Monday, June 12, 2017

The Complex Machinery of Space Shuttles & Love: An Interview with the Authors of GENERATION SPACE: A LOVE STORY

By John Newlin

Generation Space: A Love Story
Stillwater Press, 2017

Anna Leahy and Doug Dechow have written a superbly crafted dual chronicle of their love affairs with space exploration and each other.  Generation Space: A Love Story is as good a history of the space program as any to be found.

Anna is an English Professor at Chapman University.  Her collections of poetry include Aperture and Constituents of Matter, winner of the Wick Poetry Prize.  Doug, a librarian at Chapman University, is the co-author of SQUEAK: A Quick Trip to Objectland, Intertwingled: The Work and Influence of Ted Nelson, and The Craft of Librarian Instruction.  They have written the Lofty Ambitions blog together since 2010.

JN:  When I began reading the book, I thought, this is going to be overwhelmingly technical, a slog through mind-boggling scientific and mechanical terminology and detail.  One of your great accomplishments is that you produced a book ABOUT a highly technical subject without overpowering your reader with scientific minutiae.  How did you do that?

Anna and Doug:  That’s terrific to hear because we wanted to strike a balance in which we acknowledge that a complex machine like the space shuttle is a collection of interrelated scientific and engineering facts without the reader being distracted from the story by jargon. We thought about this book as a story—our story and the story of the Space Age. And we thought about people—characters—as an important way for this story to come alive for readers.

In Generation Space, we talk about why particular shuttle launches were scrubbed, for instance, and try to convey how caught up we were in learning about mechanical parts like a GUPC or a thermostat because they were an integral part of our story of seeing—and not seeing—launches. We want readers to feel a sense of learning NASA lingo right along with us and to understand how quickly some of the basic jargon became natural to us as we immersed ourselves in the newsroom culture at Kennedy Space Center. We kept in mind, too, that there are a lot of space nerds out there who already know RTLS means return to launch site and we hope they are reminded that, at some point, they had learned to talk and think in such terms, that they carry this terminology in their minds. Of course, we didn’t talk about all of the 2.5 million parts in the shuttle configuration sitting on the launch pad, but we wanted to give a sense of how intricate the shuttle was because that had everything to do with how amazing it was to see one actually rise from the ground into orbit.

JN:  Collaboration in writing a book or poem has to be tricky.  Would the two of you comment on the process as well as some of the challenges you faced (and overcame) in writing Generation Space?

Anna and Doug:  It is tricky for any two writers to collaborate, and we don’t recommend anyone begin with a big project. For us, collaborating as writers was very much wrapped up in being a couple romantically as well, so that probably doubles the risks as well as the benefits. We joke that we haven’t figured out how to share the task of doing laundry—we each do our own—and that may be because we don’t care much about laundry. When the stakes are low, why increase the risk of discord?

That said, we started with a small writing project and a big reward years before we tackled Generation Space together. On a lark, we sent an abstract to a call for conference papers about World War II. It was accepted, so we drew from our dates at aviation museums to write about the theory and practice of how museums display WWII aircraft. Figuring out how to write together allowed us to travel to Amsterdam. And then, we spun that writing into a book chapter and an article in Curator. That early validation made us think we were onto something.

JN:  It struck me as I read Generation Space that both of you were able to maintain your own voice while at the same time crafting a piece without a jarring difference of style while shifting from one point of view to the other.  Are your writing styles naturally similar?  Was this something of a happy accident, or was it a conscious effort on your parts to create this stylistic consistency?

Anna and Doug:  In a way, this issue of voice has been thorny for us. We had developed what we call a together voice—the one we’re using now in this interview—for Lofty Ambitions blog. When we started that project in 2010, we would have weekly date nights at a local watering hole and write our posts together sentence by sentence. In the process, we got to know each other’s voices and negotiating ways to represent both of us authentically. Figuring out who “we” are meant more than just writing together. And with that ongoing reference point of the other, we each honed own individual voices too and understood that we each notice and value sometimes very different things.

