I’m doing something a little different this week and sharing an interview I did for the USA Today Happy Ever After blog with author Mary Robinette Kowal regarding her Lady Astronaut series and the new release The Fated Sky. The interview ran on USAT/HEA on August 21, 2018, and I felt both the books themselves and the behind the scenes details she provided would also be of interest to the audience here at Amazing Stories Magazine blog.
Here’s the interview in its entirety:
Veronica for USA Today/HEA: I loved the alternate timeline author Mary Robinette Kowal developed for her series The Lady Astronaut. I always wished women had been selected to be NASA astronauts much earlier in the space program and Ms. Kowal’s books The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky fulfill my desire and then some. So I was excited to have the opportunity to pose some questions to her regarding the series and especially the newest release,The Fated Sky.
Ms. Kowal has been writing award winning ‘hard’ science fiction as well as romance for years (her ‘Glamourist Histories Series’ remains among my favorite novels). She received the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, three Hugo awards, the RT Reviews award for Best Fantasy Novel, and has been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. She’s also a professional puppeteer and voice actor (SAG/AFTRA), has received awards for her puppetry designs and records fiction audiobooks for other authors such as John Scalzi.
The blurb for The Fated Sky (courtesy of Macmillan): Of course the noted Lady Astronaut Elma York would like to go, but there’s a lot riding on whoever the International Aerospace Coalition decides to send on this historic—but potentially very dangerous—mission? Could Elma really leave behind her husband and the chance to start a family to spend several years traveling to Mars? And with the Civil Rights movement taking hold all over Earth, will the astronaut pool ever be allowed to catch up, and will these brave men and women of all races be treated equitably when they get there? This gripping look at the real conflicts behind a fantastical space race will put a new spin on our visions of what might have been.
Veronica: What were your three major influences when writing the book?
MRK: The most obvious influence on these books is NASA. In 1969, I sat up in front of the television to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon. Granted, I was six months old and have no actual memory of this, but the story of that formed the kernel of a lifelong fascination with the space program. I watched every shuttle launch in the eighties and remember being in the office in high school watching live when the Challenger disaster happened. Years later, I got to see the penultimate shuttle launch and when it got to *that* point in the trajectory, I just kept thinking please, please, please, please, please… In some ways, I think these books are me trying to explain a lifetime’s love of space. At any rate, it’s why I write science-fiction.
Embedded in that is the second major influence, which is my dad. My parents are wonderful people. Mom’s influence on me is more obvious because she was an arts administrator, so encouraged me to try my hand at all of the arts. Before retirement, Dad was a programmer and when I was little I used to visit him at IBM. We’d go through the “gerbil tubes” which felt like something out of the Jetsons. I remember going into the computer room, with these long banks of machines, taller than I was, and punch cards. My fascination with computers starts there. In these books, I wanted to try to catch the sense of wonder I had at the very early days of computing.
And then there’s Ray Bradbury. I loved the Martian Chronicles. There is a sense of possibility in the impossible stories he writes. There are no super-heroes. There are ordinary men and women whose regular day just happens to involve Mars. I wanted that. But I wanted it with smart women at the center of the story, because as much as I love Bradbury, he was never writing about me. I wanted Bradbury, but with a smart, career woman whose regular job just happens to involve going into space.
Veronica: I can totally relate – my Dad was an engineer who worked on the Saturn 1B and the Saturn V rockets and would come home with tales of meeting with astronauts. He also gave me my lifelong love for science fiction. And then I went to work at NASA/JPL for many years so I’m all about the space program and a special fondness for Mars. Which was the most difficult character to write and why?
MRK: Helen Liu, who is one of the computers working with Elma, my main character. Helen was tricky not because she’s loosely based on a real person, but because of language. I have a number of characters in the book who speak English as a second language. All of them are fluent but have moments where their English is not textbook. The Frenchman, the German, the Brazillian astronauts, all have moments where they slip into the syntax of their first language. Readers only notice Helen’s slips. She’s from Taiwan. It’s frustrating because there’s nothing I can do to fix that, as an author, because it’s not about the writing, but about people’s expectations. In spoken language, we’ll encourage someone from France to keep their accent while telling someone from Taiwan that they need to lose theirs. Apparently, those biases continue in text as well. So it was hard to find a balance between not triggering an undesirable reader response and not erasing her identity.
Veronica: Do you have a pet who keeps you company while you write?
MRK: I have two cats, Sadie and Marlowe. Sadie is a six-year-old floof and likes to be next to me when I work. Especially when I go out and sit on the bench on the balcony. Marlowe is nineteen and will occasionally wander by to make sure I remember to take a break. He enforces this by sitting between me and the laptop. Sometimes on the laptop. Twitter followers are sometimes treated to his posts from our feline overlords.
