Kathryn Schwille is the author of the new novel What Luck, This Life. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including New Letters and Memorious. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Q: How did you come up with the idea of centering a book around the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster?
A: In February 2005, I saw an Associated Press story in my local newspaper about a conference of forensic scientists. A police document examiner from Israel had delivered a talk about the unique project she’d undertaken.
Eighteen pages from the Columbia diary of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon had been found on a forest floor in East Texas. The pieces of the metal-bound notebook, which had survived two months in the elements, were battered and stuck together, some even wadded. Her job was to separate the pages and see if there was anything for his widow to read.
I’d never heard about the discovery of a diary, so I began wandering the internet, wondering what else had been found. Thousands of searchers had descended on that very rural area and had found so much we never heard about. East Texans were in a situation that no one had been in before, with space debris at their feet. I couldn’t get it out of my head.
Q: Some of the chapters are written in first person, while the others are in third person. Why did you decide to write it that way?
A: The project began as a collection of linked stories. When I write, I “hear” narrators, and in this case, I heard quite a few. I couldn’t settle on one, which seemed okay, since I wanted to tell the story of a town. In the end, I was able to knit the sections together – I hope – in a way that offered a unity of effect, even though it’s not a traditional novel structure.
Q: The book has been compared to Winesburg, Ohio, and Olive Kitteridge. What do you think of those comparisons?
A: I’m an ardent admirer of Elizabeth Strout’s work and I could only wish that my work ever comes near to her brilliance in Olive Kitteridge. What Luck, This Life might be similar in that the shuttle disaster is in every chapter, if sometimes only nominally, in the way that Olive is in every story, even if she only floats through in the background.
At the end of Olive Kitteridge, the reader has a fuller picture of her character. At the end of What Luck, I hope the reader has a fuller picture of the disaster and what it meant for the people on the ground.
I am, of course, flattered by the comparison to Winesburg, Ohio, a book that’s often cited as ground-breaking, even though it’s also not considered Sherwood Anderson’s best work. Anderson, too, hoped his book would tell the story of a town.
The critics were hard on it in 1919, and they deemed its structure unsuccessful, though perhaps if the stories had not been so uneven in quality, the reviewers would not have harped so much on the structure. George Willard is considered the main character in Winesburg, but he does not become a fuller character by the end to the same degree as Olive Kitteridge.
Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: The manuscript had four or five titles before this one. None seemed just right. As I was reading through the manuscript, after yet another round of revisions before sending it off on yet another round of submissions, I found what I’d been looking for was there all along, on the last page.
I wanted a title that could hold the whole of the work as a novel. An astronaut looking down on earth, in the midst of an adventure so few humans will have, feels very fortunate in that moment. The reader knows his joy won’t last. I like the irony of the title, the allusion to both the thrills and horrors that await us. To me, the phrase holds the hope that our fortunes can change.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a novel which – though I’m not yet sure how – touches on the new kinds of families being formed by sperm donations.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I knew that the Columbia’s break-up was often overshadowed in American memory by the Challenger – a televised blow-up in 1986 that so many saw on TV. But I’ve been surprised at how often people really don’t remember the Columbia, or repeatedly confuse it with the Challenger.
I call the Columbia the national tragedy that happened between the two larger, horrific pillars of 9/11 and the war with Iraq. I want people to remember it, and know its story.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb