Thursday, July 10, 2014

God is in the Emails: A conversation between Lydia Netzer and Alyson Foster

This is what happens when two novelists come together to talk about outer space: you get some big meaty chunks in the conversation.  Lydia Netzer, author of How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky, recently talked with Alyson Foster, author of God is an Astronaut.  They've kindly allowed me to share part of the interview with Quivering Pen readers.  I thought the pairing of the two writers was particularly apt given the fact that Lydia's debut novel, Shine Shine Shine, was about the relationship between an earthbound wife and mother named Sunny and her astronaut husband Maxon.  Foster's Astronaut centers around Jess and her engineer husband Liam.  Their world is rocked by a disaster, connected to Liam's space tourism company: the explosion of a space shuttle filled with commercial passengers.  Jess knows Liam is withholding information, even as she becomes an unwitting player in the efforts to salvage the company's reputation.  God is an Astronaut unspools through a series of emails Jess sends to her colleague in the botany department, Arthur, with whom she's had a close relationship.  Christian Kiefer, author of The Infinite Tides, praised God is an Astronaut by saying: "Alyson Foster's debut novel is a puzzle book told in the language of botany, astronomy, family, friendship, and love.  A remarkable and haunting monologue-in-pieces handled with such mastery that Jess Frobisher's one-sided correspondence ultimately becomes an unbroken dialogue with the reader."

Lydia Netzer
Lydia Netzer:  Your story comes to us in the form of emails, with the headers included.  To me, this feels very immediate, even more immediate than a traditional epistolary novel, and also very current, very now.  What was it like writing in this format and why did you choose it?

Alyson Foster:  I love stories that allow you to read between the lines and piece them together bit by bit.  The epistolary form is great for that.  It’s a subtler version of a mystery story.  You have to use clues to answer a series of questions.  Who is the letter writer?  Who is the recipient?  What’s the nature of their relationship?  Who are the third parties being mentioned?  As the reader, you keep gleaning things as you go along.  You tunnel your way in slowly.  That was the approach I wanted to use in exploring Jess and Arthur’s relationship, which is very fraught, tumultuous, and--when the book begins--painfully unresolved.  I wanted to peel away the story of their affair layer by layer.
      Using e-mails rather than letters started as purely practical concession to modern life.  (Who writes letters anymore?  Nobody.)  But it did wind up changing the novel in ways I hadn’t considered.  For one thing, it drastically sped up the pacing.  Letters take days or weeks to travel back and forth.  E-mail conversations can take place almost in real-time.
      Because of that e-mails are also less formal and more spontaneous.  For example, Jess fires off one-liner e-mails in the heat of anger.  When you’re fighting over e-mail or text, you don’t take the time to compose something withering and devastatingly perfect.  You just type furiously and then fire it off.  And the recipient fires right back.  So yes, I think using e-mails to tell the story gives it more immediacy than the traditional novel-in-letters.
      Using this format presents a writer with a very specific set of challenges.  You need to leave enough breadcrumbs in the letters/e-mails so the reader can follow what’s going on.  At the same time, you want to hold onto that illusion of listening on a private conversation.  Too much explanation destroys that.  It’s a line you need to walk delicately.  You also have to decide what gaps you want to leave.  Because it’s those elisions, the things that people don’t say that are also telling.  I agonized over these choices at times.  But it was also a lot of fun stepping outside of the traditional, linear narrative.

LN:  The scientists in your book struggle with exercising caution as caution conflicts with chasing progress.  How do you think that we as humans find a balance between being careful and doing new things?  Is this a struggle with which you personally identify?
Alyson Foster

AF:  It’s definitely something I identify with.  I’m such an overly cautious person.  I think I’m a master at thinking up all the possible worst-case scenarios for any given situation I find myself in, and then I picture how those scenarios would play out in minute detail.  Like, say I’m driving my car across a bridge.  I think: what would happen if this bridge suddenly collapses?  How exactly would it feel when my car hits the water?  How fast would the car fill up with water?  How long could I hold my breath?  How would I escape?  Where would I swim for safety?
      Those kinds of thought experiments are really useful exercises for the fiction-writer part of me.  But they do complicate other aspects of my life.  I have to exert myself to try new things, to keep myself from getting boxed-in by what is known and comfortably familiar to me; I have to work hard to quiet that doomsayer voice.
      As far as where that balance lies...I honestly don’t know.  I’m deeply conflicted about the idea of progress, about how we define it, and about the changes technology are having on us as individuals and as a society.  My protagonist, Jess, shares that ambivalence.  On one hand, she does admire Liam’s work--the incredible amount of knowledge it requires to do what he does, the courage it takes.  She sees space travel as the amazing feat it is.  On the other hand, I think she has a deeper awareness of human frailty than Liam does.  She understands that people are so fallible, that they’re so fragile.  There are so many ways things can go wrong.
      I suppose what I would say is that we need to be clear-eyed about the realities of the risks we’re taking and what we stand to gain from them.  Not what we want these things to be, but what they are.

