Tales of the Crash: An Interview with Nick Arvin

In fact, Nicky and I were talking about the idea of a “black swan” crash on the way over here. As it turned out, the defense lost this case, and my friend said that it was because it was impossible to get a jury where half the people hadn’t run into a pig themselves, or knew somebody who had had a terrible accident with a pig. You don’t actually see the particle; you see the tracks that it’s made. The animations incorporated multiple viewpoints, slowing and replaying the moments of impact, and occasionally overlaying an arrow, scale, or trajectory trace. Sometimes, though, even after all that meticulous attention to detail, and even if you believe you have the physics right, you end up playing with it a little, trying to get the motion to look real. You get an accident that was at 20 miles an hour, and you think, that’s not such a big deal. We kept trying to change the roll motion to get that door to hit the fence, but it just didn’t make sense. BLDGBLOG: That reminds me of an anecdote in Robert Sullivan’s book, The Meadowlands, about the swamps of northern New Jersey. Within the work, we were completely disregarding those people and their emotions—emotions were outside our purview. In writing, at the sentence level, you really want to avoid unintentional ambiguity. Then, as a part of his investigation, he built this stuffed pig hide on wheels, with a little structure made out of wood and caster wheels on the bottom. But, when a car runs into a person, there’s nothing left at that point; when you try to determine where the point of impact was, you end up relying on witness testimony. Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video. You think you’ve made a decision in your life, but there are all these moments of chance that flow into that decision. Arvin: I had one, luckily very minor, accident while I was working as reconstructionist—around the time that I was starting to work on this book. We would study the accident site and survey it and build up a very detailed map of exactly how the land is shaped in that particular spot. It’s very different from the forensics. The clock in the car and his watch hadn’t been reset yet. (Note: An earlier version of this interview previously appeared on Venue). Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video. You have to look at every single mark on the vehicle and try to figure out exactly where and how it happened. I remember the vehicle had rolled through a barbed wire fence, and that there was a dent in one of the doors that looked like a pole of some kind had been jammed into the sheet metal. Twilley: In terms of reconciling memory and physical evidence—and this also relates to the idea of tweaking the reconstruction animation for the jury—the novel creates a conflict about whether it’s a good idea simply to settle for a narrative you can live with, however unreliable it might be, or to try to pin it down with science instead, even if the final result doesn’t sit right with you. • • •
A slightly longer version of this interview previously appeared on Venue. It also reminds me of one of my teachers, Frank Conroy, who used to talk about the contract between the reader and the writer. They had crowbarred the door open. You know, we think of the road as this conveyance that gets us from Point A to Point B, but it’s actually a place in and of itself and there are interesting things about it. We’d watch the animation and say, “That just doesn’t look right.” You have a feel for how physics works; you can see when an animation just doesn’t look right. Monterey has a phenomenal number of wild pigs running around. Sometimes we would come up with a theory of what happened and how the vehicles had moved, and then we’d recreate it in an animation, as a kind of test. It’s not a job that most people have even heard of! Sometimes they just contradict each other and there’s no way to resolve them. A vehicle scrapyard photographed by Wikipedia contributor Snowmanradio. What he tells Sullivan is that, now that he is retired, it’s as though he’s built up this huge encyclopedia of little details with the feeling that they all were going to add up to some kind of incredible moment of narrative revelation. One of his interview subjects is a retired detective from the area who is super keyed into his environment—he notices everything. He gave me this incredible story: an accident that involved all these feral pigs that had been hit by cars and killed, lying all over the road. I love that. And we realized the crowbar had made the dent! Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video. How much of our memories are shaped by our sense of identity versus the things we’ve actually done? As we went on to discuss, it is precisely this disjuncture—between the neat explanations provided by laws of physics and the random chaos of human motivation and behavior—that The Reconstructionist takes as its narrative territory. If so, could you imagine, at one end of it, a kind of super-crash—a crash that maybe happens only once a generation—

