I want to thank Jan Millsapps for answering all of my questions! Check out the links in the interview or visit Jan’s website for more information about her work examining women and space exploration, including her candidacy as a “Marstronaut”!
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
I have always written, so, no, I can’t remember when it all started. As a kid I wrote stories, even hand-crafted a newspaper (about dogs – to persuade my parents to get me one!). In college I wrote typically anguished poetry. I do remember that my interest in writing diminished somewhat when I declared myself an “art” major. At that time, I foolishly thought creating visuals was totally different from writing words. After college I worked in advertising/PR and soon after that I discovered filmmaking, and realized in both these pursuits I could put pictures and words together – reviving my interest in writing. My dissertation examined media “texts” that used both words and imagery to create meaning (a tough sell to the English Department). More recently, when I committed myself to long-format writing, I decided I was no longer a filmmaker, sold my Bolex and refused to think or behave as a filmmaker (even though I was Professor of Cinema at SFSU – awkward!). Guess what: Venus on Mars so far has spawned a multimedia study guide, a “sound design,” and a transmedia documentary project that involves a feature film plus interactive games and apps – all components that blend words and images. So my writing, in the paraphrased words of Gertrude Stein, has always found a way to “begin again and again.”
What inspired you to write your first book?
I’ve always gravitated toward telling the stories of those who have been marginalized. In nearly all cases, my media and literary work features individuals whose lives have not been celebrated, and whose contributions have not been documented. Unconventional women top my list – my first (as yet unpublished) novel was about a Southern hairdresser turned feminist evangelist. In my first published novel, Screwed Pooch, Laika, the small female mongrel who became the world’s first space passenger and a victim of the early space race, gets her own voice – and an attitude. Venus on Mars not only tells the story of women working on the periphery of astronomy and rocket science, but also invites its readers to contribute their own stories to the grand meta-story of the universe.
Does your writing include any research? If so, why/why not, and can you talk about why you made that choice?
Research, always! Each of my novels is set in a specific place/time and the storyline takes place amid historic events and often involves actual persons as well as fictional characters. The research is necessary to set the scene, whether Moscow in 1957 at the dawn of the space age, Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1971 when scientists send their first space probes to Mars, or a barrier island off the S.C. coast just as Hurricane Hugo approaches. Venus on Mars was the first in which I committed myself to not only doing online and print/media research, but also visiting and experiencing as many locations as possible. I had a writer’s residency at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, spent time at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and I checked out the Goldstone Deep Space network in the Mojave Desert. The only place I couldn’t get to was to Mars – although researching the book did inspire me to apply to go there with the Mars One mission – and I was one of 705 potential “Marstronauts” [Mars One astronaut candidates who are embarking upon two years of rigorous testing to determine which ones will be among the first humans to colonize Mars, beginning in 2025] in the running!
Did you learn anything from writing your book?
I’ve actually become quite the expert on the history of Mars exploration, in particular the early Mariner missions, and also on what many largely unsung women have contributed to our knowledge of Mars. There was one unanticipated “feminist” discovery: I set my primary story in the early years of the space age at JPL, and while researching what the workplace was like then, I talked to two former directors of the Image Processing Lab there. The first one told me there were NO women working in the lab, while the second described many female computer and rocket scientists – and provided evidence. I realized I’d unknowingly set my story on the very cusp of workplace parity for women! I was able to use this as an integral part of my story (Venus’s story is part of my own story as well – in the early years of my career, I had to deal with a lot of male chauvinist pigs!).
Is there anything you find that particularly challenges readers of your work?
I hope my books are gently challenging – that they are not easy reads and yet not insanely difficult ones either. Venus on Mars uses multiple voices and interweaves stories from three different historical eras, so the reader has to stay alert for these time/place shifts and also must stay attuned to how a passage that takes place in one era might further develop and inform the reader about what he/she may encounter in another. The transmedia components further extend the narrative and allow the reader to individualize his/her own story space – some thinking is required, but not so much as to make one’s head hurt!
Do you feel that your book would make a good Book Club pick? Why or why not?
I have no idea but would like to find out. Because I’ve created a study guide that functions as a companion to Venus on Mars, with contextual history, explanations of the science references in the novel, and questions for further discussion, I’m thinking maybe this guide would work for book clubs as well as in educational settings – or for curious minds everywhere.
*UPDATE: Since our interview, the feature documentary spawned by Venus on Mars is moving forward – it’s being editing now and they crew hopes to release it later this year. It’s called Madame Mars: Women and the Quest for Worlds Beyond. The crew will create an interactive online curriculum to accompany the film. Congratulations, Jan!