An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with Lily Koppel,
Columnist Anna Roins
|The Astronaut Wives Club
by Lily Koppel
Buy this Book
Today, there is more computing power in an iPhone, than in the technology that took man to the moon. Yet from the late 50’s to the early 70’s, in the Space Race against Russia, NASA sent twelve astronauts into space with their pioneering Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo-missions. But this book isn’t about those men.
Lily Koppel’s remarkable second novel, The Astronaut Wives Club, (Grand Central Publishing 2013) explores the friendships between the wives of the astronauts. Their only role? To provide a haven of support for their husbands and paint a perfect picture of family life intrinsically tied up to the astronauts’ success and ultimately, America’s identity.
The wives, often displaying, ‘slightly knitted brows, perfectly applied lipstick, and well-practiced aplomb’, had to present ‘the right stuff’ in Life interviews or tours around the country in the era of bouffant hairdos, Jackie Kennedy and the Vietnam War. Throughout this time, they were there for each other.
What they concealed from the media was another story altogether rankling with infidelity, alcoholism, and depression only reconciled 20 years later at a reunion.
The Astronaut Wives Club is about the real heroes who lived through the Cold War space race. As one ‘Astrowife’ said, “If you think going to the moon is hard, try staying at home.”
|“What kept them grounded was a sense of humour, a deep love for their families, the country, and their long-lasting friendships . . . “
AUTHORLINK: Hi Lily, thank you for joining us for this interview, and for writing this book. The world will finally get to know the wonderful ‘Astrowives’ up close. We really liked the casual, conspirational tone of the book, as well.
KOPPEL: Delighted to be chatting with you. Since The Astronaut Wives Club is the first time the wives’ story has been told, I wanted as much as possible to get away from the official male-centric history with a capital H—and get to the heart of the endeavour—which is the Astrowives’ story: the emotional side of the space race. As their spacemen hubbies headed to the Moon and experienced mankind’s highest highs and lowest lows—the women found that they had to be superheroes back on Earth. What kept them grounded was a sense of humour, a deep love for their families, the country, and their long-lasting friendships that still endure today.
AUTHORLINK: Why do you like to write about under-the-radar yet accomplished, individualized women?
KOPPEL: I’m drawn like a magnet to what I feel are BIG, important, and culturally significant stories that speak to us about who we are as a people, and especially as women. I’m a writer and devoted reader of fiction—my first love—and non-fiction (because oftentimes, truth is stranger and more amazing than fiction). Sometimes stories just seem like a detail at the outset. But that’s okay because I do not like stories that are too obvious. I love the adventure inherent in an extraordinary yet never-been-told-before story. I love the underdog. I love stories, which, when happening upon them, feel like I’m stumbling across a hidden treasure.
With the Astrowives’ story, the world back in the 50s and 60s wasn’t ready to look to the wives at home and call them heroes as well. As a result of that, there was something rebellious and redemptive about getting the wives into the history books. As I told the ladies, “I want to shoot your story to the Moon!”
AUTHORLINK: NASA streamlined the wives into a collective amorphous personality so it could highlight the importance of an ideal housewife for the benefit of the space race. Do you think the public accepted them more readily that way or was it just a sign of the times?
KOPPEL: Back in the day, the Astrowives came up with a motto: “HAPPY PROUD AND THRILLED.” It was their “KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON” 1960s style. The wives had a sense of humour and irony about the fact that their astronaut husbands were being sold to the country as perfect “Boy Scouts” and they were expected to be as one Astrowife said, “Stepford Wives,” to match. The Astrowives, as the book explores, were our first reality stars—only back then, the country wasn’t ready to hear about any cracks in the perfect “Jell-O mold façade.”
|“I think they saw their role as their patriotic duty. “
AUTHORLINK: It is interesting how two major forces were at play against each other during this era: the race for space travel and the dissent for the Vietnam War. When Nixon arranged a party to honour the first astronauts who went to the moon, three thousand people were protesting outside. How do you think the wives saw this?
