Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

13.30: Project in Depth, THE CALCULATING STARS, with Kjell Lindgren

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, and Dan, with Kjell Lindgren

Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t yet read The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel, by Mary Robinette Kowal, you may wish to rectify that prior to listening.

In this episode we go into great depth on Mary’s novel with the expert technical help of NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, who was one of Mary’s consulting readers. Like most of our project-in-depth episodes this one runs long. Longer still because we were at JSC in Houston, which was incredibly cool for all of us, so nobody was watching the clock.

Liner Notes: The reference to “Type 2” fun comes from an as-yet-unpublished episode. Type 1 fun is fun in the moment. Type 2 fun is fun to talk about later. Maybe much, much later.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Benjamin Hewett, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Take something you’ve already written, and write a prequel set forty years or so earlier.

Thing of the week: Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut, by Mike Mullane.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Writing Excuses 13.30: Project in Depth, THE CALCULATING STARS, with Kjell Lindgren.

Key points: (Beware of Spoilers) The Calculating Stars. Set During Mercury/Apollo era space travel. Start with We Interrupt This Broadcast, an alternate history about slamming a meteor into Chesapeake Bay in the 1950s. Add Lady Astronaut of Mars, an anthology piece that starts with the first line of Wizard of Oz. Then drop back to write the prequel, 40 years before! And you have The Calculating Stars. Decide that the loving relationship, the commitment, is not going to be a conflict point, although stuff going on around them can strain the relationship. Going up there and doing cool astronaut things is actually a very small part of the adventure for the whole team and the family. Put the focus on emotional reactions and societal pressures more than technical pressures. Survival training. Terminology. The emotional reactions to events, the visceral reactions. The vividness of your first launch. Get experts to fill in the jargon.  

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Project in Depth, The Calculating Stars.

[Mary] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Brandon] And we’re not that smart. I’m Brandon.

[Mary] I’m Mary.

[Dan] I’m wondering what evil plague you have in your lungs…


[Dan] Over there, Brandon.

[Brandon] I don’t know how many of these have aired yet, but I haven’t been on the NASA episodes yet. You can tell why. I’ve been on book tour for a week and also caught a head cold.

[Dan] He was sick, so we had to quarantine him from the mission so the rest of us could carry it out.

[Brandon] But I’m stepping in for this one because we’re going to talk about Mary’s book and we have a special guest star, Kjell Lindgren. Say hi to the audience.

[Kjell] Hello, audience. I’m excited to be here.

[Dan] Welcome back.

[Kjell] Thank you.

[Mary] So I am especially excited about this specific Project in Depth, because it has two unique circumstances for you listeners. So, first of all, this is a reminder that in the Project in Depth’s, we go full on spoilers. The Calculating Stars is not a heavy book to be spoiled, but if you’re one of those people don’t want to know anything ahead of time, read the book first, come back and listen. But the reason I’m excited about it is that we are doing this at an interesting point in the process. I have not yet finished… My editor has done all of the structural stuff on it, but we haven’t done the line edits, which means that I’m actually going to be able to incorporate any changes that come up during this conversation.


[Mary] And because this book is set during Mercury and Apollo era space, and it’s involving my Lady Astronaut universe, and we have an actual astronaut here, this is also an opportunity for you to kind of hear sort of what it’s like to have a sensitivity reader or a specific expert in to talk about a book. This is kind of what this process is like, although obviously usually it’s not done in a podcast format.


[Brandon] So, let’s address, at least for me, what the elephant in the room is for this. This is a stor… A novel based on a novella that you wrote. Why did you decide to do it? How did you approach it? Like, just that concept? What’s going on here?

[Mary] Okay. So what started with this… For most people. Most people first became aware of this through the Lady Astronaut of Mars. Which is not actually the first book in this series… In this universe that I wrote. I call this my punchcard punk universe. The first story I wrote in this was from a writing prompt. It’s called We Interrupt This Broadcast. It was about slamming a meteor into the Chesapeake Bay in the 1950s. That one was… That idea I had was it would be really cool if there was a mad scientist and things went slightly wrong because he had forgotten to account for leap year. That was how that started. Then, Lady Astronaut began when I was asked to write something for an anthology called Ripoff in which we had to begin our story with a famous first line. So I began with the first line of Wizard of Oz, which is why I have the International Aerospace Coalition launching rockets from Kansas…


[Mary] Because I got locked into that.