Veronica: Oh my own Jake the Cat would approve of the term ‘feline overlords’. That’s his world view in a nutshell. Do you have a favorite short scene from The Fated Sky you’d like to share with our readers?
MRK: “I want to make a difference.” Lightning did not strike me down. I opened my eyes and concentrated on the eagle’s talons, but moved to the hard bit buried in the heart of the conversation. “But then . . . If we want to start a family . . .”
He picked at a loose thread on the knee of his trousers. “It can wait until you come back.”
“Can it?” I sighed, snipping the excess card away to flutter down to the desk. We kept putting children off, and there were solid reasons, but if I went . . . “The radiation. The time in space and what it will do to my bones, even with the amelioration efforts. I might not be able to have children when I come back.”
“If you can’t—if that’s not a solvable problem, then the human race is a dead end anyway.” Nathaniel rubbed the back of his neck, staring at the floor. “Sorry. That’s a little blunt. But . . . okay. Let’s say you retired from the space program. What would you do?”
I opened my mouth, and it was as if the inhalation of breath brought with it a view of that future. I would work in the computer department again until I got pregnant. Then they would fire me. I would cook, and clean, and raise our child until they hit a certain indeterminate age, and I would start to volunteer for charitable organizations, as my mother had done. I would matter, but in a very small, very narrow sphere. Mathematics. Flying. Space— those would all be closed doors. “Well, damn.”
Nathaniel snorted. He leaned forward and put a hand on my arm. “Would you be happy?”
I wanted both. Why couldn’t I have both? But he was right. I didn’t want to give up space flight. Sure, I was a glorified bus driver, but it was a job filled with beauty that I couldn’t get on Earth. Mars was still up in the air, but . . . “No.” I reached for another punch card so that I did not have to see his face as I admitted my selfishness. “I want children, but the life I want wouldn’t be fair to them. If it’s not Mars, it will be something else that catches my attention and my time.”
He inhaled, as if he were going to say something, and then held his breath. I did not push on whatever it was he had decided not to say, instead concentrating on my paper crafting. I say that, but as the bird continued to take shape under my fingers, it was clear that I was answering his silence, because I layered punch cards to create an egg held between the eagle’s talons.
Veronica: Did you have a playlist of music you listened to while writing the books?
MRK: I usually write in silence, to be honest. The closest I come is listening to brain.fm which is a series of binaural tracks to help focus. I usually use that when I’m out in the world and occasionally at home when I need a little boost to help stay on track.
Veronica: Well as I reading the books I had sort of a mental playlist of 1950’s/1960’s songs in my head LOL. If Nathaniel and Elma designed a mission patch for their marriage, what might it look like?
MRK: I think it would probably have a rocket going through an infinity pattern, surrounded by a string of prime numbers.
Veronica: If they were being interviewed, and were asked the secret to having such a long and happy marriage, what might they say?
MRK: Let’s ask them, shall we?
Nathaniel: I would say that being in our industry, successful rocket launches are mission critical.
Elma: Nathaniel! What will people think…
Nathaniel: They will think that it’s not a bad idea?
Elma: I will grant that chemistry is important, but we manage to sustain a marriage even spending a great deal of time apart. For me it’s… trust. Faith, really. Even when we’re separated by millions of miles, I have faith that you are there.
Nathaniel: Exactly. And I know that you love me despite my flaws.
Elma: I love you because of your flaws. The flaws are what make you uniquely you. The fact that you work too much, that you can’t let a problem go. And because you don’t try to erase my flaws, I trust that I… I don’t have to be perfect.
Veronica: I love how strong they are as a couple during the events depicted in the books. If they were asked for their favorite thing about the other, what would they say?
MRK: Nathaniel: Her heart. Elma is terrifyingly smart and competent, but it’s her heart that I love. She can’t see an injustice without feeling it deeply and trying to solve it.
Elma: HIs patience. He’s eager to solve problems, but he never rushes the work. He’ll keep plugging away, knowing that there is a solution and that if he’s just patient he’ll find it. He’s that way with work. He’s that way with people. And he’s that way with me.
Veronica: What’s next for you?
MRK: I’m working on a Hitchcockian suspense-thriller with dragons.
Veronica: Sounds fun! What’s on your To Be Read List?
MRK: Currently, I’m reading an ARC of For the Killing of Kings by Howard Andrew Jones, which is an epic fantasy.
For more about Mary and her books visit maryrobinettekowal.com