Hello Meg, it’s so lovely to welcome you to Novel Kicks today. Your book is called The Wanderers (released yesterday and has, in my opinion one of the prettiest book covers.) Can you tell me about the novel and how the idea originated?
Thank you! (And I love that cover too.)
“The Wanderers” imagines that a private space company is four years away from sending the first crew of humans to Mars. Three astronauts have been selected, and as part of their training they are asked to undergo a seventeen-month simulation of the mission. The story is told from the point of view of the crewmembers, and also from some of the people they’ll be leaving behind: a wife, a daughter, and a son. We also hear from of one of the people tasked with observing and evaluating the astronauts. It’s a story about ambition, isolation, inner space, the problem of knowing what is “real” or even what “real” means, and the different kinds of personal simulations human beings find themselves in. (I hope it’s also a little bit funnier than my description!)
The idea for the book was inspired by a newspaper article I read concerning a simulated Mars mission: six volunteers spent 520 days in a module, being tested for the kind of psychological and physiological stresses a crew might experience in a long-duration space expedition. I thought it sounded like an incredibly cool setting for a novel.
What was your approach to the writing process with this novel – did you plan a lot, wait until you had a whole draft before editing?
I spent over a year researching before I wrote anything at all. The research continued for the length of writing: about four years. I don’t outline, but I spent months writing the first chapter and thinking through the general shape of the book. I revise CONSTANTLY.
Once you’d written your first novel, could you tell me a bit about the route you had to publication and how the process was different with this novel?
The first novel I wrote didn’t sell—just got very lovely rejection letters. So I put it away and tried again. The second book sold, and the editor who acquired it was interested in that first book, and told me to take it out and work on it a bit. I did, and it became my second published novel. (Lesson: you never know.) I don’t usually show anyone what I’m working on until it’s finished, so with “The Wanderers” my literary agent only knew that I was working on “something with astronauts in it.” It’s my first book to be published in the U.K, which is tremendously exciting for me.
Do you have any writing rituals – coffee before you start? No noise etc.
I avoid all rituals or rules involving writing other than Work Hard and Care About Everything.
Do you have any advice for anyone who might be suffering from writers block?
Well, I’m reluctant to give advice but I can say what I think it true. It’s this: writing isn’t about word count or how many hours a day you spend typing. (It’s also not about publishing.) Writing is a way of confronting the world. When I’m stuck, it’s because I’m not confronting the world, I’m confronting the “idea of being a writer.” That’s a closed-loop system. So, I go to museums, art galleries, concerts, plays, and read poetry and non-fiction. I stop being “person who is trying to write” and let myself be a reader, an audience member, a student. At a certain point, it becomes clear that being a writer MEANS being a reader, an audience member, a student. I get excited about what I’m observing, learning, confronting, and I want to talk about it, figure it out, and make something of my own.
What is your favourite word and why?
It’s not so much a word as a sentence, and that sentence is: “You were having a nightmare, Trump is not really President, and now you’re awake and Colin Farrell wants to take you to dinner to celebrate how well you’re novel is being received.” I think that’s pretty self-explanatory.
What is the best and also most challenging thing about being a writer?
The best is that moment when you write a sentence which surprises and delights you, when you look at that sentence and feel, “Oh, that is true.” The challenging thing—for me—is publishing. I become a teenager and bounce from delusions of grandeur to abject humility. I get very tired of myself and eat weird foods.
Which authors do you admire and why?
My go-to loves are Sybille Bedford and Shirley Hazzard. Their writing is as fierce as it is elegant.
How do you go about creating a character?
I never start with things like names or physical characteristics. I start with how a character is feeling inside their body, their state of mind, with what was happening to him or her just before they entered the story. You write the people that demand your attention, that puzzle you, that aren’t telling you everything about themselves right away. You play detective.
Is there a fictional character you’d like to hang out with for a day? What would you get up to?
Alice from “Alice in Wonderland.” We’d find a nice rabbit hole and go down it.
What is your advice for someone who is wanting to write a book?
Don’t wait to celebrate. Don’t wait until you’ve sold the book, or until it’s published, or until you see it in the airport. Celebrate that good sentence you wrote. Celebrate the day you really didn’t feel like writing, but knew you needed to try, and worked hard for a couple of hours. If you’re writing, if you’re confronting the world as a writer, YOU ARE A WRITER and you are my sister or brother and I salute you.
The Blurb for The Wanderers (released 6th April by Scribner UK. Available in most UK book shops):
The best of Helen Kane exists in space. If she doesn’t go back up, she’ll be consigned to a lesser version of herself on a planet that has also seen better days. Helen is an experienced astronaut with a NASA position and a struggling grown-up daughter who needs her but when, at fifty-three, she is offered a place on the training programme for the first mission to Mars, the most realistic simulation ever, she cannot refuse a last chance to walk among the stars.
Her fellow astronauts are Sergei, a gruff Russian whose teenage sons are less mysterious to him than they’d like to think; and Yoshi, who wants to prove himself worthy of the wife he has drifted apart from. The three will be enclosed for months in a tiny craft, while outside their loved ones negotiate everyday life on Earth. How far will the wanderers travel in the pursuit of endeavour, and what will it be like to come home? Station Eleven meets The Martian in this brilliantly inventive and sharply observed novel of ambition, endeavour and family.
Meg Howrey is the author of the novels THE WANDERERS, THE CRANES DANCE, and BLIND SIGHT. She is also the coauthor, writing under the pen-name Magnus Flyte, of the New York Times Bestseller CITY OF DARK MAGIC and CITY OF LOST DREAMS. Her non-fiction has appeared in Vogue and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She currently lives in Los Angeles.
(Photo credit, Mark Hanauer.)