(Original commissioned artwork by Windsor artist Corey Futko. Thank you Corey! I love, love, love it!!)
The call took place at 9:00am Thursday, August 7th, 2014. (My deepest apologies for keeping you all hanging on your stars for it! Gah! #busymom!)
Here’s how I was before the interview…so you can get a sense of what it felt like for me to be interviewing an astronaut!! (And don’t tell me it’s not rocket science, Vanessa. I know that. Sheesh.)
The kids were home too, sitting quietly and patiently in the living room while I conducted the interview in my office (this room).
Yes, I was nervous (just ask my bowels…ooo, too much?). But the closer time ticked to 9am the more my nervous anxiety turned into excitement – after all, I kept telling myself, just because this man’s been to space doesn’t mean I have to build him a pedestal up there to stand on…He’s a writer too! And on this star we can relate! I wanted the interview to feel natural and friendly – just two writers talkin’.
Come 9am, the kids were watching cartoons in the living room, and I was in my office ready for the phone to ring. It did. Right. On. Time. I answered my phone: Shields Space Station, Vanessa speaking! It was received with a loud burst of laughter from none other than Chris Hadfield! Yay! I’ve got him laughing already! After some quick banter about how his morning was going (he’d already eaten breakfast and gone waterskiing by this time!), I settled into the interview – which was me holding our land-line, portable phone that was on speaker, up to the computer as I recorded myself and the sound through Photobooth. Yeah, I can see myself asking Chris questions…and I can see myself getting teary a bit into the interview as he answered all my questions…crazeballs.
I’m going to give you a word-for-word, Q&A style breakdown as well as include some parenthetical notes for your reading pleasure. (You’re welcome!) You should know I said ‘um’ about a bojillion times (nerves?!), and we both said ‘and, so, but, yeah’ even more. That’s what happens in a conversation.
Needless to say, this was one of my favourite interviews I’ve done with a writer. And…in the end…well, let’s get there, and I’ll tell you then…
Yeah, I generally have a book on the go that I’m reading, and I need to choose another one because I just finished The Martian Chronicles. I re-read The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.
I don’t know if it’s a favourite, but it’s a really interesting book to read especially since he wrote it just after the second world war and before Sputnik (which he pronounced like spootnik) so it was a really interesting time to write about the idea of space travel and what it might mean to us both from a discovery point of view but also a self-discovery point of view. It was fun to read and I enjoyed reading it again. And I just read another Gerald Seymour, he writes beautifully complex plots and I enjoyed reading that as well….(and then it’s very garbled and I miss one sentence…sorry!) I’ll have to choose this afternoon which next book I’m going to read.
Sometimes. I have a few books on the go. Lots of people ask me to read books and review them for them…to write something about them so I have a couple of those books going. (No, I didn’t ask him to read and review mine!)
It is. Also, if I read at night in bed just before I go to sleep it’s nice to just shut the light out and use my ipad so I don’t have the big light on and disturb my wife so there’s kind of that advantage.
I hear that! When you were growing up or through your journey into space were there certain books that inspired you or quotes that inspired you that you thought about as you were learning and growing?
Sure. A real pivotal book for me was Carrying The Fire by Michael Collins. It’s a really interesting, insightgul book about the early days of human space flight. Mike Collins is the guy who orbited the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. He’s a really interesting man, a capable man and matter-of-fact, and I really enjoyed reading that book. I thought it was instructive and I learned a lot from it so that was the practical side, and on the more inspirational side, gosh I read everything Arthur C. Clarke ever wrote. Jules Verne, his Mysterious Island, I thought was a fascinating study of human determinism in the face of the unknown. Lots of different books. But I’ve always been interested in the practical side of things, maybe that’s why Mysterious Island and Carrying the Fire appealed to me the most.
It’s amazing how books we read and the art that we pay attention to even when we’re little always has to do with our dreams, what we want to do when we grow up. As far as An Astronaut’s Guide to Life is concerned, did you know you wanted to write this book? At what point did you know you wanted to put your experience into book form?
