Contributing editor Stephen Harrigan talks about his new book, Challenger Park, which was excerpted in this month’s issue.
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texasmonthly.com: What drew you to this particular story at this particular time, given the status of the shuttle program?
Stephen Harrigan: When I started this book, the questions about the shuttle program were not as acute as they are now. I started this book about a year or so before the Columbia disaster. So it was with the idea of writing about the lives of astronauts and the people who train them to go into space. I thought it was really a fascinating world, but what was most interesting was how normal it seemed. Once you got over the idea of space, these people were living in this classic suburb with an H-E-B, Starbucks, and McDonald’s. What really excited me about the book almost more than writing about space was writing about contemporary life in Texas—particularly after writing this big, long historical novel about the Alamo [2001’s The Gates of the Alamo], where you double and triple and quadruple check every single fact, from what kind of shoes people were wearing to what kind of food they were eating. It was exhilarating to write about a world that I knew.
texasmonthly.com: The Gates of the Alamo centers on one of Texas’s most important mythic stories. Now you’ve turned your attention to the space program, which is also another great, mythic Texas story. Was that part of your plan to take on a modern myth of Texas, or was that a happy coincidence?
SH: I knew that the space program was a signature element of the Texas identity, but I wasn’t drawn to it as a myth or some kind of larger-than-life ideal. I was drawn to it because it made sense to explore it as a writer. I was interested in the people in that world who are so unlike the people you read about in novels and so like the way most people are. Astronauts, of course, tend to be driven and focused and often brilliant, but once you burrow into that world, you see that it’s also a job. It has very similar parameters and qualities as the jobs that you and I might have. There was a kind of fascination with the details of the working life for me, and beyond that, in a kind of thematic way, was the issue of personal responsibility versus personal ambition. That conflict is in everybody’s life on some level or another. In the case of people who go into space, the issue is very large; you take it almost as far as you can take it.
texasmonthly.com: You used the phrase “the details of the working life,” which is something I thought about while reading the excerpt we’re running in Texas Monthly. I’m not in the business of false flattery, but one of the things I thought about was Moby Dick, in which Melville marries the craft and artistry of story with the details of the whaling industry in America at that time. Here we’re given a compelling narrative, but at the same time, I feel like I know exactly what it means to ride a bus over to the shuttle, go up the elevator, worry about urinating in my suit, climb into my seat, and blast off. How did you get those specific details? Did your journalism background take over at that point?
SH: Had I not had a journalistic background, I don’t think I could have written this book. I long ago got into the habit of picking up the phone and calling people and trying to get the information that I needed to present the reality of the world I was writing about. I did a lot of reading, then I started calling around and met as many astronauts and trainers as I could. I asked them questions that I’m sure they’ve been asked many times. But I asked them bluntly enough so that I would get an answer. “Is it scary?” And they’d say, “Yeah, it really is.” Everyone I talked to was very interested in the issues I was bringing up: What about your children, how do you feel when you’re rocketing into space? It was a matter of trying to win their goodwill by saying I’m trying to write a novel that’s not science fiction. I want to write about this world credibly.
texasmonthly.com: The details of the working life?
SH: Exactly. And also the details of the emotional life. I basically had this proposition: Here is this character, a female astronaut who’s having second thoughts about her mission because her child is sick and her life is falling apart. And I would ask people, “Is this plausible?” And they would nod their heads fairly vigorously. So I began to feel like this novel was going to have some coherence.
texasmonthly.com: Given all of the things you’ve written over the years—journalism, essays, fiction, screenwriting—how do you feel this novel fits in to your development as a writer?
SH: I’m always looking for projects that challenge me, and for me challenge is—well, I’m not a very good reporter. The challenge comes in trying to master a vocabulary, a field, a world, that I don’t know anything about. So I began this book with a deep well of interest but a lot of trepidation—could I pull it off? That’s the question that was always haunting me. Is the morass of technical detail too great for me to master? Not that I mastered it by any means, but I have learned over the years through reporting and nonfiction writing that a little will stand for a lot in terms of knowledge. This is true in fiction, though it’s not true in nonfiction. But if I can convince the reader twice or three times on each page that I know what I’m talking about, I’m almost home free. I need to know how to use a term like “multiplexer-demultiplexer”; whether I need to know exactly what it does is an open question. It becomes a case of looking for the things that will give you credibility as a writer that allows you to cast a spell without getting caught in the immensity of the details. I think the key to making something like that work is making it as intimate as possible, making it about the character so that you’re seeing things, in this case, through Lucy’s eyes. It’s not so easy to imagine this unimaginable world, but it’s easy to imagine what I would feel if I were in the rocket. And I’ve been in enough weird situations in my life that I can call upon those reactions.