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The Writer's World

Question: How much do writers have to read?

Rodes Fishburne: Yeah, finding new writers for me has changed a little bit. My writing requires so much reading in various fields and my curiosity takes me in certain directions that I’m not the most up to date person about what my contemporaries are doing now.

I have some very close friends who have had very successful books in the past couple of years, and I always have to sort of politely dodge the fact that I have not read the book, but writers are not the best readers in the world. First of all, we have professional jealousy to overcome, and second of all, there is a time issue. If I spend all the time reading my contemporaries’ books, I wouldn’t do any of the work that I’m trying to do. Having said that, the writing that I do read, you find it in magazines, you find it in the library, things jump out at you, and I’m always amazed at how a really good story in the New Yorker we all seem to have read whereas stories that maybe are not so good pass by. I feel like that stuff tends to find an audience.

 

Question: What does it take to be a writer?

Rodes Fishburne: It takes an extraordinary ability to delay gratification. You asked me earlier if I was excited about my book coming out, and there’s a part of me that is still delaying the gratification of that, and it’s a weird psychological trick, but basically, if you are looking to be approved of relatively quickly, this is not the right place for you to be, or I guess you could be a op ed columnist for the New York Post, because you’ll get feedback pretty quickly on that, or a blogger.

But, my feeling is that writing long-form work requires a lot of time alone, a lot of living in your head, there’s a great Lyle Lovett song about that, and it also requires this ability to just delay any kind of feedback for probably an unhealthy amount of time. I remember sitting once in a theater, I had written a play that was being performed here in New York and I was sitting in the theatre in the audience and I was waiting for the audience to laugh at something I had written.

Alas, they didn’t, and I remember thinking that this whole writing thing, whether it is plays or novels or short stories or nonfiction, it is almost a benign mental illness, because what you are waiting for is some feedback that may or may not ever come and you feel like you are just alone in the wilderness, and not everybody can do that. And conversely, maybe some wonderfully talented writers who have wonderful talents but don’t have that psychological component, never actually pursue this as a career. I’m often reminded that being a writer is, I think, 90 percent psychology and 10 percent everything else.

 

Question: What is your creative process?

Rodes Fishburne: I find that writers in general, when they talk about their process, are very skilled liars because nobody ever asks us what we are doing; we are alone by ourselves all the time. And then, by the time somebody asks us what our process is, we come up with these perfectly polished anecdotes about how we get up every morning at 5:30, drink a glass of carrot juice and sit down and write for 90 minutes and then go off and play snooker for the afternoon.

And of course the truth is so much more horrifying than that, and there are so many stops and starts, and this idea that oh, I write every day because it is a muscle and I have to keep it sharp and all that, these clichés that you hear over and over again, I think the truth is a lot more of like stopping and starting as you are driving down a very short stretch of highway. I always get a kick when I hear somebody talking, a very esteemed writer talking about their perfect process, and I find it hard to ever put a whole lot of credence in it.

 

Recorded on: June 3, 2008.

 

 

Rodes Fishburne ruminates on the role of writers, what they read and how they create.

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  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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