I’ve always enjoyed writing. I’ve written at a small level, you know, just short stories and a lot of music and things. But someone approached me after my first flight in space and said ‘hey, we’d really like to write a biography of you’. I’m thinking, what? Why would you? I haven’t done anything yet! You have to wait for me to do something noteworthy, it’s still early in the process to write a biography already. And then my wife pointed out to me that Brittany Spears had a biography, that she was about 19 at the time, and I thought, ‘okay, you’re right, you don’t have to have lived your entire life to think about writing a biography’. But I didn’t do anything about it. I just shelved the idea. But, about 10 years ago, I guess, I started thinking, you know I’ve spoken so many times, I’ve talked in so many schools. I’ve tried to understand what out of this experience is useful to other people, and this exaggerated life that I live has maybe brought out some ideas that might be of interest to everybody, and when I give talks by some result, they tend to get a positive reaction, the way that we have to change our behaviours in order to do the things that astronauts are asked to do. Maybe there’s something useful in all that. And I thought at some point I should probably write it all down. So about 10 years ago, just on some long trip somewhere, I wrote in a, I was doing a Sudoku book, and in the back of the Sudoku book I kinda laid out how I wanted this book to go. The sequence and the individual ideas that oughta be in it. And oddly enough, I ended up using that as the backbone of the book as I wrote it. And it was probably five or four years ago that my wife and I were talking in earnest knowing that my third space flight would probably be my last one, and we should plan beyond that and it just made sense to try with the timing of it to try and put it all together. Then I was just out walking the dogs with my wife one day and it occurred to me that the right name of the book is ‘An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth’ because that’s the only place that it really matters to us – earth. It’s nice what we do out in space, but how does it apply, what’s useful out of it, how is it of any utility to people on earth. It took about two and a half years to write the book. I’m really delighted with the results. I think it’s in 13 languages now and it’s been a best-seller all around the world. It’s really nice.
Did you get emotional while you were writing certain parts? Any specific parts like, did you find yourself laughing out loud, did you find yourself crying? What was the physical experience of writing the book like?
I didn’t do it 100% myself, by any means. I’ve never done anything that way. When I first set out to write the book, I thought ‘well, how do you write a book?’. I had no idea, I’d never done anything like this before. So I called a friend of mine who I went ot university with who’s a writer, and he’s written books, and I said ‘how do you write a book?’. And he said to me, ‘the first thing that you need is an agent’. I said, ‘an agent?’ I said, ‘I thought I needed a pen!’ Or at least a software program. He said, ‘trust me, what you need is an agent.’ I said, ‘I haven’t written anything yet’. And he said, ‘yeah, I know, but you know what you want to write about so make contact and get yourself an agent that you like and he’ll lead you through the process.’ So I did, and my friend was 100% right. I found an agent that was really good and friendly and devoted. And then he said, of course, you need to talk to editors, you need to talk to professional writers. You need someone to read what you’re writing as you go to help you shape it. Don’t make all the mistakes yourself. Get someone to keep you from making all the mistakes. And so it was a very interactive process. I worked with the editors from publishing companies that are professional, professional writers, more than one, and then editing with my family, you know sending things out and getting it to people. So I mean, I’ve written things before, short things, and my measure of it is – does it make me laugh when I read back through it or does it bring emotion to me? And when I hand it to someone else to read, do they laugh out loud or do they get hushed and think about things? And so, to me, that’s the measure of whether I’ve expressed myself properly or not. (I feel the EXACT SAME WAY about my writing!) I definitely felt that way going through the process of reading back through it and saying, yup, I captured that right because it came out funny or sad or introspective.
Was it difficult when you were trying to describe what you were seeing and feeling when you were up in space into words? Were there words that matched the beauty of what you were seeing, if beauty is even the right word?
It’s always inaccurate…you can’t describe colour in words, you know you can talk about it and think about it, you can use adjectives and things but colour or heat or love, they’re emotional, transient, ethereal things and to try and describe them by clicking my tongue and blowing air across my vocal chords or by typing little symbols on a piece of paper by absolute nature is not going to be the same. (What an answer!!!) And I recognize that, but there are a lot of words in the English language, and you can be delightful and you can be descriptive and hopefully you could capture the essence of it and I work hard to try and make sure that the words are as sparing or as provocative as possible. So yeah, it’s a limitation but I just do my best and hope you can get a feel for what I was trying to say.
