Guest Blog: Margaret Lazarus Dean

It’s Independence Day today, and we’re packing our bags to head to the Space Coast once again. We thought ahead about who we wanted to be the guest blogger for this particular holiday and for the blog spot leading to our series “Last Chance to See.”

We saw Margaret Lazarus Dean talk about her novel The Time It Takes to Fall at a panel at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. Her novel is set in the early 1980s and centers on Dolores, a kid in Florida who wants to grow up to be an astronaut, like her idol Judith Resnik. But then, on January 28, 1986, Challenger breaks apart only a couple of minutes after liftoff, and Dolores’s view of the world shifts. (For those of you who remember your high school Latin, Dolores, after all, means sorrows.)

We contacted Margaret a few months ago and have been exchanging email messages since. We’ve not yet met her, though she, like us, was at the last launch of Endeavour earlier this year. We’ll all be there again for this Friday’s last launch of Atlantis, for the last launch the space shuttle will ever make. And we hope to meet our guest blogger then.


1. Go to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum as a kid. Observe the relics of Apollo. Everything seems extremely old, vaguely prehistoric. The aluminum foil body and spidery legs of the lunar module; the capsule that the crew of Apollo 11 splashed down in, now encased in Lucite. Observe the odd detritus of the moon missions: plastic packets of food, paper logs with algorithm tables printed on them, emergency supplies in case the capsule should be lost at sea after splashdown, including a packet of shark repellent. These things are boring. Stare at them for long periods of time anyway.

2. Your father studied physics and engineering and has an interest in spaceflight. When you and your brother have questions, he explains the answers clearly, as if you are adults and capable of understanding. You won’t know until much later how unusual this is.

3.  Grow up. In college, become totally entranced with entry-level astronomy. Briefly consider majoring in astronomy: the female astronomy professors seem like cool examples of possible female adulthood. Then realize how much math and physics this would entail. Become intimidated by this. (Many years later, learn that another freshman girl who took the same intro astronomy with the same professor stuck with it and went on to become the second woman to command the space shuttle, Pamela Melroy.)

Margaret Lazarus Dean at Kennedy Space Center (photo by Kara Tonolli)

4.  Decide to become a writer but don’t tell anyone. Major in anthropology, to throw people off the scent. Graduate, work at bookstores and coffee shops.

5.  Read An American Childhood by Annie Dillard. A scene about a classroom air-raid drill triggers a vague memory from your own childhood, a similar moment when public drama entered your classroom and your private life. What was it? Eighth grade. Challenger.

6.  Write a couple of pages about your own memories of the day Challenger exploded. You can’t really pull off Dillard’s dreamy, emotional calm. Scrap the pages.

7.  Get a typesetting job. It pays better than the coffee shops and gives you lots of paid down time when you are expected to sit at a computer and do nothing in particular. Congratulate yourself for finding a way to get paid to spend time on your writing.

8.  Remember randomly one day the scene you wrote about Challenger. You’ve been trying to be a writer for about five years now and have written maybe 1-½  stories. Type “Challenger” into a search engine. One of the first things that comes up is a Challenger Memory Forum, where people are invited to share where they were and what they were doing on January 28, 1986. There are over 10,000 posts already. Become completely fascinated by this forum for reasons you can’t quite understand.

9.  Come across a post from a woman who, like you, was thirteen at the time of the disaster. But unlike you, she watched it from the Space Coast in Florida. At odd moments, think of the strange image her post brought to mind: the children watching the launch on their TV just like everyone else, until the moment when something goes wrong, when they run outside to see it in the sky.

Astronaut Judith Resnik

10. Go to graduate school for creative writing. Write a short story about a thirteen-year-old girl who watches the space shuttle Challenger explode on the TV in her classroom and then runs outside to see it in the sky. Her father works for NASA, so the disaster may destroy her family as well as the space program. The story has no beginning, middle, or end. Rather than fixing it, write another story about the same characters. Buy a Florida guidebook so you can fake the Florida stuff more effectively. Write a third story about the same characters. A professor explains to you that maybe you aren’t writing multiple unfinished short stories; maybe you are writing a novel. Laugh nervously and then go have a number of drinks.

