Author2Author: Patrick Ryan & Stephen Harrigan

When Patrick Ryan’s Send Me and Stephen Harrigan’s Challenger Park showed up in my mailbox within a few days of each other, I found their thematic correlations so intruiging that I immediately started thinking about how I could get the two authors talking to each other.

patrickryan.jpgPatrick Ryan: Reading Challenger Park was like stepping through a looking glass into a parallel universe. I grew up on Merritt Island, Florida, always in the vicinity of astronauts and launches, and have written fiction about characters in the shadows of that whole operation (either as employees with less-than-glamorous jobs or as local residents who just happen to have Saturn rockets and space shuttles climbing into sky over their shoulder while they’re, say, mowing the lawn). Your novel is about actual astronauts, so I felt as if I were reading the story of what was happening on the other side of the glass, so to speak. It was fascinating for me, and interesting that the challenges your characters face are, in some ways, very similar to ones mine face.

Can you talk a little about how the themes of the book may or may not have affected the writing? I could argue that some of Challenger Park’s themes are regret, self-disappointment, and certainly isolation. Also, there’s the idea of “Ground Control” and what that means. Many of your main characters are in various states of being “ungrounded” (sometimes literally). Do you feel that these themes helped shaped the book as you were conceiving it (before the actual writing), or that they emerged as you began producing pages? I guess another way to ask that is, did you see the themes on your way in, or on your way out?

harrigan.jpgStephen Harrigan: I knew I wanted to write a book about a woman astronaut caught between the pull of her own ambitions and the responsibility she feels toward those who depend upon her on earth, so I guess the theme was there from the beginning, though I didn’t announce it to myself as such. The word “theme” has always uncomfortably reminded me of stultifying classes in high school or college, in which a novel or a poem or a story was presented as something that needed decoding. If you could discover the theme, you could understand a piece of writing in some approved way. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I worried and fretted over the meaning of this book all the way through.

I have a day job as a screenwriter, and because screenplays are such relentlessly efficient narrative machines I’ve fallen into the habit over the years of constantly asking myself questions as I write: what is this book or movie really about? What is it that the character really wants? What is in his or her way? Those sorts of questions can be cripplingly didactic to a writer early in his career, when a certain amount of flailing about is probably necessary and healthy, but later on, when you’ve learned a few things about your limitations, it can be liberating. If you keep posing the right questions to yourself, you can begin to shape the story with a clear purpose in mind. You can see what’s crucial to the story, and what you don’t need to write after all.

Send Me is labelled as “fiction” on the jacket rather than, as is usually the case, “stories” or “a novel.” At first I thought this was just some sort of marketing strategy on the publisher’s part, but after I read four or five of the pieces and began to get an idea of how they fit together, I soon realized that the book was earning its unusual categorization. It’s not a collection of short stories, even though each of the chapters has a kind of stand-alone artistry, and it’s not a novel, even though the book has by the end the force of a sustained narrative. I’m such a literal-minded, one-chapter-after-the-next sort of writer I can’t imagine being able to tell a story this way, and I’m filled with admiration for how beautifully you’ve made this book work.

The way you’ve put it together—continually juxtaposing the past against the future, putting bright scenes of family togetherness in one chapter, then leaping ahead to expose the chilling dissolution of that family in the next—ensures that the reader is always following the fortunes of these people with a haunted awareness of what they are trying to escape from and what is in store for them. So to finally get to my question: Were you consciously focusing on the structure of this book all the way through and writing to achieve a specific overall effect, or did you write the various pieces as they occurred to you and then felicitously found the perfect order in which to link them?

Patrick Ryan: I think I would have the same reaction you did to seeing the moniker “fiction” on the cover (wondering if the book was simply unwilling to commit to being either a novel or a story collection), and I’m delighted that you found an overall sustaining sense of narrative in the book. Calling the book simply “fiction” was actually my idea, and I was surprised and very happy that my editor saw why I wanted to use the term and that she was in favor of it. My earliest conception of the book was of an interwoven series of narratives about a family—six main characters—whose lives constantly intercept and profoundly affect one another. I saw it as a book that would have a half-dozen overlapping arcs, as opposed to one dominant arc that a reader would normally expect from a novel. There were storylines I outlined and never wrote, of course, and some I tried to write and dropped. I played around with the order the parts might be arranged in, but I always wanted them to be presented out of chronological sequence.