[Brandon] Did that ever feel like… I don’t know…

[Mary] A giant mistake?


[Brandon] [inaudible restriction?]

[Mary] Yes. Because it doesn’t make any sense at all to launch rockets from Kansas. You want to be as close to the equator as you can be. It’s nice to have a big body of water in case something goes wrong. I’ve got none of that in Kansas. So what happened with the novel is that it’s set 40 years before the novella with the same character… Same main character. So there was a lot of stuff that I had to justify in the world that I was locked into. There’s also stuff that I just… I looked at and like, “Oh, boy, that timeline was wrong.” So Elma in Lady Astronaut of Mars just misremembered the dates on that. ‘Cause…


[Mary] It doesn’t make any sense.

[Brandon] Locked into some character things, right? You’ve got the relationship which… we know what happens in 40 years. So we know that they’re going to be in a loving relationship for another 40 years and things like this. Like, there are certain things… Did that ma… Was this the sort of restrictions breed creativity sort of thing or was this a man, I wish I could just toss this continuity?

[Mary] There were times when I… Mostly timeline issues with continuity. The timeline does not actually make sense. But we just, as I say, handwaved past that. The character stuff, there were things about it… I was committed to having a loving relationship. That’s… I liked…

[Brandon] That’s one of my favorite parts about the book.

[Mary] Thank you. I feel like it’s not depicted often enough. So I… One of the things that I knew going into it was that their commitment to each other was never going to be a conflict point. But that all of the stuff that was going on around them would cause stress… Would put strain on the relationship, but not in the OMG, are they going to break up? I never wanted that to be a plot point.

[Dan] So, before we get too far into this, I feel like we may have missed a link in this chain earlier. Where was the point where you decided, “Okay, I’ve written these two shorts. Now I’m going to go back and write a novel.” How was that decision made?

[Mary] I don’t actually remember completely.


[Mary] I suspect that it was something along the lines of, “Hey. That just won a Hugo award.”


[Mary] “Can I market that?”

[Dan] Let’s capitalize on this thing.

[Mary] Which is really crass. But it was… To a certain degree, it was looking at some of my favorite works. Like Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider… The Ship Who Sang, which was a short story that got expanded and some other things.

[Brandon] Even Dragonflight won the Hugo before it was finished as a novel.

[Mary] Yeah. So I was interested in what that process was like. The other thing was that I have these characters and they’ve got this really interesting backstory that I haven’t explored. Like, I talk about in the novella that Elma was one of the first women… The first people on Mars. How does that come about in the 1950s? How do you get to a point where you have women in space since it took a long time in the real world for that to happen? So how do I make it happen faster? So there was a lot of it that there were just pieces of it that I was interested in, but I don’t actually remember what it was that made me go, “This is a good idea.”


[Brandon] So, let’s get the astronaut, first thing.


[Mary] Thank you. Because I’ve been looking at Kjell. I’m like, so… Yes. Tell… So…

[Kjell] I’m coming at this from a completely blank slate. So, not having read the sequel that was first written, I get to kind of follow this chronologically from when Elma first becomes an astronaut. So… I have to say that the relationship between Elma and Nathaniel is one that… There’s clearly a very loving relationship, and frankly, Nathaniel sets a very high bar…


[Kjell] For husbands everywhere. But it’s clear there that that is kind of the emotional core from which Elma draws her strength. I think that that really resonates for those of us that undertake these sometimes… Well, not sometimes. These very risky missions. That we, I think, largely recognize that we could not do this, we could not go through selection and go through training and do all that travel and do the mission as a single entity. It requires support at home from the family. Your spouse has to be on board with this. Your kids have to be on board and understand what all this entails. So, for me, personally, and I see that in Elma also, is that it is an adventure for the team, for the family. The other part of it is that you clearly are showing behind the scenes, that it’s not just the astronaut that is going up there and getting to do…

[Mary] Really cool astronauty things.

