and, at the same time, to share why I love the sport.

JZ: The title “Quantum Physics” comes into play at various points in the story: the actual movement of the ball, “searching the folds of the multiverse” (10), and “each point a hologram of a point before.” (19) How do these allusions to quantum mechanics interact with the story?

LS: While I was researching the story, I was also reading The Grand Design by Steven Hawking. Initially, I was reading the book with no intention for overlap. Then, maybe because I was thinking about both at the same time, I started to notice one influencing  the other. I didn’t know much about quantum physics when I started the book. I only knew the kind of physics I’d learned in high school. But I did believe that all athletes rely on an innate understanding of physics. That, in a sense, Michael Jordan and Roger Federer might be two of the greatest physicists who ever lived. In tennis, players are clearly dueling with gravity, angles, and different speeds as much as they’re dueling each other.

When I read the book, I ended up learning that quantum physics was totally different than the physics I took in high school. In it, Hawking takes readers though a background on quantum physics in order to make the argument that there may be one theory (which is actually a group of theories) that might explain the universe. In the short story, I had the character Andre reading a book very much like The Grand Design as part of her assigned reading. Her aunt as her teacher either has Andre operating at a high level or is giving her the wrong books or both. But Andre picks up some of the ideas and starts to see them in the world around her. Her world, maybe her universe, has been as small as the confines of her backyard tennis court. But the moment she travels to New York and the US Open and wins a few matches, she’s suddenly on the verge of a life where she’ll be highly watched and scrutinized. Like the particles and systems in quantum physics, her path is altered by the simple fact that she’s being observed. That connection causes her to wonder how much she wants to be observed in the first place. By the story’s end, she almost glimpses the future, and, in that second, she understands a few things about the direction of her life she hadn’t understood before.

JZ: I loved reading this and look forward to more. What else are you working on at the moment?

LS: “Quantum Physics” is part of a collection of short stories I’m just finishing up. A couple months ago, I felt like the collection needed one more story, so I started something that began to look like a potential novella and now looks like a potential novel. I’m about a quarter of the way into an apocalypse story that is meant to be funny. An apocalyptic comedy. It’s about an apocalypse that is so infuriatingly slow people have started wondering if they’re living through the apocalypse at all, and some of them have started venturing out on vacation again. So, the story is about two couples that meet each other on a trip while the apocalypse looms in the background. Elements of the pandemic are creeping in, too, as both couples have come out of a kind of quarantine and are recalculating what’s normal. It’s what we’ve all be thinking about and doing for the last two years!

Lucas Southworth’s story collection Everyone Here Has a Gun won the Grace Paley Prize. His stories are forthcoming or have recently appeared in The Pushcart Prize XLVIConjunctions, and AGNI. The recipient of awards from the Maryland State Arts Council, the Truman Capote Literary Trust, and the Virginia Center for the Arts, he teaches fiction and screenwriting at Loyola University Maryland, in Baltimore.

Jake Zawlacki is an editorial assistant at The Southern Review and a current MFA candidate at Louisiana State University. He holds degrees from the University of San Diego and Stanford University and has been the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship. His creative work investigates questions of mortality, connection, and meaning.
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