11. Write that novel about Challenger. The space knowledge that sunk into your mind as a child has been lurking there and bubbles up into the story in unexpected ways. Read hundreds of books about the space shuttle, Apollo, Gemini, Mercury, the Kennedy Space Center, the Space Coast. Visit Florida twice. See a space shuttle launch at dawn.

12. A first copy of the novel arrives in the mail. Open the envelope and see your own name on the cover of a real book, under a spectacular photo of the space shuttle. Cry tears of geeky happiness.

13. A few days after the publication date, receive your first real e-mail from a real reader. He is not a family member or a friend; he is an innocent stranger who walked into a bookstore and, of his own volition, paid real American money for a copy of your book. This hardly seems possible, but here is the evidence right in front of you.

The e-mail tells you that he bought the book by accident, thinking it was a nonfiction book about the space program, because it has a picture of the space shuttle on the cover. But he says that he liked it anyway. He also mentions that he grew up on the Space Coast himself, that his father worked for NASA throughout the eighties just as the father of your book’s main character did, and that he works at the Kennedy Space Center himself now. He politely points out some technical errors he found in the book.

Feel complete horror that this reader has caught your every mistake. Put off writing him back for a few months, then use the excuse that you had a baby in between (this happens to be true). He writes back and is friendly. Keep in touch. Become Facebook friends.

Buzz Aldrin & Margaret Lazarus Dean

14. Your reader-turned-Facebook-friend invites you to visit the Kennedy Space Center for NASA Family Day, a behind-the-scenes tour for friends and family of space workers. Invite your father along for Family Day, partly because he will get a kick out of it, partly because you have never actually met your NASA Facebook friend and there is still a slim chance that he is actually an ax-murderer.

15. On Family Day, walk into the Vehicle Assembly Building, which has been closed to the public since the late seventies. Scenes of your book take place in this building, you’ve had dreams set there, but you’d thought you would never be able to enter it. The experience is something akin to walking into Notre Dame for Catholics.

15. Through your blog, meet other space enthusiasts. Some of them are even fellow creative writers.

17. Come back to Florida for the last launch of Discovery, then for the last launch of Endeavour.

18. Come back to Florida to see Atlantis roll out of the Vehicle Assembly Building on its way to the launch pad on May 31, 2011. Write this blog post from a bookstore in Merritt Island, Florida, the very bookstore where your NASA friend first bought your book. You would not have guessed that you would still be learning more about American spaceflight even as the era of American spaceflight is ending.

19. Your creative writing students, when you tell them about your project, reveal that they know almost nothing about the space shuttle. When asked how far it can travel, they are much more likely to guess Mars or Jupiter than low-earth orbit. They had no idea, until you informed them, that the space shuttle era is about to end. Their shock and sadness gives you hope for the future. Tell them to write their members of Congress.

20. Pack your bags for your last trip to see a space shuttle launch. Atlantis is scheduled to lift off at 11:26a.m. on July 8, 2011.


4 thoughts on “Guest Blog: Margaret Lazarus Dean

  1. Thank you for this guest post–I loved the “process” story woven into her list, how Margaret’s rich background, chance encounters, and diligence lead to The Time It Takes to Fall. My middle son wishes to be the first on Mars–maybe we could start with Margaret’s book.

  2. Hi,
    What luck to have stumbled across this blog. I am your second cousin from Alabama and when my bookclub read your book everyone was asking me how you picked that subject and where did you get those characters. We all love books, but we also love discussing the process a writer uses to create. I once asked Pat Conroy how he came up with a particular way he described a scene and he could not tell me. I suppose he must have forgotten. Good luck with the next one and to your husband on his book also.

    Mary Dean Hawkins

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