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Age of Discovery

Samantha Hunt's novels are wonder bred.

Samantha Hunt’s novels are wonder bred.

Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and Samuel Morse are names that evoke visions of scientific discovery and genius. Nikola Tesla rarely produces a similar reaction, despite having invented alternating current electricity and radio. But it was that very anonymity that inspired Samantha Hunt to cast Tesla as a protagonist in her second novel, The Invention of Everything Else (Houghton Mifflin, February)—even if it was a mistake.

A few years ago, at a museum in Purchase, N.Y., Hunt came across a section about the inventor Alexander Volta. She decided to investigate him further, but somehow on her way back home to Brooklyn, the name “Volta” transformed into “Tesla” in her head and she found herself Googling the latter.

“I was like, ‘I can’t believe I have never heard of this man and how did he escape my attention?’” she recalls. “Besides the wonderful things he invented and historically why all Americans should know about him, the details of his life were just as fantastic and weird.”

Indeed, the life of the Serbian-born Tesla proved to be a gold mine: He was good friends with Mark Twain; lived exclusively in hotels, including the Waldorf-Astoria and the Hotel New Yorker, and, most eccentrically, believed he was married to a pigeon (“He said, ‘I feel about her as I feel about a wife,’” laughs Hunt). Set in the early Forties, her novel is a story of a young chambermaid, Louisa, who becomes fascinated by and befriends the elderly Tesla while cleaning his room at the New Yorker. Through their friendship, Hunt transports readers back to a time when the world seemed rife with possibility and each new idea held an element of magic.

Much like Tesla, Hunt has known her calling from a young age—and always seemed to combine writing and science. At age 12, she toyed with her father’s old typewriter at their home in upstate New York, and majored in English and minored in geology at the University of Vermont before picking up a creative writing MFA at the Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She wrote an earlier novel, The Seas; a series of short stories fictionalizing the lives of famous male explorers and scientists, such as Neil Armstrong and Stephen Hawking, and another collection of “small snapshots of America,” which she penned at the same time as The Invention of Everything Else.

And, while the world she dreams up may seem eons away from our current technology-fueled society, Hunt sincerely hopes some of the sparkle surrounding discovery in those days will rub off on contemporary readers.

“That was really at the heart of the book: how we lost that sense of wonder. I mean, if you look at an iPhone and how quickly we got used to it…it’s an absolute miracle,” she enthuses, her light eyes widening. “Wonder has been commercialized and that’s probably why we ignore it. What a sad state of affairs, because the world is full of wonder right now.”