Andrew Granville and Jennifer Granville on Prime Suspects

What inspired you to write this book?

Andrew: I had written quite a few “popular” articles, that had been well received inside the academic community. However I realized, at some point, that the furthest outside this community that read my articles seemed to be very keen high school teachers who organized statewide math competitions. I want to reach a much wider audience.

Jennifer: Andrew’s original idea was to write a screenplay that would be another way of communicating his mathematical ideas.  I brought expertise in screenwriting, Andrew brought the math.  The screenplay was given a rehearsed reading, with some contemporary, illustrative performance elements,at the Wolfson Auditorium at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In the audience was Vickie Kearn from PUP. Vickie was the one who had the vision to suggest we could turn the work into a graphic novel – so I guess you could say it was Vickie who inspired us to actually ‘write the book’!

Why did you choose to specifically focus on integers and permutations in this graphic novel?

Andrew: I had thought it would make a good subject for a popular article. The extraordinary similarities between their “anatomies” is intriguing and I have been trying to popularize this within the research community. Since we started this project – which was over ten years ago – this area has really taken off.

How did you develop Prime Suspects‘ story, and from where did you draw inspiration?

Jennifer:  Andrew suggested that Integer and Permutation could be personified into murder victims who, forensic mathematical examination would prove via DNA, were twins. This was enough for me to begin to develop a narrative using all the genres I love to read and watch – noir movies, Chandler novels, the TV police procedural.

Prime Suspects is filled with “cameos” from famous mathematicians, as well as pop culture figures like Kevin Smith’s Silent Bob. There are also a lot of interesting ‘props’ and backgrounds peppering the pages. What inspired you to include these fun appearances?

Andrew: A story has more color if there is an interesting background and context. To my mind, a Hitchcock or a Tarantino movie is as intriguing for what, and who, is in the background as for what is in the foreground. I love those extra details. All of the appearances were inspired by the story.

What do you think an average comic book reader will enjoy about Prime Suspects, even if they don’t regularly read trade math books?

Andrew This is an attempt to be very very different. It is the proof of a theorem, developed as a detective story, in which the detective story in prominent, and the mathematics is by metaphor. Any reader can enjoy the art and the story, and try to be comfortable with as much of the mathematics as works for them.

Jennifer:  I am far from being any kind of mathematician, none of the the artists involved – the illustrator, colourist, letterer – are mathematicians, but we are all comic book fans and have all thoroughly enjoyed the process of bringing the story to life without understanding any of the deeper math. One of our characters compares the math to poetry – you don’t have to understand every word, every beat, in order to appreciate the beauty or to feel a concept. As described above, there are masses of cameos and loads of references to movies, books and contemporary culture, so I hope that readers will find plenty to enjoy.

There are so many interactive elements to Prime Suspects, including an original score. What inspired you to include so many creative elements with the text?

Jennifer:  These happened organically. To give one example, very early on in the project’s life, when we were just about to do the reading at Princeton, Andrew was seated at at a conference dinner next to a math hobbyist, Robert Schneider. Andrew told him about the screenplay and Robert was fascinated and excited and explaining that he was indie rock musician, asked if he could compose music to be played live at the reading. As it happened there is a major clue in the story, that involves a piece of music, so Robert ended up composing a real piece of music – that reflects the Sieve of Eratosthenes. There is now a QR code on the relevant page of the graphic novel, that allows the reader to play that piece of music. As a post script to that story, Robert is now a rock musician and a Math professor at UGA.

What did you find most exciting about taking your love for mathematics and putting it into a graphic novel? What did you find most challenging?

Andrew:  I had experience at writing “popular” articles, and my writing in that area has been well received. However, when trying to create a fictional story around my ideas, I found that my writing skills did not translate to this new setting. I had no idea how to develop a story and characters. Although a mathematics article should have a narrative, this is very different from writing dramatic narrative.  Working with Jennifer proved to be exciting, as together we were able to apply dramatic narrative techniques, and I could see ideas I had been thinking about for a long time take shape on the page. A major challenge has been to keep the integrity of the math whilst ensuring the story makes sense.  Where to explain the math and where to allow that the audience will all have different levels of understanding and accept that not everyone will understand everything.  Thus our narrator says, early on, that we are in a world in which you do not need to understand everything to understand something.

Jennifer:  This whole project has been a challenge because I never did have ‘a love for mathematics’ but that is what has made it exciting.  I failed math at school and it has always been a completely mysterious world to me. I could only observe my brother’s world, his passion, from the outside. The opportunity to share that world, to see it from the inside, has been a massive privilege and education. I am a prime example (pun intended) of someone who doesn’t understand everything, but who, now, does understand something.

 

Andrew Granville is the Canada Research Chair in Number Theory at the University of Montreal and professor of mathematics at University College London. Jennifer Granville is an educator, award-winning film and theater producer, writer, and director.