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  • Writer's pictureBernard Beitman, MD

Art Accidentally Imitates Life in the Novel “Coincidence”

Creativity subconsciously seems to draw from our group mind.

John Ironmonger (Source: John Ironmonger, Wikipedia Commons)

Our guest blogger is John Ironmonger, novelist extraordinaire! He wrote a novel about a statistics professor who focused on coincidences only to find a real life person with some similar characteristics. The novel's protagonist had the same birthday as the real life statistics professor. I’ll be honest with you. I’ve never really believed in coincidence. Let me rephrase that.

I know coincidences happen. But I never really bought into the idea that they might be significant in any way – apart from being mathematically curious, and occasionally rather entertaining. In my novel ‘Coincidence’ (‘The Coincidence Authority’ in the UK) the protagonist is an English professor, Dr Thomas Post, a philosopher who studies coincidences. He’s an expert. He’s rather like me. He can explain away the mathematics of almost any coincidence. Until, one day, into his office walks a young woman, Azalea Lewis, whose life appears to have been blighted by coincidence. One by one, members of Azalea’s family have met their deaths, violently and unexpectedly, every ten years, on midsummer’s day. Azalea, the last in her family line, is convinced she will be next. And she only has a few months to wait. In the novel, Thomas and Azalea are drawn to one another, and the difficult arithmetic of Azalea’s family coincidences becomes an obsession for Thomas. The odds, he calculates, of Azalea’s family tragedies being down to chance alone, are one hundred and seventy trillion to one. This isn’t a coincidence he can rationalise away. So is there another explanation? Is something (or someone) messing with the very laws of the universe? This conundrum is the basis for the story, but the heart of the book is the relationship between Thomas and Azalea. Opposites attract, so they say. But can a frumpy mathematician who believes in a random universe really find love with a poetry teacher who thinks that everything that happens, happens for a reason? The funny thing about ‘Coincidence’ (the novel), is how, once it was published, it started to generate coincidences of its own. My editor called to say they had built a website to promote the book, inviting readers to record stories online of coincidences they had experienced. Could I kick it off with a good coincidence of my own? The trouble was, the only coincidence I could remember was a chance meeting with my aunt (the novelist Barbara Whitnell) on an airline flight from London to Johannesburg. It was remarkable to find ourselves on the same plane – but hardly profound. I told my editor I was stumped. By now I was researching for a new novel – a story that would touch on the collapse of civilisation (later published as ‘Not Forgetting the Whale,’) and I was reading a heavy book, ‘Collapse,’ by Jared Diamond. Collapse explores the reasons why ancient civilisations fell, often very suddenly, and I mined the book for helpful facts and observations. I decided to write to Jared Diamond (a Pulitzer Prize winner by the way) to see if his research supported the central ideas of my story. But how should I contact him? I didn’t have his email address, and who writes letters anymore? I knew he was a professor at UCLA so I tried a few variations of possible email addresses (you can guess the sort of thing … jared dot diamond at ucla dot org … and so on). None of them worked. Oh well. The next week I set off on a vacation with my wife, Sue, and we traveled from England to Indonesia. In a small forest lodge in Sumatra, a long way from anywhere, we were almost the only guests. Almost. But not quite. Two keen bird-watchers were also there, and we shared a table for dinner. One of them (drumroll) turned out to be Jared Diamond! It was his seventy-fifth birthday. And he was very kind about my ideas. I told my editor about the encounter when I got home. ‘Well I have a coincidence for you,’ she told me. ‘I know Jared Diamond well. I was his UK publicist.’

The coincidences didn’t end there. I was often asked if Thomas Post was based on a real person. ‘Of course not,’ I would answer. I didn’t imagine there could really be a professor who studied coincidences. Thomas was fiction after all. But soon after the book appeared, I found myself exchanging emails with a real coincidence authority. David Hands (who has appeared on Bernard Beitman’s show) is the author of, ‘The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day.’ I had never heard of David. His book appeared about the same time as mine, so he had never shown up in my research, but it soon became apparent that the fictional Thomas Post and the real David Hands had several things in common. Both lived in London. Both taught at London universities and specialized, of course, in coincidences. David’s wife teaches at the same university as (the fictional) Azalea. And perhaps the most surprising thing of all, the fictional Thomas and the real-life David share the same birthday – June 30th. What were the chances of that? Then, to compound the curious cascade, I heard a radio interview with a second academic, who might also stake a claim to being a real-life Thomas Post. His name is David Spiegelhalter – a statistician from the University of Cambridge, the author of ‘Tails you Win: The Science of Chance.’ How had I failed to turn up either of these two experts in my research? Well both their books came out soon after mine, so I had an excuse of a sort. I toyed with dropping Dr. Spiegelhalter a note – but well, you know my success rate with email. I need not have worried. A few days later I had a phone call from someone who has been a close family friend for thirty years. ‘I’ve given a copy of your book to one of my best mates,’ he said. ‘I think he’ll be fascinated by it. His name is David Spiegelhalter.’

When my book came out in German translation, I gave a copy to a neighbor – herself a German speaker. A few weeks later she was entertaining visitors from Germany. ‘What a coincidence,’ one visitor told her, looking at her bookshelf. ‘You’re reading the same book as me.’ ‘I have a bigger coincidence for you,’ my neighbor replied. ‘The author lives next door!’ So what would the fictional Thomas Post have made of all these curious events? I suspect he would have enjoyed explaining them all away. ‘Hardly surprising,’ he would say, ‘that David Hands is also a London Professor. Where else would you set your novel? Lots of academics are married to other academics. No great mystery there. The coincidence of the birthdays is interesting but just 1 in 365, nothing to write home about. And doesn’t your friend who knows Dr. Spiegelhalter also live in Cambridge? Ah-ha,’ Thomas would say, ‘not quite so remarkable then. Your book sold 30,000 copies in Germany so one family in six hundred or so would have one. Not an outrageous coincidence. And does this German neighbor really live next door … or does she live a few doors down the street? Have you embellished your story for effect?’

‘Well yes,’ I would have to confess. ‘I suppose I have. Just a little.’

But uncovering little embellishments are often all we need to dismantle an apparently extraordinary coincidence. This is something Thomas discovers in the novel. And what, by the way, about all the dissimilarities in the stories? We tend to overlook them. Thomas was born in Belfast, David Hands in Peterborough. They may share a birthday, but David is nearly twice Thomas’s age. David Spiegelhalter was born in August in Devon. He’s also a lot older than Thomas. Shall I go on?’ That’s the thing about coincidences. We have a great knack for spotting them and overlooking the times they simply don’t occur. Perhaps this is a good thing. Sometimes coincidences can alert us to influencing factors we never suspected were there. Sometimes, if the odds look too outrageous, they can help us to identify fraud. Or, in the case of Thomas and Azalea, they can convince us to look for another explanation. When Thomas is being rational (which he is - most of the time,) he understands that any theory of the universe which holds that everything happens for a reason (Azalea’s belief system) and which admits fantastic coincidences as a matter of course, would have to mean either that the whole course of human history is predetermined, or else someone is deliberately messing with the very fabric of the universe. Like Thomas, I can’t accept either thesis. So I will continue to be amused and bemused by coincidences when they occur. And does Thomas find another explanation for Azaleas coincidences? Well, you’ll have to read the book to find out.

To hear John talk about Coincidence, please click here.



  • Coincidence by John Ironmonger.

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