Arvin: The unicorn crash! And he suggested that I needed to establish the characters and their dynamics more strongly, early in the book. We worked on one case where a guy’s car was hit by a train. He explains that this attention to microscopic detail is what makes a good detective. Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video. BLDGBLOG: Building on that, if you have a geography of crashes and a museum of crashes, is there a crash taxonomy? Ellis Barstow, the protagonist in Nick Arvin’s most recent novel, is a reconstructionist: an engineer who uses forensic analysis and simulation to piece together, in minute detail, what happened at a car crash site and why. Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video. Flipping open his laptop, Arvin kicked things off by showing us a kind of greatest hits reel drawn from his own crash reconstruction experience. There are all these minor events in our lives, and we constantly work to reconstruct them by looking at the evidence around us and trying to figure out what happened. That detective sounds like a thwarted reader. An accident in which two vehicles, each going 60 miles an hour, crash head-on at a closing speed of 120 miles an hour—now, that’s a collision! In that case, my friend was working for the defense, which was the State Highway Department—they were being sued for not having built a tunnel under the road for the wild pigs to go through. Arvin: I think that ambivalence is where the book is. I got my MFA, and then I was given a grant to go write for a year. If something comes up out of the past that doesn’t fit with who you have defined yourself to be, what do you do with that? You can go to a place now, as it is physically; you can look of a photograph of how it was; you can create a simulation of the place as it was in your computer: but those are all representations of it, and none of them are really it. Twilley: Do you still work as an engineer, and, if so, what kinds of projects are you involved with? It was kind of galling if there was not just enough physical evidence and you had to rely on what somebody said as a starting point. Then my grant money ran out, and I had to find a job. It sets up questions about how we define ourselves and what we do when we encounter things that conflict with our sense of identity. But there’s no categorization that I am aware of for severity. There’s Karl Iagnemma, who teaches at MIT. Point A might be where two vehicles have crashed into each other, which is called the “point of impact.” The point of impact was often fairly easy to figure out. Part-time work isn’t really easy to find as an engineer, but I’ve been lucky, and my employers have been great. It’s like a museum of accidents—there are racks three vehicles high, and these big forklift trucks that pick the vehicles up off the racks and put them on the ground so you can examine them. On the one hand, it helps keep you sane, but on the other hand, it feels very disrespectful. There are a few others, especially in the sci-fi universe. Our conversation ranged from the art of car crash forensics to the limits of causality and chance, via feral pigs, Walden Pond, and the Higgs boson. As part of our Venue project, Nicola Twilley and I sat down with Arvin at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver for an afternoon of conversation and car crash animations. He was a shoe salesman, if I remember right, and he was going to work on a Sunday. Screenshots from a PC-Crash demo showing load loss and new “multibody pedestrian” functionality. But, clearly, something like a kid throwing a water balloon is not going to show up in PC-Crash. Nick Arvin: In the company where I worked, we had an engineering group and an animation group. I had written the book, we had sold it, and I thought I was done with it, but then the editor—Cal Morgan at Harper Perennial—sent me his comments. Twilley: Do you take an engineering job, then quit and take some time to write and then go back into the engineering again? There are a few literary writers who started out in engineering but have gotten out of it—Stewart O’Nan is one, George Saunders is another. But I had known a couple people at Ford who ended up working in forensics, so I started sending my resume to automobile forensics firms. He said it was like a Monty Python skit: he’d push it out on the road, then go hide in the bushes while the other guy took photographs. You could potentially argue that you crashed because, say, a little kid throws a water balloon into the street and it distracts you and, ten seconds later, you hit a telephone pole. That’s what’s so interesting about the reconstructionist’s work: you’re making these narratives that define a crash for a legal purpose, yet the novel seems to ask whether that is really the narrative of the crash, whether the actual impact is not the dents in the car but what happens to people’s lives. The novel is based on Arvin’s own experiences in the field of crash reconstruction; Arvin thus leads an unusual double-life as a working mechanical engineer and a successful author of literary fiction. Arvin: Yes. In fact, we would do our best to completely set aside any witness testimony and just work from the physical evidence. If you look up and a window is open, and you know you didn’t open it, then you try to figure out who in the house opened it. I wanted an accident to structure the new material around, but by this time I was no longer working as a reconstructionist, and all my best material from the job was already in the book. So, in the case of the open window, he’ll notice it and file it away in case he needs it in a future narrative. Arvin: Exactly. When I finished my Masters at Stanford, I went to work for Ford. Arvin: I work on power plants and oil and gas facilities. Each accident