The latest novel from rocket scientist turned writer Alan Lightman, best known for his international
bestseller “Einstein’s Dreams,” is described by his publisher as an impressionistic memoir.
“I’m a little bit frightened of what the reaction will be, or anxious might be a better word,” said
Lightman, of the raw emotional look at his family he nearly published five years ago. “It’s a true picture
of them as I saw it.”
While “Screening Room” touches on elements of life in the South as well as the Lightman family
business — movie theaters — the real emotional struggle lies in the haunting memories of his
domineering grandfather M.A. Lightman and the impact he had on Alan Lightman’s relationship with his
Correct me if I’m wrong, “Screening Room” is a fictionalized memoir.
It’s certainly not a straight memoir for several reasons. One, I’m not in it a lot myself, so it doesn’t focus
on me, and it’s partly fictionalized, because I wanted it to be good storytelling. Or at least I wanted to
attempt good storytelling. I think you have to fictionalize a little bit to tell a good story because you just
don’t have all the facts to give dialogue and actual scenes that actually took place.
What is it about this story that made you work on it now?
I think there are a lot of strands in the book, but the reason why I decided to put all this together now
—there are a couple of reasons — I’ve always wanted to write a book about Memphis and the South. I
also wanted to write a book about my relationship with my father and my grandfather.
My father was 90 years old at the time that I wrote most of the book. I felt that he was nearing the end
of his life and if I wanted to get stories from him that I was running out of time. I actually had a complete
draft of the book five years ago. … I decided at the last minute that I didn’t want to publish it while my
father was alive. I thought it might upset him, so I waited until he passed away and then worked on it
some more and now it’s being published.
Talk about those conversations.
It was hard to get my father to talk about anything personal and I think I make that clear in the book. He
was just not an introspective person. He didn’t really like talking about himself, so I had to talk to him
slowly over a long period of time to get him to talk about himself and about his relationships. He never
criticized his father or his older brother even though I knew he had been greatly hurt by them, so I had
to read between the lines to figure out what he really felt about them.
What for you was more emotional, those conversations with your father or the introspective time
when you’re alone by yourself having to write and interpret this story?
They were both tough for me emotionally. When anybody writes a memoir or anything close to a
memoir, they go through a lot of soul searching and, of course, when we look back on our lives honestly,
there’s a lot of bad as well as good. We regret some of the things we’ve done. Of course, my relationship
with my father was painful and difficult at times. I would say the most painful or difficult part of the
whole process was letting my father read a first draft of the book five years ago.
There was a publication date and I thought I shouldn’t publish it without letting him read it. … (He) was
very upset by the book. That was very emotionally difficult for me to realize I had upset him again. He
had suffered so much in his life and to read this book by his oldest son [pause] again upset him. I felt
terrible about it.