[Kjell] Yeah, cool astronaut things. In fact, that is a very, very small part of…

[Brandon] Well, that’s the book, right?

[Kjell] That’s real life.

[Brandon] [inaudible]

[Kjell] That’s true, that’s true. I mean… So, that is real, also. In a typical astronaut career of… I don’t know if you can call 20 years typical, that’s maybe six months, maybe a year in space. So most of that time is spent on the ground, with this larger team that makes that possible. That is reflected in these… You know, the calculators that are doing the work and mission control and the engineers and all that. So that is, I thought, really well depicted and reflected in the book.

[Mary] Whew!

[Brandon] I’m going to build off this and ask you a question, because this is one of the most interesting things about this book to me. When you first started talking about it, I remember brainstorming with you. What is now two books was one book. A lot of the things you talked about were going to be… All ended up in the second book, right? The quote unquote exciting parts. Right? The actual flying, the rocketship, and [inaudible]

[Mary] Right!

[Brandon] Yet, this book is very compelling. You made an extremely compelling book out of quote unquote the boring parts. It’s not boring at all. In fact, it feels breakneck to me throughout the entire story. So, how did you structure this, knowing that what everyone expected to be the book wasn’t going to come until the second book, and how did you keep it paced and exciting?

[Mary] So, this was… when we were talking about it was… My plan was that I was going to structure it like three novellas. That novella one was dealing with the asteroid strike, novella two was the push to the moon, and novella three was the push to Mars. As I got into it and started… Was working on it, there were sections that… Because I knew I was going to be doing them in novella three with the Mars, that I was needing to skip in novella two, the push to the moon, because they felt… It felt… It was going to be repetitive. But it also meant skipping things that were really emotionally important. So I talked with my editor and said I feel like I have made a structural mistake and that this is actually two different books. As soon as we did that, and moved Mars to being its own book, that freed me up to deal with a lot of the unsexy stuff. But the things about… That I had been reading about in all of these different autobiographies by astronauts, talking about the selection process and getting the call and the first time that you do… The first training flights that you do and all of these different things that are these emotional points. So what I was trying to work with was… With this was not so much the question of… It’s never a question of is she going to the moon? Is she going into space? That’s never… But how and when and what is she going to have to push against? So what I wound up doing was trying to focus more on her emotional reactions to stuff, and also the societal pressures, rather than the technical pressures. The technical pressures, I felt like, well, this is our job, this is what we’re doing, this is the thing we do. Then, the societal pressures were kind of more my major plot points. Because it’s set in the 1950s, which is in the middle of the civil rights era.

[Dan] So, one of those kind of emotional arcs that you do in this book is her overcoming this kind of very intense anxiety disorder that she has. I am wondering how much of that was presaged by the previous books, or is that just you felt like it was important for her character and you created it for this one?

[Mary] It was something that I created for this. By 40 years later, she’s got that pretty much under control. In part, because the specific anxiety that she has is a social anxiety disorder. You have things… You strap her on a rocket, she’s fine. But you ask her to speak to a large room, she’s like, “I’m not okay with that.” That is true for a lot of people. Also, oddly, people with things like social anxiety disorder tend to be really good in a crisis situation because they’re used to managing low level… Or high-level anxiety all the time. So they’re actually quite levelheaded when things are going wrong. I added that because I had a character who was hyper competent. That was this canon thing. She’s a pilot, she’s this computer… Mathematician. I needed to give her a breaking point, a weakness. That one was a very obvious one for a number of reasons. One of which is that it also allowed me to highlight some of, again, those societal pressures. Because she’s bucking against what it is that she’s supposed to be doing, the hole that people keep trying to fit her in. So that was one of the reasons I added that to her character.

[Brandon] Oh, go ahead.

