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             “…I love drama! And if, as they say, truth is stranger than fiction, then I certainly have seen my share of unbelievable human stories come true.” –Vicki Oransky Wittenstein

Book Cover: Planet Hunter


Q: Vicki, congratulations on your beautiful and amazing new book Planet Hunter, Geoff Marcy and the Search for Other Earths (Boyds Mills Press, March 2010), which has just been released with a Kirkus starred review! I found myself completely drawn in by the human drama of astronomer Geoff Marcy’s story and his fascinating hunt for “other earths.” (I have it on good authority that Marcy will be at your Manhattan launch party in April!) Can you talk a bit about what inspired Planet Hunter? What was the moment like when you finally saw your inspiration in actual book form?


            I think Planet Hunter was brewing for many years, maybe even from when I was a young girl and went camping. Warm and toasty in my sleeping bag, I would stare at the stars and dream about life on other planets. When the first extra solar planets were detected (planets outside our solar system) in 1995, I was glued to the news stories. Although astronomers had long thought there were planets orbiting other stars, finally there was proof! The possibility of other planets like Earth became a reality, and I was hooked. Since then, Geoff Marcy, the astronomer in my book, and his colleagues have detected over half of the known 400 planets orbiting other stars. Scientists are getting closer to finding another planet like Earth, and when they do, it will rock our world view.


            Also, Marcy has an inspiring story that I wanted to convey to children. When he was young, his love of space helped him overcome struggles in school until finally he became an astronomer. Then, in order to conquer self-doubt and to make major discoveries, he went back to the questions that thrilled him as a boy: Are we alone? Do Earth-like planets orbit the stars in the night sky? It wasn’t easy to find a planet outside our solar system. But Marcy never gave up. I felt that his personal journey informed and enhanced the relatively new scientific ideas and techniques for middle grade readers. 


            Copies of Planet Hunter arrived in a plain brown carton with a return address I didn’t recognize. When I opened the box and saw the cover of the book, my hands shook. I clutched the book to my chest and started running up and down the stairs of my house like a crazy person. We live in a townhouse in Brooklyn, New York, and let me tell you, I am talking about a lot of stairs! For several days I couldn’t read the book—just smelling it and turning the pages seemed enough.


Q: You’ve followed the career of Geoff Marcy, the astronomer in Planet Hunter, for several years. Can you tell us about your decision to finally write his story and your exciting trip to the Keck Observatory in Hawaii?

            I first met Geoff Marcy in 2003, when I wrote an article about him for Highlights For Children magazine. I followed his planet detections in the newspapers for several years, until finally, in the spring of 2007, I decided to write this book. When I contacted Marcy and told him my idea, he graciously invited me to Hawaii to watch him planet hunt. What an unbelievable trip! The Keck Observatory is 14,000 feet above sea level on the remote summit of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. It’s freezing, and the air is so thin that many people (including myself!) have to use oxygen masks in order to breathe. I have never seen a more desolate, yet exotic, place. And I have never felt as close to the stars.

                                                       photo Courtesy Sarah Anderson

Q: As a debut author, what importance has the author/editor relationship held for you?


            My relationship with my editor, Andy Boyles, has been, and continues to be, very important, not just with respect to Planet Hunter, but in my development as a writer. Andy is not only an editor, but a scientist. His expertise and fascination with the topic, his tremendous editing skills, and his willingness to teach and mentor a writing career have been immensely helpful. As a new author, I particularly appreciated his advice about the book’s structure, as well as the choice and placement of the artwork and images.


Q: Planet Hunter is rich with sidebars and fantastic visual images that include gorgeous photography and helpful diagrams. How difficult was the journey to bring this book together beyond the text itself?


            Hard! I was responsible for finding all the photographs, the artist renditions of planets, and the diagrams. What I couldn’t find for free, I paid for, including the hiring of a photographer while I was at Keck. I also had to obtain permissions to use the images, often sorting through technicalities that were quite time consuming. On a few occasions, when I couldn’t get permissions, I had to devise different ways to discuss the topic in order to use a different visual. Sometimes entire sidebars were cut or newly created because an image wasn’t quite right, or was so beautiful that we couldn’t pass up including it.


                                                      photo Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltch/R. Hurt (SSC) 

Q: Reading Planet Hunter is like going on an adventure. Not only are you exploring the heavens right beside Geoff Marcy, but you’re following the tale of how a boy scientist grows up to become the man who discovers more planets than any one else in history. Can you talk about this balance between information and story and how you were able to achieve it? Did you begin with the idea of imparting the practical information, or with Marcy’s character? How did writing a non-fiction book about astronomy inform the psychic distance you chose in the book?


            The balance between information and psychic distance was tricky. Right from the start, I knew that I wanted to tell the science behind planet hunting through Marcy’s own actions. Some of the planet hunting concepts are difficult, and I thought kids would grasp the science more easily if they “sat beside” Marcy in the telescope control room, and observed what he did. That’s why traveling to Hawaii was so important. But with only 49 pages in the book (including a table of contents, a glossary, and an index), I also had to cover the ground-breaking discoveries by Marcy and others in the field, as well as the future direction of planet hunting. Sometimes details about Marcy’s work and life had to be sacrificed for pure scientific content.


            When I first went to Keck, I only had a vague idea of how to organize the book. It wasn’t until I observed Marcy at work and got to know him better that I decided to tell the story as an adventure—Marcy’s adventure—as he journeyed through life and science. He’s very personable, and finds simple ways to explain tough concepts, so seeing the book unfold through his eyes seemed natural.


            Also, I must confess that Mauna Kea cast a spell over me! If there was another “character” in the book, it was the summit of this volcano. The mystery and magic one feels when exploring the universe in such close proximity to the heavens seemed intrinsic to the story. What better way to convey this feeling than through an astronomer who reveres Mauna Kea as a gateway to the universe?


            Tomorrow Vicki Wittenstein talks about using fictional techniques to capture the human drama in non-fiction, and how to make science come alive for kids and other lay people. --zu vincent 

p.s. check out the other new books reviewed this week at Barrie's the Book Review Club...


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 3rd, 2010 12:41 pm (UTC)
Fantastic interview! Vicki worked so hard on things many of us wouldn't expect an author to be involved with- arranging for photographs (paying for them, even!), getting permissions, having charts and diagrams created. This is as much work as writing the book itself and Vicki did it all beautifully. Congratulations Vicki- and congratulations on the starred reviews your book is already garnering!
Mar. 3rd, 2010 04:32 pm (UTC)
Yes, between the lovely text and the "stellar" art and photos you can't put this down!
Mar. 4th, 2010 01:54 am (UTC)
Fascinating interview! Congrats to you, Vicki!!! I can't wait to read this book. And congrats to Andy Boyles and Boyds Mills too. Looking forward to Part II of this interview tomorrow.
Mar. 4th, 2010 04:57 am (UTC)
Thanks for reading!
Mar. 4th, 2010 04:41 am (UTC)
What a great interview! I've been to the top of Mauna Kea, too, and it's something I'll never forget. Now I can relive a piece of that experience through Vicki's book. Can't wait to read it.
Mar. 4th, 2010 05:01 am (UTC)
Wow, did you need oxygen too? You are in a select club! It must be incredible up there. I was really caught up by the way Vicki recreates the adventure in Planet Hunter.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )