Happy book birthday to Zach Powers’ eagerly awaited novel FIRST COSMIC VELOCITY! Barrelhouse Assistant Editor Hannah Grieco talked to Zach about blending genres, building on ideas…and, of course, The Swayze Question.
Hannah Grieco: Congratulations on the release of FIRST COSMIC VELOCITY! I’ve read it, and it’s stunning. But is this book science fiction? Historical fiction? Literary fiction? Speculative fiction? What did I just read??
Zach Powers: What is genre, anyway? I think so-called literary writers pay particular attention to language, but that’s not limited to contemporary realism. In fact, I think one of the joys of genre-bending is that it lets you use new words, find new phrases, and craft original sentences that would be impossible without the language introduced by a speculative conceit. Writing about rockets was so much fun! Marlon James and Victor Lavalle had a brilliant conversation about how speculation expands the possibilities of writing in other ways, too.
For the sake of marketing, I tend to call my novel a literary alternate history. Because you’ve got to be able to give a potential reader some idea of what to expect. Part of the fun of reading, though, is coming up against the unexpected. So the basic benefit of genre-bending is freshness and surprise. As a writer, I want to write into a space that can surprise even me.
HG: You’ve published an award-winning short story collection, as well as a travel guide to Savannah, a monthly booze column, and short stories in American Short Fiction, Black Warrior Review, Jellyfish Review, and other top tier literary journals. This novel is completely different than your previous work. What inspired this book? Did it start as a short story or did you always know it’d be a longer work?
ZP: I’m pretty good at looking at an idea and knowing approximately how long the finished product is going to be. In the case of FIRST COSMIC VELOCITY, I knew it was a novel from the first time my brain paired the words “space” and “twins.” Most of my stories start with an idea as simple as that, sometimes just a title, and then the idea spirals from there. The length or the depth of the spiral dictates the length of the work. As soon as I added “Soviet” to my space twins, I realized the rabbit hole would keep going and going and going.
One thing that makes this project different from my shorter works and the first, unpublished novel manuscript I completed is the amount of research required. A side effect of researching is that you spend a whole lot more time with an idea before you begin writing. With a short story, I might start working on it within minutes of having an idea. With this novel, from the time I had the idea, to the time I started researching, to the time I typed the first word into my computer, a couple years had passed. I think there’s a real benefit to giving your brain that kind of space to process ideas, even if only subconsciously.
HG: You’ve so effectively painted a picture of mid-century USSR: in small villages, big cities, and Star City, where so much of the story takes place. How much research did you have to do create this world and incorporate such believable historical figures into the story?
ZP: I don’t know how people wrote novels before Google. I spent six months researching this novel, but I still had to look something up on the internet probably every day. My technique for research is to learn just enough about a place that I feel comfortable making up the rest of it. So I read descriptions and look at photos, but the end goal is to create my own settings. That’s why this novel is alternate history as opposed to historical fiction. I’ve got nothing against historical fiction, but that’s not what makes me want to write.
Of the historical figures in FIRST COSMIC VELOCITY, the only character with any deep connection to reality is the Chief Designer, who borrows from the real Chief Designer Sergei Korolev’s personal history. The real man was such a compelling character, I found myself not having to imagine very much about him. He was already flesh and blood in the historical record. But for Khrushchev, for example, I created a caricature. I didn’t even try to dive into the reality of the man. One of the joys of alternate history is inflating the buffoonery of powerful people. But also humanizing them. I actually like my Khrushchev. He has a childlike quality about him.
HG: I’m someone who believes every novel is an autobiography. Which character are you? (Don’t you dare say Kasha…)
ZP: Leonid definitely reflects my younger self. Sad and passive, yearning without a specific ends. Basically, you know, real fun at parties. I’ve never thought of this until right now, but the autobiographical element with Leonid is the idea of feeling trapped in a life you don’t want without any idea of how to escape it. That was circa 1998-2005 for me. And like Leonid, while my external circumstances weren’t ideal, it turns out most of the problem was internal. The external fed into my capacity for self-loathing, which leads in turn to moping and depression. I swear I’m more fun at parties than all that makes me sound.
In general, I’m interested in cultural and social strictures and how those inform a person’s sense of self. I’m interested in the nature of belonging. Without feeling like I belong somewhere, I’m adrift, and I tend to look for reasons I don’t belong instead of solutions to make myself feel more welcome. In that, at least, I don’t think I’m alone.
HG: This book takes turns devastating us and cracking us up, teaching us about history and slapping us across the face for believing what we’ve learned. And that ending -- a tragedy or a final, hopeful glimpse of what people are capable of? Was I thrilled or sad when I finished that last page? Because I still can’t figure it out…
ZP: Nature abhors a pat ending. I tend to favor novels that leave me with the feeling that they were just the beginning of something much larger. Not that I want sequels (and please don’t expect one from me), but I want my brain to keep running with some of a book’s themes and feelings and plotlines. It’s not always an issue of imagining what happens next. I don’t think my novel leaves you guessing at Leonid’s future. However, outer space inspires so much wonder for me, and I think the end of the novel reflects that. We know far less than a trillionth of a percent of what’s in the universe. The novel’s ending might be my admission that I’ll never have the answers to two of the questions I obsess over: What’s out there? and What’s next?
HG: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
ZP: My main project is a new novel in which a portion of Hiroshima destroyed by the atomic bomb appears in present-day Ohio. Like FIRST COSMIC VELOCITY, it’s a heavily researched project, and I’m about 15,000 words into the first draft right now. I also crank out new stories once in a while, and am working on what might turn into a chapbook of stories based on songs by They Might Be Giants. My other active project is a collection of short essays on craft, approaching the subject from what I hope isn’t the same old perspective. For example, I’m working on an essay about how writing is a lot more like cartoons than, say, live action films. As usual, all of these projects are taking longer than I’d like.
HG: And, as you know, I am legally obligated to ask you this: What’s your favorite Patrick Swayze movie?
ZP: Is Steel Dawn the only one where he uses a sword? If so, Steel Dawn!