[Kjell] I have to say that that societal part was something that it was hard to read. The reactions to… The introduction of the female astronauts, and photos of them powdering their nose in the cockpit, or as they’re doing a dunker test, putting them in bikinis. So from today’s perspective, I have a really hard time with that. But when I think back to the 50s, and you’ve just introduced a new astronaut class and you ask this group about cooking in space and this cook about what they’re going to accomplish during a mission. I mean, of course, that is very foreign to the experience… I hope is very foreign to our experience now, but it really brings you into the era that we’re talking about.

[Mary] It was… That was based on two things, which are both unfortunately real world. One is the way the WASPs were treated in World War II, and a lot of the early women airline pilots… Just even becoming airline pilots. But there was… One of the things that they would have to do… I read about… I think this is in Jerry Cobb’s book… But in one of the books about early women pilots, they would talk about how they would fly, and they would own their own company, or they would be… The captain. They would get in the craft, they would fly it to wherever they were going, and then they would have to slide their trousers off and slide a skirt on before they got out, because the people wanted to see them in skirts and heels. That they would have to powder their nose in the craft and put on the lipstick before they got out because that’s what the client expected to see. Some of the first women astronauts talked about the different questions that they got from the press. You can read them and you’re like, “Yup.” I mean, I’ve pushed it a little, but not very far.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for the book of the week. You were going to tell us about Riding Rockets?

[Mary] Yes. So this is one of the books that Eileen known very heavily when I was writing this. There were a number of them which we’ve talked about on other podcasts. But Riding The Rocket… Riding Rockets by Mike Mullane, who is a shuttle era astronaut. It is a fantastic autobiography. One of the things that’s great about it is that he came into the program when a lot of the Mercury and Apollo people were still there. So he’s got this perspective, where he’s looking at the way the program is changing, and also he’s a really compelling storyteller and very good with sensory details. I pulled a lot of stuff from that.

[Kjell] I really enjoyed that book as well. It’s a great shuttle era book.

[Brandon] Let me ask you, Kjell, did you get freezing water squirted in your ear?

[Kjell] I did not get freezing water squirted in my ear. I spent three days and two nights in a freezing Russian forest. But I did not get surprised with a…

[Mary] Yeah. That was… I so wanted… That was one of the things that I wanted to fit into the book and just there wasn’t a structural spot for it, was the wilderness survival stuff.

[Kjell] You bet.


[Mary] Ah, I wanted that in there. So I’m going to do…

[Brandon] What do you mean by that? Like, you actually… They make you do wilderness survival?

[Kjell] Absolutely. So they did it back in the Apollo days. In fact, there’s a great photo of… Actually, I think it’s the Mercury 7 out in a desert. They’ve cut up a parachute and tied it on their heads, they’re in various states of undress, because they’re out doing essentially desert survival.

[Mary] They weren’t sure where they were going to come down.

[Kjell] Right.

[Brandon] Okay.

[Kjell] So, as a part of our training, we do water survival and winter survival to prepare us for the possibility of one, landing in water. The Soyuz spacecraft is designed to land on land. So a water landing requires some additional procedures and training. Then winter survival, because… I did in fact at the end of my mission land in the middle of the night in a blizzard. So had the team not been able to track us, then we would have to have been able to fend for ourselves for a little while. That technology’s improved since the days that we really kind of started this training. We have GPS, we have satellite phones. So the fact that we would… The team wouldn’t be able to find us is fairly remote at this point. But the winter survival training is a little bit of a… A little bit of a haze.


[Kjell] Just to kind… It’s that Type II fun that I think in a previous podcast…


[Kjell] That Tom Washburn was talking about. Type I fun being the fun that you’re having in the moment, and the Type II fun the experience that you think back at and you’re like, “It’s fun, that that is done. That is over.”

[Mary] Well, it’s also… My father-in-law was Air Force, Vietnam-era fighter pilot, and they did survival training with them as well as a teambuilding…

[Kjell] Sure.

[Mary] And ways to test how you react under pressure situations without the safety net of well, I’m in a simulation. Like, no you’re actually…

[Dan] No, you’re not…

[Mary] You could actually die out here.