To answer your question more succinctly, I did consciously focus on the structure of the book from the first day I started taking notes on it; I just wasn’t sure where all the pieces would land. Some of them, once they were written and revised, clearly announced themselves as wanting to be placed near the beginning or near the end or—as was the case with the longest piece, “Woman in a Fan Chair”—smack dap in the middle of the book. And some of the pieces I moved here and there to see how it would affect the overall narrative.

sendme.jpgThough our books have similar backdrops, mine, because of the subject matter, required no NASA research other than getting some dates right. Yours, on the other hand, clearly —and impressively—is the product of extensive research into the structure of NASA, the astronaut training procedure, and what it’s like to actually go into outer space. You’ve done a wonderful job of creating an informed novel that doesn’t feel fact-heavy. My own experience has usually been that the more I research something, the less I end up using the information, probably because more than I anything I needed to feel comfortable in the arena, so to speak. But you didn’t have that option because so much of what your characters do involves a specific procedure that can’t just be glossed over. Did you research as you wrote, or did you compile all of the research first and then sit down to write the scenes?

challenger.jpgStephen Harrigan: I began my writing career as a magazine journalist, so research has long been second-nature to me. To me, it’s a big part of the excitement of writing a novel, and I’ve come to realize over the years that gathering information, seeing new things, and meeting people I might not otherwise have come into contact with are crucial drivers to my creative imagination. No doubt there are things in my own background and family experience that could serve as the animating idea of a novel, but I’ve never been able to see those things in clear enough relief to presume that anyone else would be interested. So I’ve tried instead to ask myself what it is that I’m interested in reading about and then going off in pursuit of it. I’m delighted to hear that you thought Challenger Park didn’t come across as fact-heavy, because one of the great challenges of a book like this, in which there is so much technical and cultural information to get across, is to avoid being carried away with the data, to remember that the readers don’t really care about the jargon you’ve learned or the hardware you’re so eager to describe. They care about the people in the story. All of that research has to ultimately be in the service of making the characters come alive.

For me, the actual process of research is pretty ragged. I generally read enough about the subject to have an informed awareness of it, and then start making calls and setting up appointments with people who can help me with specific questions. In the case of Challenger Park, I spent a few months reading until I came up with a fairly strong idea of the characters I wanted to write about, and then interviewed astronauts and trainers to see if the fictional people and situations I had in mind would in fact be plausible. Then I started writing and researched the book as I went along, constantly driving from my home in Austin to the Johnson Space Center in Houston for more interviews and site visits. There were many times when I had wished that I had done all the research in advance, because it’s very inconvenient to stop in the middle of a paragraph and call somebody to ask what exactly a multiplexer-demultiplexer does, or what happens if the flight-data software on the space shuttle becomes corrupted. But if you wait until you know all of those things you’ll never begin. I always start writing a book before I really think I’m ready, because then I know I’ll still have things—central things—to discover.

Though your book uses space exploration as a background device, whereas it’s the front story in mine, I have the feeling we’re both interested in contrasting the sometimes grubby earthbound lives of our characters against the noble ideal of space flight. And in portraying those ordinary lives we both seem attracted to the specific details of the suburban landscapes in which the characters live. For instance, you write about Disney World, Slip ‘n Slides, Antiques Roadshow, Red Lobster, etc. My book is loaded with references to Toys R Us, McDonald’s, Fuddruckers, and forgotten TV shows and B-movies. I found it exhilarating to write about these things, just as I found it exhilarating to write about space flight or the natural world of the Texas coast. But at the same time I’m always a little concerned about what effect such specific references might have on a book’s shelf life. What do you think? Does a book gain or lose in terms of universality when it takes assiduous note of brand names and of-the-moment details?

Patrick Ryan: Well, nothing can kill a “period piece” faster than an information dump of details, that’s for sure. By that same token, it’s often obvious when a novel feels as if it’s reaching to be a “period piece.” One of the impressive things about your book is that you sprinkle in all of those specific cultural references with the same skillful grace that you weave in the NASA information: they don’t feel tacked on and they don’t feel like they’re the product of an author consciously trying to “texturize” his writing.

As someone who writes screenplays, you’re probably much more aware of this than I am, but I find it one of the most interesting differences between film and fiction writing: If you’re putting together a scene for a film—say in a house, in a kitchen, during breakfast —ou don’t have much choice but to choose what kind table the characters are sitting at, what brand of clothing they’re wearing, which brand of cereal they eat, what their wallpaper is like, etc., because the camera is going to need to know; but if you’re writing fiction, you might opt out of mentioning any of those things. That’s a big risk, because a scene devoid of setting details can feel under-imagined or unconvincing. I try to keep a kind of mental alarm system activated in my head, and if there’s more than a couple of brand names or company names within a page or two, hopefully the bell will go off. There’s one spot in my book where one of the characters reaches out during dinner and picks at the green foil of the parmesan cheese shaker. It would have felt silly to specify that this was a Kraft product he was touching, because neither he nor anyone else at the table would have been conscious of the brand at that moment. Ultimately, I try not to make myself (or the reader) any more aware of the brand of something than my characters are in the present moment of the story.

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18 March 2006 | author2author |