See You in the Cosmos tells the story of eleven year old Alex who, inspired by his hero Carl Sagan, sets off for a rocket festival in New Mexico to launch his iPod full of recordings into space. Along his journey, Alex uncovers some surprising revelations about his family. Author Jack Cheng shared with me his inspiration for writing this moving middle grade novel, which is our February book club pick.
After college, you moved to New York and worked in advertising before co-founding a design studio. Then you completely changed course, returned to Michigan, and turned to writing full time. What inspired you to make that change?
Right around the time I started the design studio with my friends, I started keeping a daily journal. I would try to write three pages in it every day. One day I sat down and didn’t have anything to write about. I usually just wrote about my day or what was on my mind. And suddenly this scene popped into my head for what would eventually become my first book. I wrote it down. The next day another scene came. A few weeks later I realized while this is not a book yet, it is something that could be turned into a book. Then it just became this nights and weekends thing. I would come back tired from work and spend an hour on it or put in a little time on the weekends. After maybe a year or two of doing that, I realized I was enjoying writing so much more than my day job. Around that same time, I had dinner with a friend and was telling him about my plan to do a Kickstarter project for the book. I blurted out that I’d be willing to move back to Michigan and live out of my parents’ basement in order to keep writing. That was something I couldn’t say about anything else. Thank goodness it never quite came down to that. But because of that conversation and everything leading up to it, I decided to leave my full time position and work freelance for my company. One freelance project lasting a month or two would buy me a few months writing time. So that is how I started transitioning over to writing.
That’s a great story. I especially like your realization moment. Very telling. As you said, your first novel, These Days, grew out of journaling. There do seem to be parallels between your life and the main character in the book, Connor. Connor moves from the midwest to New York and is dissatisfied with his job in the tech industry. How much of the book was inspired by your experience at the time?
I don’t think I realized it quite so much as I was writing it, but in retrospect definitely. Because I was doing it nights and weekends, it became almost a form of therapy. A way for me to vent about things happening at work, to express my dissatisfaction with advertising, and how I moved from that to starting my own company.
You published These Days through a Kickstarter campaign. My understanding is that you finished the book and sent it out to some agents, but weren’t getting any initial bites. So you decided to self-publish. How did you decide to go with Kickstarter?
I had a couple of friends who had done Kickstarter projects for their books. I also met one of the co-founders of Kickstarter very early on through startup circles. So Kickstarter was already on my radar. At first it was this contingency plan. Then I wasn’t getting much of a response from sending out the manuscript to agents. I took that to mean the book wasn’t very good yet. I saw Kickstarter as a way to not only learn how to write a novel from start to finish, but also the steps of a publishing process. There was a realization that this wasn’t going to be the last book I wrote. I could have seen myself writing ten or more books. So it became more of a learning exercise.
You were able to get enough money from your Kickstarter campaign to do the bulk print. And it was through the bulk print that you got in touch with your agent for See You in the Cosmos.
The book was featured in the Kickstarter newsletter and she subscribed to that. It was the first literary fiction project she’d seen on Kickstarter. A lot of the projects at the time were sci-fi, fantasy or nonfiction. So that’s how we got in touch. She asked to read a copy of the manuscript early on and saw its potential.
See You in the Cosmos is written for the 10-14 year old set, but you didn’t initially plan it that way.
So initially I didn’t even think about who the audience might be. It was more the story seemed interesting and the main character happened to be eleven. I was just writing to explore these characters and tell their story. It wasn’t until I sent the manuscript to my agent and she said we need to submit it as a young adult novel. Then we both quickly learned about the middle grade category. So we had to think about what it meant to make this for that 10-14 age range.
See You in the Cosmos touches on some heavy topics. Alex’s mother suffers from mental illness. His father is dead. Alex’s brother is estranged from the family. Alex is taking a multistate journey on his own. Were those topics you needed to rewrite to be appropriate to the age group?