[Brandon] So, let’s talk about the climax, because we’re running… We only have a few minutes left. This book pushes toward lift off quite effectively. I wanted to ask, Kjell, this is your chance. What did she get right, what did she get wrong?

[Kjell] Well, let me tell you, it’s clear that you’ve done your research, because the terminology that you use, even the tempo of the use of that terminology, is really good. The acronyms, people railing against acronyms…


[Kjell] That’s all… That is all very common to the experience. So in the biographies that you’ve read, the pieces that you’ve borrowed, that feels very familiar and sounds very familiar. But you don’t dwell on that. That is background. I really appreciate that. What you do… I thought you did a great job of is really focusing on the emotional reaction to various events. Talking… The description of taking off in a T-38 and the ground falling away below, and the same with her other flights, that sensation of taking off. Then the launch. It’s not so much a description of necessarily what’s happening. You certainly let the reader know what’s going on. But it is that visceral reaction, it is the explanation of how she’s feeling as she experiences these various milestones as they climb into orbit. That is really what rang true to me, is the description of the person that’s going through it, and not so much the technical description of okay, now this is where the rocket is. So not just the launch, and not just taking off. Sitting in Mission Control. How you feel when you see a rocket explode. All these things rang very emotionally true to me.

[Mary] Oh, good. So, here are the hacks that I used to get that.


[Mary] One is that I noticed in a number of the autobiographies when the astronaut began talking about their launch, their first launch, they switched to present tense. Chris Hadfield’s… In his Astronauts’ Guide to Life on Earth, says that he’s switching to present tense because it is that vivid, that it feels like something that he has just done, because it is unlike… It doesn’t fit… It doesn’t get blended into other memories.

[Kjell] It’s interesting that description of it. I see it in your book as well, is that it is not a narrative of… Like this is my launch narrative, this is what happened when I took off. It is snapshots of memories and emotions that you had at a particular time. So I remember the whole launch sequence, when the engines started, and that there are various specific times, when the launch shroud pulled away so we were able to see out the window for the first time. My first glimpse of the Earth, the arc of the Earth and the blues and whites contrasted against the sky. When… The first time I opened the hatch to get ready to do a spacewalk. Just various specific snapshots. It does feel very present and it’s not… You can string those things together as a story, but… Yeah, these are very brief glimpses in time that you remember and just are able to relive.

[Mary] So, let me tell one other hack that I used… Or two other hacks. Because these will be useful for readers. Or for writers. One is that I basically grabbed the Mercury… Because NASA has these online. The transcripts of the Mercury launches and the Apollo launches. And used them as the outline for the scene, and wrote on top of it. Pulling up some stuff to… I’m like, “And we’re going to skip past this very long thing.” Then the other thing is that… Which Kjell is well aware of… I would write sections and be like, “Then the captain turned and said jargon.”


[Mary] “And he handled his jargon.” Then I sent them off to experts. So I would email Kjell and I had a rocket scientist and for Fated Sky, I also had the person who does the algorithms to figure out where the landers should land. I would send it off to them and say, “Can you just play MadLibs with this?”


[Mary] Katie Coleman also, who’s a shuttle era astronaut. So, technically speaking, sections of this book were written by an astronaut.

[Brandon] Or multiple astronauts.

[Mary] Or multiple astronauts.

[Dan] The version of this that you sent to me was early enough that it still had a lot of that in there. I remember in particular, I’m fairly certain it’s the sequence early on where she is flying the plane into Kansas, and it just broke, and there was about a half page all in brackets that said, “Okay, I haven’t written this scene yet, but here’s a bunch of jargon I’ve already collected.” Then you just had some sentences that could be used to fit in as she talks to the tower to make the landing. Which is not something I’ve ever done. I thought that was a really cool trick too.

[Mary] I found a… Without one, I’m not sure if that’s the one. There was one of them where I found a training video of how to… It’s an Air Force training video from like the 70s or 80s of how to start a T-38. So there’s an instructor talking through it, and it’s real-time, and… So I’m just like, “Wait. Gonna pause that. What did they just say?”