An early partial draft of Generation Space was in our together voice. We liked it, but readers didn’t trust it. No one believes we can agree on a single way to look at something. Ultimately, we admitted that we needed the two perspectives, we remembered things differently, and we find meaning in different ways. So, the lack of a jarring difference probably stems from years of writing together and, as couples do, hashing through topics over time so that we became more similar generally. Over time, we end up agreeing a lot but definitely maintain our distinct opinions and turns of phrase, too.

JN:  At one point Doug says, “…and I wouldn’t be sure about Anna without these last few years together” (260),  and Anna says, “I’d reshaped myself, and Doug and I had become closer than ever before” (229).  This is an extremely personal question, but can you compare briefly the difference in your relationship before and after your immersion into the exploration and experience of the shuttle launches and landings?  I guess I’m thinking about how two very independent people with somewhat parallel but very different careers can forge a lasting and loving relationship with each other.  What’s your secret?

Anna and Doug:  In 2008, we moved to California. That Thanksgiving, we drove into the desert to see a space shuttle land. The following Thanksgiving, we eloped. In our minds, these events are all of a piece. We’d fallen in love twenty years before we married, and there are all sorts of ways it’s difficult to grow into adults as a couple. Moving to California was a conscious choice to start a new stage together. Looking out at the tarmac at Edwards Air Force Base to see the shuttle moments after it had been up in space gave us a sense of being situated between the past and the future.

In the book, we open with the line, “Ours has never been a conventional love story.” Even before we knew we wanted to be academics or had much sense of career paths, we discovered early on that we both enjoyed research, travel, and writing. Over the years, these interests—the next trip or move, the next question or blog post—have underpinned our relationship. As a writer or as a couple, you never master it once and for all. The next place or the next writing project presents different challenges and different opportunities. In order to stick with it, a person has to get a kick out of the process itself. And each experience reshapes you a bit. Our secret may be that we’ve been willing to reshape ourselves.

JN:  Have the two of you developed any ongoing relationships with any of the astronauts you met on your journey?

Anna and Doug:  The first time we met astronauts together was an unexpected accident that we recount in the book. We mostly talked with astronauts in our role as journalists. We talked with a few astronauts—Charlie Duke and Mike Barratt, for instance—more than once, and we’ve talked with Garrett Reisman informally as well as in our official roles. Over the last several years, we’ve found astronauts to be amazingly engaging, intelligent, quirky folks. In other words, they are just the sort of people we’d like to hang out with. But we run in different circles, and astronauts are relatively rare among us. Only twelve men walked on the Moon, and fewer than 550 people have been to space.

JN:  Doug, have you heard anything in response to the application you sent in to NASA?

Doug:  As I expected, I was not among those applicants brought to Houston for in-person interviews last fall. I knew when I applied that, if I made the final cut, I would have to be the oldest astronaut candidate ever selected. Don’t get me wrong, that would have been amazing.

The new class of astronauts should be announced very soon. I won’t be among them. The average age for an astronaut candidate is thirty-four. I talk about the magic astronaut age and timing in Generation Space. I actively pursued becoming an astronaut early on, then missed the most obvious window. What a different life I’d have lived if I’d been able to clear my ears during a physical when I was eighteen. But I can’t imagine a better mission for my life than the one I’m on right now—and I wouldn’t have met Anna. I’ll be cheering the new group on—on to Mars.

JN:  Do the two of you plan to collaborate on another book?

Anna and Doug:  Long before we started writing Generation Space, we had talked about writing a book about particularly intriguing aircraft. Last fall, we were fellows at the American Library in Paris so we could get back to that project. As we answer these questions, we are getting ready to head back to France for more research in the amazing history of French aviation and for the International Paris Air Show. We’re not sure how this research will pan out—isn’t that why any couple sticks with it? Isn’t love a long-term research project in which we create something that didn’t exist in the world before?

JN:  So true!  We look forward to learning of your new adventures.



John Newlin’s work has been published in Short Story America, Independent School Magazine, South85 Journal, and Night Owl Journal.  He is the Review Editor for South85.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.