We interview Alyson Foster and discuss her debut novel God is an Astronaut.
This is your debut novel. How does it feel?
Honestly? Sort of surreal. Everyone who wants to be a writer imagines the day they’ll finally hold their finished book in their hands. Part of you believes it will never happen. So when that day finally arrives it’s a strange feeling.
My sister jokingly asked if I was sleeping with the book under my pillow every night. I’m not quite that bad … but I do still keep picking it up, flipping through the page and marvelling at it. I don’t think the reality has completely sunk in yet.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? (And was there a particular moment you thought, ‘I can do this!’?)
I think my literary aspirations began when I was about ten years old. I had a teacher that year who used to give us an hour every week to write stories or poems. We were allowed to work on anything we wanted to, and I loved it. It was the highlight of my week.
At the end of the hour, we had the opportunity to read our compositions in front of the class. I was a pretty shy kid who didn’t get much attention, but when I got up in front of the class and read everyone would get quiet, genuinely listen, and clap enthusiastically for me when I finished. I think they were particularly impressed by the fact that I could make up poems that rhymed. So I developed what was probably a very niche role for a fifth-grader – I was the girl who could write. From that point on, writing was I what I wanted to do. Which I guess goes to show what a powerful force peer reinforcement is, right?
Then my freshman year in college, I submitted a couple of short stories to a university-wide creative writing competition called the Hopwood Awards and I won a cash prize. My university was a large one, so the prize was fairly competitive. That felt like the first incontrovertible evidence that I might actually have some sort of real knack for writing. My work had been recognized not by my friends or an encouraging English teacher, but by complete strangers who had picked my work out of a large pile of entries. It felt like a real coup.
Some of our readers might not know much about God is an Astronaut. Are you able to tell us a bit about it?
The novel is written as a series of e-mails from the narrator, a botany professor and mother of two, named Jessica Frobisher, who is married to the chief of a space tourism company called Spaceco. When the novel opens, a tragic accident has just happened: one of Spaceco’s shuttles has exploded shortly after lift-off, and everyone on board has been killed.
So in her e-mails Jess narrates the unravelling of her life that follows: the media frenzy that follows the accident’s aftermath, the impact on her marriage, the revelations about Spaceco and the fact that she doesn’t know her husband, Liam, as well as she thought she did.
The person she is e-mailing is a man named Arthur, her friend and colleague who is out of the country on sabbatical. But as the novel goes on, the reader slowly realizes that Jess and Arthur’s relationship has its own fraught and complicated history.
The book is written from the perspective of your narrator, Jessica Frobisher, in email format. Had you always planned to write the novel in this way?
Oh, God, definitely not. It was never part of my plan to write an epistolary novel. When I started writing the novel, it was just Jess’s voice in my head, and she was confiding to someone. I hadn’t made a concrete decision about the form I was going to use. The idea to structure the story as private e-mail communication came later. But it seemed to fit the intimate tone perfectly. Someone who read the book referred to Jess’s “pillow talk.” I like that description – only it’s pillow talk with someone who’s hundreds of miles away.
Once the decision had been made to use this style, was it a challenge to maintain it, or was it just something you adapted to?
There were certainly challenges. The biggest one with the epistolary form involves a balance you have to strike with your readers. You have to leave them enough clues so they can figure out what’s going on, to follow what the letter – or in this case e-mail – writers are referring to. But you also don’t want to have the narrator over-explaining things. You need to maintain the illusion of eavesdropping on a conversation – which is one of the great appeals of the epistolary form.
At times, I did have to step back and puzzle for a bit: what’s the best way to approach this? But when it wasn’t frustrating me, it was a lot of fun.
Arthur (the recipient of all of Jessica's emails) became - for this reader, anyway! - a point of fascination. You drip-feed us his personality through email subject lines, or via past instances together that Jessica refers to. Was this a difficult thing to get right?
I certainly spent a lot of time thinking about how I wanted Arthur to come across to the reader through Jess’s emails. I experimented with some scenes – times the two of them spend together that Jess describes – and I found that he seemed most real to me as this gregarious man, a bit of flirt. Jess is reserved and a bit of a loner, so she admires and resents him for that. But once I had that image of Arthur in my head, as someone who’s both the life of the party, but also with this hidden serious side that only Jess sees, then I knew how to incorporate those glimpses of him you see in the novel.