I’m a musician and have been my whole life, and when music is playing, often it’s a distraction because I have to listen to the music. If there’s words to the music then I feel like I’m ignoring it. It takes a significant portion of the creative part of my mind while I listen to music with work. But there’s certain types of music that is somewhere in between provocative and white noise, and that’s what I like to have on, and actually for the past several years, the music that I’ve always put on while I’m writing is the whole theme music from Gladiator . It’s an hour long or something. I think it’s Hans Zimmer and it surges, it’s got quiet, peaceful sections, it’s got big roaring sections, and it’s that type of music, instrumental and varied background music and I find that helps to blank out the outside world but at the same time continue to prod and inspire me. That’s the type of music that I listen to while I write.
Yeah, I find I’m the same way. If there’s words, I listen and I get emotionally affected by the words and then sometimes, especially if I’m writing poetry, it shifts the whole voice and energy of the piece and I have to stop and be, like, wait a minute, what am I writing here? And I have to start over.
As far as discipline goes, we know that you are one of the most disciplined people in the world, how was the discipline of the writing process for you? Did you get up every morning and work on it or did you do it in pockets of time when you got ideas all around the world?
Very much in stages because my life is externally dictated, like a lot of people’s lives but because I was training for space and on the road a lot, it had to be done – okay, this weekend it’s writing, this weekend it’s sitting down with our editor, this weekend it’s sitting down with my writer friend, this weekend I’m recording thoughts and then putting them altogether…I don’t know, it was maybe like building a house, you go away for a week and then you come back, and okay, you need to spend the next three days building this house, and so I treated it like that, like a project. I had everything else going on. I did no writing, virtually no writing at all while I was on the space station. It was just too busy. That was more just a time to collect ideas. So a lot of it was written beforehand, and then a bunch of it after I landed, of course, in order to meet the deadlines with the publisher. But yeah, it was done in blocks, and time allotted and fitting it in amongst everything else in life. (Sounds EXACTLY like my life…I may not be zooming to the moon, but I sure am reaching for the stars!)
I thought, so long as I can get a little bit of a controlled environment where I was free of responsibility for a little while, and I can put in a set of headphones and get a controlled sound environment, and then concentrate and get writing. Most of the time it’s good writing. Music is harder to write for me because you really have to wait for the muse to strike me, whereas, writing for a book or something it’s more, it’s less constrained and also you can write four or five bad paragraphs but they don’t go away, and you can then go back through it and go okay this section is actually good and I can use that, and this stuff I won’t use and this stuff I’ll stick here, and so it’s almost always constructive and even if you don’t think what you wrote was useful right now as long as you know you can edit it, you can weave it back in later. But also working with other people they would help take the raw material of what I was writing and go okay, well, we need to move this section up here, change this around, tighten this up, we need to change this, we need to rewrite this section, you know, that type of thing too. So I sure didn’t do it all by myself.
When I’m writing, I find that I’m productive for quite awhile and then after awhile my brain is full and I need to go for a walk with the dogs or do something else or I have a perpetual Scrabble game going with my various children online, so I’ll take a moment and go and do my next word in Scrabble or doing something that changed the game. And then after awhile, you’re like, okay I’ve written a thousand words today, that’s all I can do and I need to take a break.
I never did, but it’s funny, now when someone asks me hey, so what do you do, I go, well…I’m a writer. (He laughs!) That still sounds funny to me ‘cause it was never my intent. But I’m pleased that the Astronaut’s Guide has been so well-received. It was a New York Times Bestseller, it was in Canada (a best-seller), well, ever since it came out and in all the different countries. I’m going to Australia next week for a book tour and the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, so it’s delightful to see, and I guess, I am by definition a writer and an author but, I’ve done all those other things and so it’s kind of a lovely position to be in.
Yeah, it’s called ‘You Are Here – Around the World in 92 Minutes’(pre-orders available only as of now!), and it’s somewhere between 150 and 200 of the best pictures that nobody’s ever seen, but more importantly, you know, pictures are okay, and I find them kind of tedious, one more beautiful picture after another, but what I did on each picture was talk about why I took this picture, what’s interesting about this picture, or I wrote on the picture itself. I convinced the graphic designer and the publisher how we could just write on things and draw some circles and arrows and, what’s funny about this picture, and what’s really sad or interesting or educational or instructive about this picture. And so I think it will be interesting for people to look through. And we didn’t do it like a great big coffee table book, it’s more conventional book size, more something you can hold in your hands. I think people with find it interesting, you know? And maybe feel an extension of the way I was trying to share while I was on orbit through social media. Hopefully people will find it useful. It was a fun project to go through the pictures, and pick out and write about what they meant to me and why.