[Dan] Write all this down.

[Mary] Because it’s exactly the thing that I have, where I have a trainer, and I have a… The pilot in the back, and these are the back-and-forth between them. I’m like, “Okay. Noting that.” My father-in-law had a number of things that were wrong with the… Which I think were all fixed by the time you guys read it. With some of the piloting stuff. Because he had flown all of the planes that I talked about. He was a test pilot, too. So…

[Kjell] So there is one piece, though…

[Mary] Yes.

[Kjell] In chapter 34…

[Dan] Oh. I’m excited.

[Mary] Yes.

[Kjell] Where you talk about… So it looks like a grab from shuttle era description of the TALs, the Transatlantic Abort. Talking about the OMS engine systems. So that is very, very shuttle specific…

[Mary] Ooooo…

[Kjell] So for anyone that knows kind of the shuttle lingo, they will see this as a… This is a shuttle lingo grab. So there may be pieces of that that are applicable. It’s kind of the Mercury Gemini Apollo era vehicle. But this is probably some of that terminology. You’d have to really make sure that that fits. Because they didn’t have an OMS… The shuttle had an OMS engine, but the…

[Mary] Right.

[Kjell] Apollo era did not.

[Mary] Of course they didn’t.

[Kjell] We planned aborts for the shuttle, so that they would actually… Could land, so there’s a Transatlantic Abort, there’s a Return to Launch Site Abort. If you’re aborting off of the capsule, you’re basically just going into the drink somewhere.

[Mary] Random.

[Kjell] Along the flight path.

[Mary] Okay. Yeah. So that is… 

[Kjell] So we want to reconcile that with this era of spaceflight.

[Mary] Yeah. Thank you. I will totally go… Readers, you will not see that in there because I’m going to go fix that… And get more details on it.

[Dan] But the original version…

[Mary] The original…

[Dan] Will be available somewhere?

[Mary] We’re putting the original version up on the… Of anything that I… Chapter 34, up on the Patreon, so you can see after I… See the Transatlantic Abort… No, that’s… Of course. Right. I think I probably grabbed that because I couldn’t find any stuff about aborting from Apollo and Mercury because of exactly that. Interesting. Huh. Anything else that I got wrong? Please tell me things.

[Kjell] Oh, boy. So, I just want to say, I really enjoyed this alternate history. Because there were brief glimpses… 

[Mary] That’s not a thing I got wrong.

[Kjell] No, that’s not.


[Kjell] No, I’m… I don’t have a whole lot…

[Dan] Yes, you did. Dewey loves [inaudible]


[Kjell] That’s right. Dewey’s in charge, and we hear… We see Aldrin and Armstrong and Collins name in the next… The new class of 35 astronauts. So there are pieces of our history that have been borrowed into this, and I really enjoyed that. I love that it started with a cabin in an earthquake, and that her description of the launch was shaking like a cabin in an earthquake.

[Mary] Yay. Circular stuff.

[Brandon] It is a really good book.

[Mary] Thanks.

[Brandon] You guys all have obviously read it, because we told you you had to, but if for some reason you haven’t, you need to read this book, so that you can read the sequel.

[Mary] Right.

[Brandon] Which is…

[Mary] The sequel is all space, all the time. I mean, they have to get to space.

[Dan] Most of the time.

[Mary] Most of the time. Yes, and the sequel has a section that I changed because I was talking to Kjell at a convention and he talked about watching in The Martian movie someone changed direction in midair. I remember that he was continuing to talk, and I’m like, “I am rewriting a scene in my head, while this man is speaking to me.”


[Brandon] We are out of time, though. We’ve already gone about 30 minutes. So, Dan, you’ve got a writing prompt for us?

[Dan] Yes. Okay. So, what we want you to do is re-create for yourself a little of what Mary did with this. Take something you’ve already written. It doesn’t matter what it is. Something you’ve already finished. Then write a prequel of that that takes place 40 years earlier.

[Brandon] All right. We want to thank Kjell for being on with us.

[Kjell] Thank you for having me.

[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.