is important to the people who were in it. Twilley: In the novel, you show that reconstructionists have a particular set of tools and techniques with which to gain access to the facts about a past event. Whereas, in engineering, you would never intentionally take an ambiguity about whether the cruise ship is going to sink or not and magnify that! So, very often, we’d look at an animation and say to ourselves: we haven’t got this right yet. BLDGBLOG: In terms of the narrative that defines a particular car crash, I’m curious how reconstructionists judge when a car crash really begins and ends. The way you categorize crashes is single vehicle, multiple vehicle, pedestrian, cyclist, and so on. • • •Nicola Twilley: Walk us though how you would build and animate these car crash reconstructions. He sounds genuinely sad—he has so much information and it’s not going anywhere. The best I think you can hope to do is to use multiple methods to triangulate and get to some version of what the past was. In the book, for example, your reconstructionists seem to do both, going back and forth between the animation and the actual ground, generating and testing hypotheses. At each of those points in time we had roll, pitch, yaw, and locations of vehicles. Newton’s laws of motion say it couldn’t have happened. An animation can cost tens of thousands of dollars to generate, and if there is one detail that’s erroneous, the other side can say, “Hey, this doesn’t make sense!” Then the entire animation will be thrown out of court, and you’ve just flushed a lot of money down the toilet. Thanks to Scott Geiger for first recommending Arvin’s work! BLDGBLOG: The crash site becomes your Walden Pond. BLDGBLOG: Exactly. Arvin: I haven’t come across a taxonomy like that, although it’s a great idea. A screenshot from the PC-Crash demo, which boasts that the “Specs database contains vehicles sold in North America from 1972 to the present,” and that “up to 32 vehicles (including cars, trucks, trailers, pedestrians, and fixed objects such as trees or barriers) can be loaded into a simulation project.”

When you’re using PC-Crash, you start by entering a bunch of numbers to tell the program what a vehicle looks like: how long it is, where the wheels are relative to the length, how wide it is, where the center of gravity is, how high it is, and a bunch of other data I’m forgetting right now. It’s a reminder that we’re reconstructing things all the time in our lives. I heard the collision begin before I saw it, and what I really remember is that first sound of metal on metal. I came to feel that, as a reconstructionist, you develop a really intimate relationship with the roadway itself, which is a place where we spend so much time, yet we don’t really look at it. I only did it for three years, so I’m not a grizzled reconstructionist veteran, but even in three years you see enough of them that you start to get a little jaded. An edited transcript appears below. Reconstruction plays into my own particular writing technique because I tend to just write a lot of fragments initially, then I start trying to find the story that connects those pieces together. We then fed that motion data to the animators, and they created the imagery. We figured it had to be one of the fence posts, but we struggled with it for weeks, because everything else in the roll motion indicated that, when the car hit the fence, the door with the dent in it would have been on the opposite side of the vehicle. It’s so subjective. Or, what exactly is the coefficient of friction on this particular roadway? I think of reconstruction in terms of the process of writing, too. So you have to be very meticulous and careful about the basis for everything in the animation. But then he retired. Twilley: Have you been in a car accident yourself? You are just driving down the road and, all of a sudden, your life is going to be altered, but you don’t know how yet. But the engineering work I’m doing now doesn’t have quite the same dramatic, obvious story potential that forensic engineering does. When vehicles hit each other—especially in a head-on collision—the noses will go down and gouge into the road, and the radiator will break and release some fluid there, marking it. In the engineering group, we created what we called motion data, which was a description of how the vehicle moved. In the same way that you get a category five hurricane or a 4.0 earthquake, is there, perhaps, a crash severity scale? Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video. Then he’d have to run out and grab the pig whenever a car came by. I wanted to look at that in the book. Arvin: When you are working on a case—like that rollover—you become extremely intimate with a very small piece of land. Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video. Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video. It showed all of the impact points that the police had documented, and it showed all of the places where broken glass had been deposited as the vehicle rolled. Generating a realistic-looking animation is very expensive, but you can create a crude version pretty easily. Watching the short, blocky animations—a semi jack-knifing across the center line, an SUV rear-ending a silver compact car, before ricocheting backward into a telephone pole—was surprisingly uncomfortable. Then, usually, you know exactly where the vehicle ended up, which is Point B, or the “point of rest.”

