Monday, October 3, 2022

Q&A with Robin Stevens Payes



Robin Stevens Payes is the author of the new young adult novel Find Me in the Time Before. It's the fourth in her Edge of Yesterday time-travel series. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area.


Q: What inspired you to focus on French mathematician and scientist Emilie du Châtelet (1706-1749) in your latest time travel adventure, and what do you see as her legacy today?


A: I was first introduced to the Marquise watching a documentary—a biography of the equation E=mc2, based on a book of the same title by David Bodanis.


First off, it’s weird that someone would want to write a biography about a mathematical formula, right? Of course, we all know that to be proof of the Theory of Relativity, Albert Einstein’s masterful and, so far, enduring breakthrough that proves that energy and matter are essentially interchangeable at the speed of light.


But what was more mindboggling to me about Bodanis’s research is that Einstein, in formulating his theory, was channeling an earlier discovery of the formula for kinetic energy, F=mv2—about two centuries earlier, in fact—by a French woman physicist, philosopher and mathematician, Emilie the Marquise du Châtelet.


Which sent me down the rabbit hole in search of this “hidden figure” and her own pathbreaking contribution that inspired Einstein, whether Albert was aware of her or not.


There was a huge controversy swirling in physics in the early 18th century, from the likes of Descartes, Newton, and Leibniz, among other notables, about the force that set and kept the universe in motion—what they termed force vive, or the living force. It was Mme. du Chatelet’s stunning insight that it was the squaring of mass x velocity that described this force.


And that was just the beginning of this woman’s contributions to her world, and ours.


Q: Your character Charley is a little older this time around--how do you think she's changed, or remained the same, since her previous adventures?


A: Great question. Charley’s now in high school after what was a pretty amazing experience—traveling through time and space to Leonardo da Vinci’s world in 15th-century Florence, and an up-close-and-personal meeting with the Renaissance genius himself.


She’s brought back a few lessons from that experience:

Curiosity is the key to learning, but it can sometimes get you into trouble.

The past influences the future, but the reverse can also happen.

Listen to your heart. Anything is possible.


Naturally, this influences her life in the present.


In some ways, based on these lessons learned, she has become more cautious. She knows there are consequences for following her passions.


But it has also made her more determined to find ways to tap and refine her newfound time-traveling abilities to learn from other “heroes of history”—especially women whose legacies have been lost. And in the process, to restore their stories to inspire other girls and women to follow their own path.


Of course, Charley is a strong social justice advocate, and that doesn’t change. Seeing—and even experiencing—injustice throughout history strengthens her resolve. Her motto: If you can speak up, speak up. If you can do something, do something. Be active not passive.


Q: How did you research this novel, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I traveled to France to follow Emilie’s path over the course of her life. I saw her family’s home in Paris, where she grew up in the shadow of the Louvre (then the palace of kings), and where her father had an appointment as head of protocol (think, chief diplomat) in the Court of Louis XIV. I visited Versailles, where Emilie learned to duel and used her mathematical talents to win at the gaming tables.


From there, I visited the charming château in Cirey, in the countryside in the Champagne region, where she lived, loved, and fought with Voltaire. They even built a little theatre in the top floor to stage Voltaire’s plays. And Emilie’s husband, the Marquis, a soldier in Louis XV’s army, would join them in playacting when he wasn’t off fighting wars.


And finally, to Lunéville, a town in Eastern France which was then part of the Court of King Stanislas of Poland (this whole patchwork of kingdoms back in the day is complicated!), under whose patronage she was working when she died in childbirth with her fourth child at the age of 42.


She was well known in her own day for her audacious work, this “daring woman of the Enlightenment.” Emilie and Voltaire held a salon in Cirey that attracted the highest minds, and the biggest gossips, of Enlightenment society throughout Europe. It was only after her untimely death that her contributions were lost to history.

Finally, I participated in a pilgrimage there on the anniversary of her death to march through the streets with banners and to the Catholic Church where she is interred without any identification of her identity to revive her legacy.


At a minimum, the story is meant to raise visibility of her accomplishments to a new generation, of young people who might find, in her story, a reason to follow their own passions, to persist, and to defy those who would tell them “you can’t.”


Q: Why did you decide to include the Covid pandemic in the novel?


A: The Enlightenment, much like today, was a time of great medical and scientific advances. Smallpox was a scourge that used to kill three out of every 10 people who caught it.


Until, that is, a new technique called variolation was discovered. It had been used in the East, and was brought back to England in 1721 in the midst of a smallpox epidemic by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, whose husband was the English ambassador to Turkey. She had seen evidence that such an inoculation was effective, and even immunized their son.


The technique involved taking a scab from someone with the pox and using a small amount of the dried scab by either blowing it up the patient’s nose, or making a small cut in the skin. Voltaire wrote about her wondrous discovery and helped to popularize the treatment in France.


In 2021, at the 300th anniversary of this life-saving treatment, we were in the time of a new scourge ravaging the globe. I wondered how the uncertainty around the coronavirus, and the rush to develop a vaccine, might parallel that earlier period and the rush to innovate something that would save thousands—and later millions—of lives.


And whether the skepticism we all experienced around the new mRNA vaccine technology to tame Covid might mirror the way people in earlier times would have reacted to a new disease, or discovery of a “cure”—is this just human nature?


What better way to test the question than to explore the paradox—what if a novel virus crops up from some unknown source. . .from the future?


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Charley’s appetite to uncover the secrets of “hidden” female polymaths is growing! She’s on to a new adventure that will take her back 100 years, to Jazz Age New York and the Harlem Renaissance.


And she’s soon off to college herself. So how will the past intersect with her life in 2024—and influence her future, or the world as we know it?


At this point in the story, it’s anybody’s guess. Suffice it to say, whatever the adventure, it’s going to be the bees knees!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I have always taken the Edge of Yesterday adventures beyond the page, working with these teens to set off on their own journey of discovery. I call it a stealthy way to advance STEM and STEAM learning through creativity. By training them in a style of narrative journalism they can actually have their own original stories published at the Edge of Yesterday through our Time Travelers portal at


What I’ve learned along the way is that there’s also a hunger to advance the tools of creativity—communication, curiosity, problem solving, critical thinking, and collaboration—among their parents.


To facilitate that, I’ve created The Mother-Daughter Code, to work with moms of teen girls to give them the space, the time, and the tools—the permission to set out on their own journey of discovery.


Over this past year, I’ve designed and am building out an online program that shares the lessons I’ve learned as a mom writing at the Edge of Yesterday. It integrates stuff I’ve written about in developmental neuroscience (“teen brains”) and psychology, the programs I’ve done with teens, and insights about how our stories shape us.


We provide moms with a playbook to understand how we all get stuck in our stories—and how changing our stories can change our relationships and our lives.


I’ll be launching The Mother Daughter Code in 2023. I invite anyone who might be curious about it to take a peek at what this new adult story adventure holds in store!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Robin Stevens Payes.

No comments:

Post a Comment