LN:  In your story, the corporation defends itself against accusations of risking lives for profit, while the characters harbor their own personal guilt.  Can you talk about the role of guilt in the novel, both collective guilt and individual guilt, how they weave around each other and fester together?

AF:  Guilt is a theme that I find myself frequently returning to.  I’m sure the reasons for this could provide fodder for many fruitful therapy sessions.  But there’s also this: guilt can be a powerful motivator.  It forces people down paths they wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise strayed on to.  It generates secrets.  It muddies the water.  I like that--I think these things make for complex, interesting fiction.
      Jess is the character in the novel whose behavior is most obviously influenced by guilt.  Her uneasy conscience makes her compliant.  It causes her to take risks and to make irresponsible decisions--although we, the readers, are privy to them, so hopefully we understand why she makes them.
      But Liam is affected by guilt and doubt, too.  He just deals with it differently.  It forces him into denial.  It puts blinders on him.  Throughout the novel, Jess hangs on to her understanding of what she’s trading away.  She never loses that, but I think Liam does.
      And of course the interesting thing about guilt is the way it can bind people together, even as it forces them apart into their own lonely corners.  You see that in that Jess and Liam’s marriage...until things reach a breaking point.

LN:  Confessions of sin in the novel ring with defenses and half-truths.  Is it ever really possible to fully "come clean" to another person?

AF:  God, I wish it was, but I don’t think so.  That isn’t to say there aren’t moments of true honesty between people, but I think those occasions tend to be like lightning--they’re immensely powerful and illuminating, but they’re brief.  Even in our most intimate relationships, we live from flash to flash--and that’s what sustains us in the dark intervals in between.
      I don’t think it’s our fault, or that we do this on purpose.  I just think there’s a limit to how well we, as human beings, can understand ourselves, our own motivations, and why we do what we do or feel what we feel.  This is probably true even for the most introspective of us--and if we don’t fully understand ourselves, how can we offer an honest explanation of ourselves to others?
      But I think it’s those fleeting, powerful flashes that lie at the heart of good fiction, and I was attempting to convey that feeling in God is an Astronaut.  Jess doesn’t always tell the truth, but I think she wants to.  She’s fumbling her way toward the truth, and sometimes she finds it when she’s least looking for it.  Often it’s painful, but it’s also a relief.

LN:  The novel's characters are recorded in several ways--by the emails Jess writes, by the research and records that Liam keeps, by the documentary film crew that follows them even into their home, and ultimately by the novel itself.  Yet they still manage to have secrets from each other and even from the reader.  How did you manage all these different layers of story while still keeping us in such a tight grip of suspense?

AF:  A big part of this was a function of the epistolary form, which has a very tightly-controlled point of view.  The story all comes through Jess, so of course we only know what she knows.  And there are plenty of things she doesn’t know about her husband, about his company, Spaceco, and about what’s going on during the aftermath of the accident--bits of information that are only revealed to her piece by piece.  I wanted to mete out these revelations judiciously, to help amp up the feeling Jess has--that her life is unraveling around her, and she has no idea what she’ll find out next.
      But of course there’s an additional filter for the reader.  Because we also only get to know what Jess chooses to share with Arthur in her e-mails.  There are things she hints at and alludes to in bits and pieces.  There are developments that she only grudgingly and belatedly reveals to him.  Using this filter allowed me to build up suspense in certain places where I wanted to create a feeling of tension.
      It wasn’t just a suspense-building tactic though.  Something about this method felt true to me--true to how we experience the stories of our own lives.  We narrate them to ourselves.  We dramatize them to the people we share them with.  We keep circling back to examine old wounds that refuse to close.  We all mix up the pieces and rearrange them to suit us, don’t we?  It’s part of how we make sense of things.

Photo of Alyson Foster by Becky Hale, photo of Lydia Netzer by Amasa Smith

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