But connecting Points A and B was the tricky part. Have you come to understand the landscape in terms of its potential for automotive disaster? Twilley: I wanted to switch tracks a little and talk about the geography of accidents. Arvin: I do both. You can get a piece of the past through memory and you can get a piece through the scientific reconstruction of things. It’s at the start of the book, but it was actually the last part that was written. In the end, though it seems as though the book is ambivalent as to whether the past is accessible through any of those methods. Twilley: In the novel, you deliberately juxtapose a creative way of looking—Heather’s pinhole photography—with Ellis’s forensic, engineering perspective. That’s a grey area that we often ended up talking about and arguing about. Similarly, in engineering, you design systems that will do what you want them to do, and you don’t have room for ambiguity—you don’t want the power plant to blow up because of an ambiguous connection. But there wasn’t any data coming out of that process that they were feeding into their analysis; it was about trying to convince a jury whether you can or can’t see a feral pig standing in the middle of the road. We had scarcely looked at them, because they were so blurry you could hardly see anything. It just happened to be after the daylight savings time change, and he was either an hour ahead or an hour behind getting to work. Twilley: Or, in your novel’s case, if they weren’t married to the wrong woman. Once you’ve put in the parameters that define the vehicle, it’s almost like a video game: you can put the car on the roadway and start it going, and you put a little yaw motion in to start it spinning. Or do you somehow find a way to do both? I work part time. As he hit play, each scene was both unspectacular and familiar—a rural two-lane highway in the rain, a suburban four-way stop surrounded by gas stations and fast-food franchises—yet, because we knew an impact was inevitable, these everyday landscapes seemed freighted with both anticipation and tragedy. Pig Accident 2, the crash that Ellis is trying to recreate at the start of my book, is a good example of that. I began looking for something in the automotive industry in Denver, and there isn’t much. The act of retiring as a police detective meant that he lost the promise of a narrative denouement. There’s wiggle room in terms of, for example, where exactly the driver begins braking relative to where tire marks were left on the road. Arvin: True. Then I was accepted into Iowa Writer’s Workshop, so I quit Ford to go to Iowa. They’ve got a real problem with wild pigs there. He has the ingredients for the story—but he doesn’t have the story. Twilley: So there’s occasionally a bit of an interpretive leeway between the evidence that you have and the reconstruction that you present. BLDGBLOG: While reading the book, I found myself thinking about the discovery of the Higgs boson—how, in a sense, its discovery was really a kind of crash forensics. The motion data was extremely detailed, describing a vehicle’s movement a tenth of a second by a tenth of a second. So I took a former colleague out for a beer and asked him to tell me about the stuff he’d been working on. One of the challenges of the business is that, when you’re creating an animation for court, every single thing in it has to have a basis that’s defensible. It happened that the guy who got my resume was a big reader, and I had recently published my first book. [Image: A stuffed pig on wheels, “like a Monty Python skit”; photo by Nicola Twilley]. Twilley: It’s like a crash site: once the lines have been repainted and the road resurfaced, to what extent is that place no longer the same place where the accident occurred, yet still the place that led to the accident? They are both processes of taking a bunch of little things—in engineering, it might be pieces of steel and plastic wire, and, in writing a novel, they’re words—and putting them together in such a way that they work together and create some larger system that does something pleasing and useful, whether that larger thing is a novel or a cruise ship. The other thing your question makes me think about is this gigantic vehicle storage yard I describe in the novel, where all the crashed vehicles that are still in litigation are kept. Immediately, I felt a lurch of horror, because I wasn’t sure what was happening yet, but I knew it could be terrible. Arvin: It does, in a way. Twilley: That reminds me of something that Boggs says in the book: “It’s a miracle there aren’t more miracles.”

Arvin: Doing that work, you really start to question, where are those limits of causality and chance?

Updated: 19.11.2014 — 09:45