Did you ever write from the perspective of Arthur? Even in the first drafts of your manuscript?
Actually, yes. I did do that. I wanted to see how that might play out. But ultimately I decided not to include Arthur’s replies. There was something that appealed to me about leaving him as the man behind the curtain, so to speak. I liked leaving a little mystery surrounding him.
I think there’s something too, about leaving Arthur’s replies hidden that makes it feel like Jess is engaging directly with the reader.
And at its heart, the novel is really about Jess. It’s her story.
Talk to us about your writing routine; what’s a typical writing day for you?
I work a 9-to-5 job, and I try to squeeze some writing time after work a couple of nights during the week, but the solid majority of my writing takes place on the weekends. I typically get up in the morning, drink an unhealthy amount of coffee, and try to get to my desk before I get distracted by the other things I have to do. I work until lunch, and if I’m feeling motivated I’ll try to get another hour or two of writing in the afternoon.
What inspires you to write?
That’s a difficult question. It’s almost more like a compulsion at this point, one that’s hard to explain given how frustrating writing can be. There are so many more fun things I could be spending my time doing.
But I also think there a writer’s high. Writing can make you want to tear your hair out, but it also contains these sublime moments when you’ve captured exactly what you meant to capture, when you’ve expressed your truth and you’ve expressed it perfectly. Those moments are fleeting, but they’re so intense that once you’ve had one, there’s nothing like it. You’re hooked. You’ll spend an insane amount of time trying to make it happen again.
Are you represented by a literary agent? Can you talk us through how you became represented? And were there any particularly frustrating moments that came as part of that process?
I am represented by a great agent. Several years ago, I had a story appear in a literary journal and not long after that, I had the assistant of an agent contact me to inquire if I was looking for representation. I sent her the short story collection I had recently completed – at that point in time I had just started working on God is an Astronaut and I only had a rough twenty or so pages of it completed.
The agent reviewed the collection and she liked it, but she was more interested in seeing a novel and ultimately she passed on representing me. That time was a low point in my life in general, and I felt sort of burnt out and depressed about my writing. I kept working on my novel fitfully, but with not a lot of optimism.
Things seemed pretty stalled out, but about a year after that, the assistant of that agent contacted me out of the blue. She said she was now working as an agent herself and she was looking for new clients. She still remembered my stories and was interested in looking at them. I sent her the collection and the portion of God is an Astronaut that I had been working on, and she loved it. She started submitting it to publishers and the rest is history.
What (if any) sorts of editorial changes did the manuscript go through? Did you work through these with your agent and/or editors within the publishing house?
My agent reviewed the novel and made some suggestions, but they were fairly small cosmetic changes. The publisher bought God is an Astronaut based on the first 60 pages, so I had to finish the first draft after I signed the contract with them. Once I had completed that, my editor went through and gave me both line-by-line feedback and a list of bigger-picture issues that she wanted to address. Things that weren’t clear to her, inconsistencies, questions that had been raised in her mind about character motivation. I ended up doing some fleshing out of certain portions, rewriting some scenes, and doing some tweaking on the pacing of the novel’s opening.
The revised draft ended up about 15,000 words longer than original, which is surprising to me now, because everything in there seems so essential, and it’s still a pretty lean book. I guess that’s a sign that those changes were needed.
Final question (promise!): do you have any advice for the yet-to-be-published writers reading this?
Learn how to steel yourself for criticism and rejection. Try not to turn it into something personal. It’s not easy, but it will make your life better if you can. Taste in writing and literature is subjective. I always remind myself that there isn’t one book out there so brilliantly written that it doesn’t have its staunch detractors, people who are happy to detail for you exactly what they don’t like about it.
The other thing would be to make sure that you’re getting your work out there where people can see it. It doesn’t have to be a major publication, it doesn’t have to be The Paris Review. I have writer friends who have had editors or agents contact them after reading their work in smaller journals. Opportunities can arrive from places you never expected. You want to give people the chance to find you.
Alyson Foster grew up in Michigan and received her BA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, winning a Hopwood Award for her fiction. She received her MFA from George Mason University, where she was a Completion Fellow, and her short fiction has appeared in various publications. She lives in Washington DC, where she works for the National Geographic Society library. Follow her on Twitter at @alysonafoster