Bondo Wyszpolski

Hosted by {pages}, Nicole Wachell discusses her new novel on Thursday

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Nicole Wachell. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Meeting the man in the mirror

Local author and teacher discusses her new novel on Thursday by way of {pages}: a bookstore

by Bondo Wyszpolski

Nicole Wachell is in her 12th year teaching English at Mira Costa High School. She’s also co-chair of the department. But when we met last week at Polliwog Park it wasn’t to talk about the curriculum or how she handles classes during the pandemic. It was to talk about “The Right Amount of Brilliance.”

That’s the title of Wachell’s just-published novel, which she’ll be discussing at 5 p.m. this Thursday at a virtual event sponsored by {pages}: a bookstore.

What drew this writer to her book was its architecture. The structure or outline of the story is based on Pascal’s triangle, after Blaise Pascal, which Wachell describes as “a pattern of numbers constructed through recursion (by adding up the two numbers above each number).” She includes visual diagrams to show how this works. Incorporating it into a contemporary work of fiction is perhaps a neat conceit, but whether the reader follows it or not shouldn’t affect one’s experience of the story itself, which is fast-paced with multiple perspectives.

Balancing children and writing

Nicole Wachell spent her childhood in Palos Verdes Estates before moving to Arizona with her family when she was 10. She then returned to California for good in order to complete her college degree at USC. Initially she lived near Westwood and taught in the L.A. Unified School District. Losing her job was what brought her to the Beach Cities.

“After the Great Recession hit I got laid off, and I was lucky to find this position at Mira Costa; and all of a sudden I was back in the South Bay again.” Furthermore, much of her early training was located up in P.V., “so then I found myself going back to all these places I hadn’t been since I was 10 years old, and seeing them with fresh eyes.”

“The Right Amount of Brilliance,” by Nicole Wachell

In “The Right Amount of Brilliance” there are twin boys, Sebastian and Jake, who were separated at the age of three because their mother, an unwed teenager, had just lost both of her parents in a car crash and was unable to cope with raising two sons. Some readers may claim she couldn’t even cope with one. Be that as it may, Jake gets the short straw and ends up with the Washingtons in Glendale. Sebastian stays with his birth mom in Palos Verdes Estates (not such a bad place to come of age), and so there’s a bit of local color here as well.

This may be Wachell’s first book, but she’s been writing fiction since she was a senior in high school. It also seems that she’s been drawn to longer narratives for quite some time.

“I have a couple of previous novels that I had been working on and then eventually abandoned when I kind of outgrew them.” In fact, she’d been working on a manuscript when, during a trip to Italy with her family, she became intrigued with Pascal’s triangle and the various patterns that it gives rise to. At that point she thought it would be interesting, as noted above, to use it as a framework for a novel. This is what guided Wachell’s ideas in terms of storyline and plot.

But the novel itself, at 340 pages, took some time to come to fruition.

“I started in 2011, and I had a full draft within a few years. Then I got pregnant and had my first child. That took me off the track of writing for a bit. A couple of years later I had my second daughter. The whole time I’d been trying to work on my novel over the summer since I teach. That’s really the sacred writing space that I try to reserve, purely for creative endeavors like working on my novel.”

Free will or predestined?

Finally, as the children needed less attention, “I got a little more time to recommit myself to the book.” She also started a writers group. Now, with outside input, “I was able to revise the story and get a sense of the reader’s experience, what was working and what wasn’t working. It really informed the draft that I was doing and then I got a professional editor. Then I finished it up and incorporated the edits, and I put it out this summer. So it’s been quite the process, but it’s been a labor of love.”

Although Pascal’s triangle as a framework gives the novel a theoretical boost, “An average, everyday person who doesn’t have a lot of familiarity with math can still enjoy the story on a pure level. I do try to give a condensed summary that (indicates) some of the core thematic ideas—this is about getting even, this section’s maybe about trying to achieve perfection, another chapter’s about taking shortcuts in life… Basically I hope that the math doesn’t trip people up who are not number people, but that it can supplement and augment the experience of the book.”

It’s possible, and this remains to be seen, that some readers may find it to be more of an intrusion: Life is always in flux but mathematical principles are not. It’s possible, also, that readers may wonder if Wachell is suggesting or hinting that maybe our lives are subject to cosmic laws that were in place long before we were born.

“I hadn’t necessarily seen it from a very fatalistic perspective,” Wachell replies, adding that with the interplay of our relationships and our identity there’s a sense “that sometimes it works itself out in ways that almost feel predetermined, that feel difficult to extract from larger designs. There’s certainly a component of that in the book.”

Nicole Wachell. RSVP and tune in at 5 p.m. on Thursday. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Double trouble?

Jake and Sebastian, both in their early 40s, are not only identical twins, they seem to have inherited the proclivities of their professorial, biological father: both twins are scientifically inclined and both teach at universities. One of the distant inspirations for Wachell’s story was “The Double,” a novel by José Saramago. Wachell had read the book so long ago that she’d forgotten to mention it until after I’d switched off the tape recorder and we began a more casual conversation about favorite authors and writing in general. And, like “The Double,” “The Right Amount of Brilliance” deals in part with the inevitable questions we might have if a previously unknown twin were to enter our lives.

And also, Wachell says, there’s “that idea of nature versus nurture. It’s hard to escape if you’re looking at identical twins. There are many twin studies that look at what happens when you have people who are genetically similar, born from the same parents, but for whom their experiences later on are so different. So there certainly is that element of how much our genetic predisposition is fatalistic, or how much has that shaped us, and how much of it is not only nurture but then up to our own design and our ability to change and transform. I think that’s something that both of the characters try to reckon with.”

In the novel, the trajectory of each character, including parents, lovers, spouses and coworkers, can presumably be linked to the numbers game in Pascal’s triangle. Nonetheless, the book ends with several loose ends: for example, we don’t really know what’s going to happen with Jake and his wife, Jake and his job, and Jake and his parents. So I had to ask, Will there be a sequel?

“I’m not planning one at this point,” Wachell replies. “I’m already thinking about my next book, and I really want to do something about Los Angeles itself. So I think my mind is already out the door on this book—especially since I’ve been working on it for nine years. But who knows, I might be drawn back to it in the future.”

The Right Amount of Brilliance is well written and engaging, and Nicole Wachell will have plenty more to say about it when she discusses the book with Diana Sieker, her fellow co-chair at Mira Costa, on Thursday (Oct. 8) at 5 p.m. Hosted by {pages} in Manhattan Beach, which is also carrying copies of the book ($13.99; paperback), one needs to register for the free discussion by going to pagesabookstore.com. For more on the novel itself, visit pascalstrianglenovel.com. ER

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