Michael Byers interview
September 14, 2010
the author of Percival's Planet
It was great to welcome Michael Byers to the blog on September 14, 2010. Michael is the author of Percival's Planet, about the Kansas farm boy who discovered Pluto.
You've said the first inspiration for this novel was your grandmother. How did you end up writing about the search for Planet X?
My grandmother Margaret struggled all her life with mental illness; her marriage to my grandfather Paul was turbulent, lasting only long enough to produce my mother and my uncle. In a revisionary spirit I wanted to rewrite their marriage so it didn't end - so that it outlasted its difficulties.
But as I wrote my grandfather's story, I found it, despite my best efforts, boring. I couldn't find a way to make his time at law school exciting. His courtship and marriage lay flat. So I put the book down and wrote another novel about something else entirely (Long for This World, 2003). Still, my grandparents' story remained intriguing to me, so when I finished Long for This World, I returned to that previous attempt. When I did, I remembered that in the late 1920s at Harvard (during the period in which my grandfather was studying law there), something peculiar was happening.
Astronomers attached to Lowell Observatory were looking for Planet X - the world that would eventually be called Pluto. Evidently at some point during my research into the period for the previous version I'd come across this fact and stored it away for later use. Now I thought: All right, what if my grandfather hadn't been in the law school, but had instead been an astronomer? What if he had been along to assist on the Planet X search?
What might have happened then? In this way, unexpectedly, accidentally - and perhaps fittingly so - the book evolved from being about my grandparents to being about the search for Planet X.
The sheer persistence Clyde Tombaugh needed to grind a telescope lens without professional equipment is stunning. Have you ever known someone that persistent?
Tombaugh's persistence was remarkable - both alone in Kansas grinding his own mirrors and in Flagstaff, poring over hundreds of highly-detailed plates. Looking at the artifacts of his life (the plates, the observation logs) I'm tempted to say that he was slightly abnormal in his ability to concentrate, endlessly, on what many of us would find mind-destroyingly tedious. But I also think most of us have, or can have, access to that kind of concentration - when conditions are right, and when the subject is something that truly moves us.
Did you grind any lenses yourself while researching Percival's Planet?
None - but I read about it extensively, and since the book's publication I've encountered many who've done it themselves. They seem mostly normal.
Review of Percival's Planet by Michael Byers
See listing for Percival's Planet at Powell's Books
See listing for Percival's Planet at Amazon.com
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