And I think it’ll be really great for kids too. I know you always speak with kids and you go to t heir schools and do stuff t hrough skype and all of that. You know, kids love visuals an dpictures so it’s just really powerful that you’ll be affecting little humans as much as big ones!
Yeah, well, you know, that’s always been my intention, this is just too great an experience to keep to myself, and try and share it through music it and share it through technical discussions, share it through photography and share it through verbal description. I’m doing my best to make sure that other folks are privy to the amazing perspectives that come with the things I’ve been allowed to do.
I was people who have raw talent, who I admire, but it’s just something I could never do. The things that I have the skills for and that I’m interested in, yeah, if I apply myself and try to get as good at them as possible, and accept the fact that I’ve got my own particular pieces of the puzzle that I could fit in and try and do those things right. You know, working with the Windsor Symphony, that’s just such a treat, to be able to take a whole spool of music that I music that I wrote on orbit, and I wrote it with my brother and my son, and some of the songs I wrote completely on my own and some cooperatively with the two of them – and then to record them – a whole sweep of an artistic body of work on orbit and now have it put to a whole symphonic orchestral arrangement and get to share it with everybody publically. I’m hoping to be able to talk about all the stuff and show some of the imagery and play and sing some of the music that helps describe it, you know, all of that put together is a really lovely way to communicate. We’re gonna start with the Windsor Symphony but it looks like it’s gonna be with other symphonies as well after that. I’m really pleased, but you know, I’m not a dancer.
Everyone here is so excited and I’m telling ya, there’s going to be black eyes and bruises in lines for the tickets. Everyone is so excited and me too. It’s just incredible what you do, and I know we’re all thankful that you exist.
This was me right after I hung up the phone.
The kids and I started jumping up and down and screaming!! And then…I had to quickly dump my writer’s hat for my chauffeur-mom hat and get the kids to day camp.
It has been over a month since I interviewed Chris (yeah, we’re on a first-name basis….I think!) and yet the conversation is very much stuck to my psyche and in my every day thoughts. Speaking with him was truly an honour and a gift. I think because he is so who he is. I mean, he has done and continues to do incredible things, and he lives to share these experiences with the rest of humanity – literally. And he just doesn’t quit. His dedication to learning and loving this life and humanity is space-sized. In his way, he is affecting change – positive change – on this planet. That’s not a simple task and he does it willingly and with grace and humility over and over again.
I have so many more questions to ask him! I think we could talk for hours over a home-cooked meal, my kids begging him to play cards, while his dogs lay at our feet and he holds hands with his wife…and I hold hands with my hubby. Although he’s a spaceman, he’s completely down-to-earth. His feet are grounded and so is his soul. It’s a beautiful soul, and he’s not afraid to share it.
I firmly believe that at the core of what makes humans the best they can be are the following things: ability to love and be loved, ability to share, ability to learn, ability to communicate, ability to change. Certainly, these are not the only things, but they are most important, and while I was talking to Chris (and listening and learning and getting totally emotional), I couldn’t help but feel like he is a living, breathing example of a human who lives with these core traits dancing off his skin every day. And it was magical sharing 22 minutes and 58 seconds with him. I will get to talk to him again when he’s in town to do his symphony event with The Windsor Symphony. THERE ARE STILL TICKETS AVAILABLE! So please hit the link above if you haven’t purchased tickets yet!!
So many of Chris’ life events are ‘firsts’ – and one of them is his creating music while in space that he will soon perform on earth – and he’s doing it in our great city with our amazing orchestra. What a gift!
Let’s celebrate with a book give-away!!
The first 10 people to answer in the COMMENTS OF THIS POST – will enter a draw to win a signed copy of An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth (I’m gonna do my best to get Chris to sign a copy and choose the winning name! If not – you’ll still win the book!)
I hope you enjoyed this interview as much as I have (and do!). Thank you Chris and team for including me in your busy schedule! Thank you Shelley and the Windsor Symphony Orchestra for including me in this major event! And thank you Jian Ghomeshi for not having me on your show – turns out, you connected me with Chris Hadfield – and that is out of this world.