Would you describe Brandon, the narrator of “Astronauts in Love,” as an optimist or a pessimist? The reason I ask is that I’m wondering if he’s able to envision a life with Claire Collins that’s better than the life his parents seem to have with each other. (He’s crushing on Claire pretty hard from beginning to end.)
I see Brandon as an optimist. The seed of this story came about when a friend told me about the Golden Voyager Record. Briefly: NASA sent a record player to space along with a recording of human voices, animal sounds, and music in hopes that alien life or future humans would find it someday and know that life on Earth existed. This seemed to me to be such a hopeful, romantic gesture, an almost emo-level romantic gesture, on NASA’s part. The idea of launching what is basically a mix tape into space even though it might never be found. They sent actual shouts into an actual void! I wanted to write a character with that kind of optimism. A character who believes he can do better than his parents, or even if he suspects that he can’t, even if he suspects that his crush on Claire Collins is doomed, he finds the guts to try anyway.
Your story just happens to be set in my hometown. Have you ever been on a school trip to the Space Center in Cape Canaveral? If so, did you find it fascinating or—as some of the teens in your story find it—lackluster? (I promise not to mind, however you answer.)
I went to the Space Center with my parents when I was very young, maybe eight or nine. I was a little bored but bravely pretended I was into it for my dad’s sake. It’s a shame, because now I follow all that stuff: the Mars Rover, the flying saucer NASA’s testing right now, that astronaut who answers questions on YouTube. I guess one’s interests evolve between the ages of eight and twenty-nine.
The teens in “Astronauts in Love” seem bent on forming their own temporary “adult” society while on this fieldtrip. They gravitate toward one another with a unified purpose—they want to behold (if not actually hold) a “Space Baby,” and they don’t seem at all desirous of adult company. Did you intend this, or did it just happen as you were writing a story about a fieldtrip?
The temporary society of teens (TSOT) was one of those things that got teased out of the story after many drafts. The more I circled the idea, the more the TSOT seemed true to me. I remember in high school abiding strongly by the code of “kids versus adults for life no take backs.”
We adults walk around so obviously damaged, hemorrhaging from our flaws really. Our vulnerabilities are often immediately apparent to young people, who are much more perceptive than they are usually given credit for. Who wouldn’t want to distance himself from such a pack of screw-ups? I still see the logic of the TSOT. Yikes, no thanks, I’ll pass. I’ll make a little world with my friends here, and you guys can continue to get divorced and drink red wine and misunderstand pop culture or whatever over there.
It goes back to optimism, to the conviction that we will do better than the people that came before us. It’s possible that we need that conviction to survive as a species. Certainly we need it to survive adolescence.
What are you working on now?
I’m putting together a collection of short stories. I’ve also just begun work on a longer thing. I’m still in the throat-clearing and knuckle-cracking stage. I’ve opened a Word document, anyway. That’s a vital first step.
What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
I took a workshop with Christine Schutt once and she compared writing a short story to giving someone a tour of your house. You lead your reader into the house, but you don’t let her go in the sun-drenched kitchen, you don’t let her peek into the sprawling living room, you don’t let her linger in the foyer. You take her directly to the closet and show her the inside. That’s what a short story is. The inside of the closet and nothing else. I think about that all the time.