How to Mars
An exclusive interview by Ellen Birkett Morris
In How to Mars author David Ebenbach tells the story of six scientists whose trip to Mars is complicated by an unexpected pregnancy. The novel was inspired by an article he read about Mars One, a small private Dutch organization that received money from investors by claiming it would use it to land the first humans on Mars and leave them there to establish a permanent human colony.
There were plans for a reality show and a restriction that participants must abstain from sex to avoid the complications that might arise from a birth on Mars. Though Mars One accepted money and applications the project never came to fruition.
”What would drive them to give up so much?”
“They got thousands of applications. I was curious about people who wanted to go forever to a place where they would never see a tree again. Who would go? Why would they go? What would drive them to give up so much?” said Ebenbach.
This is how I find out Jenny is pregnant on Mars, the first line of How to Mars, came to him out of the blue, and Ebenbach knew he was on to something. Exploring these ideas led him to write the short story “Prakt Means Splendor,” which was published in the Kenyon Review. That story became the first chapter of the novel.
“I knew that Jenny and Josh had given up on life. They had both been through traumatic deaths of loved ones and wanted to isolate themselves. The creation of a life to nurture was a big thing to happen to them,” said Ebenbach. It would prove to be a big thing for the entire group as they navigated the pressure of this unexpected event.
“Like all guides, from religious texts to parental advice, it’s about how to be human.“
The story is told by multiple voices including other scientists, Martians, and excerpts from the Destination Mars manual. The handbook is written in the voice of the founder of Destination Mars and reflects his eccentricities. The content ranges from comic, don’t bring full sized umbrellas to Mars, to philosophical, posing questions about self-knowledge.
“Like all guides, from religious texts to parental advice, it’s about how to be human. Like all advice, it’s in some ways too much and in other ways not enough,” said Ebenbach.
There is even a section of the book told as a semi-scientific report in which Jenny reveals important family history that led to her decision to go to Mars. “You can see why it’s important for Jenny to organize the universe in boxes and graphs to tame it. The universe has been very unkind and chaotic to Jenny,” said Ebenbach.
He said a key element in the expansion of the short story into a book was feedback from an editor at the Kenyon Review who asked what motivated Jenny and Josh to go to Mars. Their backgrounds of loss held the key to that puzzle. The other scientists who undertake the journey are also loners or otherwise estranged from society.
How does this group of misfits cope with being alone together on a possible hostile planet? Stefan, a moody loner in charge of maintaining equipment, finds that the lack of rules on Mars leads him to break the fingers of Roger, a mild mannered fellow scientist, just because he can. The situation gets more complex with the impending birth and Stefan leaves the group, as the rest of the members pull together to prepare.
Ebenbach made a bold choice to include the presence of amorphous Martians as one of the complicating factors in the narrative. Trixie, one of the Mars scientists, struggles to find evidence of any life forms on Mars. “What if alien life was so different she couldn’t identify it? These Martians are different and, of course, they would have opinions about the visitors and not be pleased about it.”
The Martians seek quiet and tamper with the equipment to dissuade the visitors from staying until they realized that just creates more chaos among the scientists. They invade Stefan’s thoughts in the hopes that he will restore order, possibly by getting rid of the others.
The greatest challenge of the book according to Ebenbach was creating a novel-in-stories in which the stories worked by themselves and as chapters that propelled the novel forward. His gold standard for this task was Allegra Goodman’s The Family Markowitz.
“The thing that made this more than a pile of stories was the conversation with the Kenyon Review editor where they asked ‘What was the need they had on Mars?’ In other words, what made them want to leave home forever? And can you really escape your past by going to another planet. Those big questions gave me something novel-sized to work on, accumulating across the stories.”
The stories mesh and build to a satisfying conclusion that leaves the door open for a return trip to Mars for interested readers.
Ebenbach is the author of eight books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, and has won many awards including the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, the Juniper Prize, and the Orison Books’ Fiction Prize.
When asked what impact the awards have had on his work, Ebenbach said they do make it easier to get other work published. “The publishing industry is like a timid woodland creature. It doesn’t want to drink from a pond unless others have drunk from it before.” But in terms of the work he still has to contend with every writer’s enemies, fear of failure and the illusion that success with one thing means you can do anything. “Work is always about getting back to the page and seeing what you can do there.”
“Persistence is more important than talent.”
When it comes to success, Ebenbach says persistence is key. “Good things happen when you stay with your writing. Good things happen when you submit to lots of places. Good things happen when you revise your work. Persistence is more important than talent.”
With How to Mars hitting bookshelves now, Ebenbach is at work on another speculative novel.
David Ebenbach is the author of eight books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, winners of such awards as the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, the Juniper Prize, and the Orison Books’ Fiction Prize. He lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing and literature in Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization and where he researches and promotes whole-student and inclusive education through Georgetown’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship. You can find out more at davidebenbach.com.