KOPPEL: I think they saw their role as their patriotic duty. Their husbands wore the silver suits and the wives baked the perfect apple pies (though some later admitted they didn’t bake at all). They were working as hard, albeit on the home front, as their husbands and NASA to land a man on the Moon. While they did dress in suburban psychedelic fashions, they were busy being Supermoms, single parents, during the week, while their husbands led a second life, as it were, down at the Cape, in Florida, where all the training and some hanky-panky with Cape Cookies (as the astronaut groupies were known) took place.
AUTHORLINK: Despite riots at universities, the Black Panthers and Andy Warhol, the wives were seen as trapped in the fifties. Some actually walked out of the musical Hair because of its nudity. Do you think they preferred to be conveniently cushioned from the modern world?
KOPPEL: The wives were extremely patriotic and supportive of their men’s missions and of NASA, although in private moments they also viewed the space agency as Big Brother, wielding a great amount of control over their lives. While as a whole, the astronaut families were seen as very vanilla ice cream, i.e. conventional, there were outspoken characters among them. One astronaut and his wife were viewed as the “hippies” of Togethersville—as the space burbs outside of Houston, where they all lived, were known.
AUTHORLINK: In June 1963, Russia’s Valentina Tereshkova orbited around the earth and was pregnant at the time. In view of astronaut John Glenn testifying against women going into space the year before, would you say that Russia had a less sexist attitude towards female astronauts or was it just a game of one-upmanship?
KOPPEL: It was certainly a game of one-upmanship. As I have heard from U.S. astronauts, who later befriended many of the cosmonauts, Russia didn’t particularly care for feminist rights. It was as much a shocking stunt as anything else.
AUTHORLINK: You once described The Astronaut Wives Club as a bit of ‘The Right Stuff’ meets, ‘Mad Men’ with ‘Desperate Housewives’ thrown in. Have there been any offers for it to be turned into a TV series? Do you have any ideas about who could play which roles?
KOPPEL: A TV series is in the works. I think it will be a great opportunity to cast some really talented young actresses who look and talk like real women.
AUTHORLINK: We love the recipes provided on your webpage (http://www.astronautwivesclub.com/index.html). Now all book-clubbers can re-create a ‘launch party’ when discussing your book and tuck into some Strawberry Moon Mallows, as well. What do you think are good book club questions for The Astronaut Wives Club?
KOPPEL: Book Clubs have been writing me about their amazing meetings for The Astronaut Wives Club! The Firefly Book Club dressed up Astronaut Wives style and wrote me: “We have been meeting for years and we take things very seriously! The website for book clubs was so helpful. We used recipes, questions and the playlist!”
From another: “I think every woman should read this.”
The Reading Group Guide is available on the website with questions to jumpstart your discussion like: “Would you let your significant other be blasted into space?” and “Does the sudden celebrity around the astronauts and their families depicted in this book remind you of today’s celebrity culture in any way?”
|“I’m still hungry, still curious, less naïve, and more ready than ever to tell a good story. “
AUTHORLINK: How do you think you have grown as a writer since your first novel, The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal, published in 2008?
KOPPEL: I’m still hungry, still curious, less naïve, and more ready than ever to tell a good story.
AUTHORLINK: The ideas for your books seem inspired. Have you come across something else of this type of genre of non-fiction that you would like to research and write about?
KOPPEL: Of course, I catalogue all story ideas in my Secret Files.
About the Author
Lily Koppel is the bestselling author of The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story (Grand Central, Available June 11, 2013) and The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal (Harper, 2008). She has written for the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, the Daily Beast, and Glamour.
About the Authorlink Contributor
Anna Roins was a Senior Lawyer with the Australian Government Solicitor before she embarked on a career in writing six years ago and moved to Greece. As a freelance journalist, she has contributed numerous articles to local publications on social and community issues. She has also edited a number of books, websites and dissertations, and continues her studies in creative literature with the University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London. Anna is currently writing her first novel. She is a regular contributor to Authorlink.
This post was written by Anna Roins