Since the third book of the Apollo Quartet, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, is only days away from publication – and is already available on Kindle – I thought it might prove interesting to tell you something about how I came to write it.
When I first came up with the idea of the Apollo Quartet, the third book had the working title The Shores of Earth and was set some 150 years in the future. Since I was determined to use glossaries in interesting ways in each of the four novellas, I planned to have two in the book, each of which would force the reader to re-interpret the story. But it was all a bit vague, and setting the story so far in the future stretched the link to the Apollo programme beyond credulity. So I ditched it. And that left me stuck for a story for the third book of my quartet.
Some months before, I’d stumbled across an online article about a recently-declassified mission to retrieve a spy satellite’s film bucket from the floor of the Pacific Ocean using the bathyscaphe Trieste II. I’ve been interested in the Trieste for a couple of years, so I’d made note of the article as a possible idea for a story. But it was not until I mentioned the article to Gavin Smith, author of Veteran, War in Heaven and The Age of Scorpio, that I realised I could use it in the Apollo Quartet. But I needed something else because, of course, the Trieste is not a spacecraft…
The year before I’d researched the Air Transport Auxiliary, and read the autobiography of one of its more celebrated members, Diana Barnato Walker, for a short story. That was ‘Dancing the Skies’ and it was published in The Monster Book for Girls. I think it was during the research for that story that I came across mention of Jerrie Cobb, who had undergone the same testing as the Mercury 7 astronauts. And passed them. I thought I might use her story in a novel, a sort of alternate history with three alternate timelines – in one, the protagonist becomes NASA’s first female astronaut in the early 1960s; in another, the nearest she can get is working as an air hostess; and in the third, she’d be a pilot for an airline.
In fact, Jerrie Cobb was only one of thirteen women pilots who underwent the astronaut testing – the Mercury 13. She was the first, and she campaigned repeatedly to be selected by NASA, but they weren’t interested in inviting women to join their astronaut corps. So there was my second narrative thread for Apollo Quartet 3. A quick google for a poem about the god Apollo found me a suitable – and nicely Lowry-esque – title in a Homeric hymn, and so the book became Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above.
I’d designed the structures of Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself very deliberately, and I planned to do the same for this third book. The two narratives were not, on the face of it, even remotely related. One followed a group of female astronauts through the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes; the other was set at the bottom of the ocean. So what I’d do is have one narrative influence the other – “action at a distance”, in other words. And to show the fragile nature of existence, I’d give the story three different endings. These would take the place of a glossary.
But the more I wrote of Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, the more I realised I only needed one ending. Instead, I would replace those other two endings with the real world, essays on the inspirations for the two narratives. And that’s what I did. Initially, I formatted them as appendices, but then I decided I’d not bother but make them part of the story. The abrupt switch from fiction to fact would briefly confuse readers but it would also give both the real world and the alternate worlds more impact.
Now all that remains for me to do is write the fourth book of the Apollo Quartet, All That Outer Space Allows. The story for that, at least, has been clear in my head since I first decided Adrift on the Sea of Rains was the first in a quartet. And yes, the title deliberately echoes that of a film by Douglas Sirk – it is, in fact, my favourite film. But my story will take place around a decade later…