Kenneth Lin answers our questions about LIFE ON PAPER, his new play about how we calculate the value of a human life

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The EST/Sloan Blog had a chance this week to interview Kenneth Lin about his new play.

At the core of LIFE ON PAPER are the many different ways we assess the value of a human life—in terms of an insurance settlement, a sports career, its social impact, as a parent or partner, and in a character’s personal aspirations. What prompted you to write this play?

I wrote this play at a point in my life when, like many other artists, I was forced by the fates to have to start working a day job again. It was a lovely job, with lovely people, and I was using all my hard-acquired skills as a dramatist/writer to do a good job. I was appreciated. I was excited. I was happy. Moreover, my son was born, and I was thrilled to be able to take care of my little budding family. But, I remember looking out of the huge windows of my office overlooking Lexington Avenue one day and asking, "Is this going to be it for the rest of my life? Did the window on my playwriting career close? Is it time to put the dream away? If I don't end up being one of the lucky 1% that gets to make my living as an artist, does all the passion, and love, and hope that I put into my work matter? What's it all worth?"

In his rave New York Times review of your previous play WARRIOR CLASS (2012), Charles Isherwood noted that “the dialogue throughout crackles with authenticity” and that “Mr. Lin is clearly a political addict.” LIFE ON PAPER exchanges the world of politics for the worlds of higher order mathematics, Wall Street investments, insurance, and the law. So what addiction of yours is on display here:  Mathematical? Financial? Legal?

I am addicted to people, and the notion that all of us are a result of an organization of forces that produces a life. If you examine that sentence, it uses the very language that describes any equation. Politics is a construction that organizes the forces that build society. Math is a construction that orders our place in the universe.

Science, or more particularly mathematics, figures in several of your previous works: a hand-held four function calculator in INTELLIGENCE-SLAVE, a conscious computer in AGENCY, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz in GENIUS IN LOVE. What is it that so captivates you about math?

I don't have an easy time with arithmetic. If the tree of science begins with philosophy and then moves to mathematics and then spreads to the rest of the sciences, I find myself quite comfortable with the roots and the branches, yet I struggle with the trunk. This is horrifying and fascinating to me. I'm like a delirious person with short term memory loss in terms of my understanding of the universe. That is what one should be writing about.

Your main character in LIFE ON PAPER, Mitch Bloom, seems to belong to the clan of financial whizzes Scott Paterson describes in The Quants, mathematical geniuses who ply their skills in the service of the great god Mammon. Did you model Mitch on any particular person or kind of person?

We have quite a few brilliant mathematicians and scientists in our lives, and I've watched them struggle, like artists, in the service of their work. In the end, being a scientist is a lot like being an artist, so Mitch is an amalgam of the many people I know who are somewhere on the hard path to finding and making something new and wonderful. 

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2463","attributes":{"alt":"Georg Friedrich Bernhard Riemann","class":"media-image","height":"700","style":"line-height: 1.538em; width: 250px; height: 272px; margin: 10px; float: left;","title":"Georg Friedrich Berhard Riemann","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"641"}}]]The Riemann hypothesis, one of the most famous remaining unsolved proofs of higher order mathematics, figures in the plot of LIFE ON PAPER. Perhaps the best known play with a mathematician obsessed with number theory at its center is David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning PROOF (2000). Do you see any similarities in the concerns of the two plays? Did PROOF inform your writing of LIFE ON PAPER?

I have a lot of admiration for PROOF. It's been a long time since I've seen the play, so I'm not sure where the connective tissue lies, but I remember being a young writer at the theater and being inspired to go home and work after I saw the play. So, I'm sure there's some of David Auburn's influence in there somewhere. 

In a blog post last year you wrote that you “always try to write about ‘a pickle,’ meaning an intractable problem for which there is no good solution.” Does this apply to LIFE ON PAPER? It has some elements of romantic comedy in the byplay between Mitch and his ostensible adversary Ida. Don’t the conventions of a romantic comedy make intractable problems problematic?

Love is a fundamentally, wonderfully intractable and entangling problem.

One reviewer of WARRIOR CLASS noted that “Kenneth Lin's writing for this play excels at being truthfully realistic, and hopefully will make audiences reassess modern politics and start some fantastic dialogues with one another, friends, and family.” What would like audiences for LIFE ON PAPER to reassess?

I'm not an activist investor when it comes to my audience. I figure you come to the theater for some spiritual capital. I say, "Here you go. Spend it as you will."

Will you be exploring some other aspect of math or science in your next play?


You are now one of the writers on the second season of the acclaimed Netflix original series HOUSE OF CARDS. Is there anything in LIFE ON PAPER that gives us a clue on what we can expect from the next season? [Fans have to ask]

Not biting. Season 2 of HOUSE OF CARDS drops on 2/14/14. We'll talk then.