There weren’t as many edits as I would have thought. Those things were all there from the beginning and were the most unchanging. There were a lot of very little changes. Like in the original draft, I have Alex swearing in a way that was very funny. The way a kid would swear without knowing how inappropriate it is. Those were things I had to find creative ways around. Another was a moment when one of the characters was smoking a cigarette. She was such a sympathetic character that my editors asked to not have her smoking. So I wrote around it by having her go to a gas station and, instead of picking up a pack of cigarettes, buy a pack of gum. Little things like that. The biggest cut was a scene where a supporting character was talking into the iPod elaborating about what was going on from his point of view. That was something we cut because it took the reader too far away from Alex’s perspective.
As you alluded to, Alex’s journey and the people he encounters are all revealed through iPod recordings. That different narrative approach was what initially drew me to the book. How did you decide on that format and was it difficult to sustain?
I decided on that day one or two. When I first had the idea, I had Alex trying to launch his iPod into space. So I thought why not try to tell the story on the iPod. After all, one of the inspirations for the story was an episode from the podcast Radiolab in which Carl Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, talked about how the two of them fell in love as they were working on The Golden Record. So this book was born from an audio format. It felt very appropriate to try to stick to that. When I’m writing, I try to set up these challenges for myself to make the act of writing more entertaining and make myself have to think up creative solutions around it.
Those scenes of Alex conveying Zed’s character, who has taken a vow of silence and communicates via chalkboard, are some of my favorites. Even though you are several steps removed from Zed, you are given a complete picture.
I love writing dialogue and having characters play off of each other. In some ways, this book is entirely dialogue. Now that you mention it, what comes to mind is one of my favorite authors, J.D. Salinger, and how he is able to accomplish so much with just two people talking to each other. In this one short story, A Perfect Day for Bananafish, you have the character’s new wife talking to her mother on the phone. Through the conversation, you understand exactly what is going on with both sides. I believe in the power of dialogue and conversation to not only express character, but express every aspect of story.
As we’ve said, Carl Sagan is Alex’s hero in See You in the Cosmos. Were you also a big fan growing up?
I personally wasn’t. I was interested in astronomy, but no more so than I was interested in other things as a kid. For instance, I was obsessed with baseball in fourth and fifth grade because we had that slew of ‘90s baseball movies like Rookie of the Year and Angels in the Outfield. I was playing little league and was the same age as the characters in those movies. So I would say as a kid, my interests were much more varied. But at the same time, I was as enthusiastic about them as Alex. Just not quite as singularly obsessed. While working on the book, I was definitely reading more books on astronomy and books by Carl Sagan. I re-watched the original Cosmos series. So as a result I became much more of a fan of astronomy.
One of the great things about being a writer must be the ability to delve into areas and become an expert by the time you finish the book. We’ve touched on your ideas when you started this novel. You had the idea for a rocket, Carl Sagan, and Alex and went from there. I’ve also read that some characters appeared along the way that you didn’t expect.
I treat the rough initial draft as a lucid dream. In a dream you are encountering all these characters and you don’t have any control over it. You just kind of see it. You might have a little bit of agency, but for the most part you are just letting it happen to you. Only after the dream is over can you go back and make sense of it. So the rough draft of the novel is very much the same experience for me. I’m writing to find out what happens. Only after do I go back and make an outline and figure out the main aspects I can use to structure the story.
You’ve already started writing another middle grade book that will be set in Michigan and address your experience growing up as a Chinese-American. Can you tell us a bit more about how the book is going?
It's been a struggle at times. I know too much now about the publishing process and everything that comes after. So a lot of the process so far for this book has to be to get back to the beginner's mind. To get back to the place where I’m just writing to find out what happens. Something I’m learning is every book has its own process, and part of the challenge is learning how the book wants to be written. If I can get back to writing as therapy, writing to heal myself and heal things that have been too uncomfortable to face directly, then regardless of what happens to the book, whether or not it gets published, I’ll have gained something out of it and grown.
I read in an interview before the book was published that you have never launched a rocket. You bought one for research while writing the book, but you didn’t launch it. You said you might launch it on the book’s release date. Did you?
I still haven’t launched it. It’s still sitting in my closet. I’m a huge procrastinator. I realize I benefit from deadline pressure. So if there is no one expecting me to launch a rocket, it’s probably not going to happen for a while.
We hope you are enjoying See You in the Cosmos as well. Check out Kid Curated Books’ live review on our Facebook page on March 12.