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The day of the accident, Jess is in the backyard with a chainsaw, clearing space to build the greenhouse she's always wanted. And, as always, she is thinking of Arthur. Arthur, her colleague in the botany department, who never believed she'd actually start the project. Arthur, who, after getting too close, has cut off contact, escaping to study the subarctic pines.
But now there has been a disaster, connected to her husband's space tourism company: the explosion of a space shuttle filled with commercial passengers, igniting a media frenzy on her family's doorstep. Jess's engineer husband is implicated, and she knows there is information he's withholding, even as she becomes an unwitting player in the efforts to salvage the company's reputation.
Struggling, Jess writes to the only person she can be candid with. She writes to Arthur. And in her e-mails -- warm, frank, yet freighted with regret and the old habits of seduction -- Jess tries to untangle how her life has changed, in one instant but also slowly, and how it might change still.
With sure pacing and intimate wisdom, God is an Astronaut unfurls a story of secrets and of wonderment, the unforgettable and the vast unknowable.
Q&A with Lydia Netzer and Alyson Foster Alyson Foster; photo by Becky Hale Lydia Netzer
Lydia Netzer: The central event of your novel involves space tourism and what can happen when civilians are ?allowed? to go into space. What got you interested in the topic of commercial space travel? Would you ever go to space yourself?
Alyson Foster: My interest in space dates back to an article I read in college. I don?t even remember what it was about, only this section where the writer quoted an astronaut as he described orbiting the earth: watching the sun coming up, how the cities looked at night when he was passing over them. I was completely riveted by it?by how absolutely beautiful it sounded. I tore out the article and saved it for years. A little while after that, when I was working in the National Geographic Library, I ordered a book for the collection on space tourism. That was the first time I had ever heard anything about private citizens going into space. The book?s publisher was sponsoring a contest?they had included a little card you could tear out and send in for a chance to take a trip into space. So I filled it out and sent it in. The company was based in Russia, and it was maybe a little sketchy. My mother was relieved when I didn?t win. But I loved imagining what that experience would have been like?I used that when I was writing the novel. The short answer is yes. If I had the chance to go into space, I would totally do it. I think it would be a profound, life-changing experience.
LN: I love the way the tone of your story flows with the tone of the emails Jess writes?some hurried, some leisurely, some angry, some it feels she wishes she could take back. Yet all these messages, quickly dashed off and laboriously crafted, are presented on the same level, with the same value. Is this how email works, leveling all our communication to these same snatches of text without context? How do you see the opportunities and pitfalls of this rapidly evolving form of discourse?
AF: I think it does. The instant communication is wonderful for so many things. It allows us to keep in touch with one another from anywhere, in real time, and that?s an amazing development, right? But there are pitfalls too, and I tried to demonstrate them in the novel. Emailing and texting can facilitate misunderstanding. It can make it easy for intimacy to flourish in circumstances where it probably shouldn?t. It can preserve things that shouldn?t be preserved. It allows you to say things to a person you wouldn?t necessarily say to their face. It?s appealing in certain ways, but you have to be careful?as Jess and Arthur discover.
LN: Why did you decide to make Liam and Jessica parents? What role do the children play in the story?
AF: I really like writing children into my stories. Kids are an unpredictable element. They?re less guarded; they?re honest in ways adults are not. Jack and Corinne are truth tellers in this novel, I think, even if they don?t fully grasp the truths they?re revealing. Their presence also ups the stakes with regards to Jess?s affair. It?s a very serious thing to gamble with a marriage, and that?s even more true when children are involved. Actually, I think they up the stakes, period. When you?re a parent, you have to view all your actions with an eye toward your children. They?re watching you; they?re watching everything you do. That moral responsibility you have toward them?it?s not an easy thing. Jess definitely feels that.
Lydia Netzer?s debut novel, Shine Shine Shine, was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year, and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her newest novel is How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky.
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