I am a nut for non-fiction, and I was intrigued by Vicki Oransky Wittenstein's new book, Planet Hunter: Geoff Marcy and the Search for Other Earths. Astronomy has always been an interest of mine, and I was delighted with Vicki's book and am thrilled that she agreed to give me an interview.
What inspired you to write Planet Hunter: Geoff Marcy and the Search for Other Earths?
For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the possibility of life on other worlds. As a young girl, I went camping in the national parks across the country. At night, I would gaze at the stars and wonder if there were weird aliens or intelligent life out there. In 1995, when the first extrasolar planets were detected (planets that orbit stars beyond our Sun), I devoured the news.
I continued to follow all the discoveries, from the detection of the first “family” of 5 planets in a planetary system similar to our own, to the findings of increasingly smaller planets. For every minute spent reading this interview, the Kepler space telescope (launched in March 2009) snaps photo after photo of the same 100,000 stars in the sky. Hundreds of new planet candidates have been detected. Planet hunters are getting closer and closer to finding an Earth-like planet, and when they do, the discovery will rock the foundations of our world!
I wrote Planet Hunter to galvanize a new generation of young people to study the universe and to continue searching for answers to the age-old questions about life. Many of today’s scientists grew up during the excitement of the Space Age, when astronauts were first launched into space and landed on the Moon. Now, with talk of limiting human space travel, young people need other ways to kindle their imaginations about life in the Milky Way and beyond. My hope is that children will be turned on to science and space after reading about renowned astronomer Geoff Marcy, the planet hunter profiled in my book. Marcy and his research partner Paul Butler discovered the first method for detecting these planets that orbit other stars. Now, Marcy and his team have detected over half of the 400 known extrasolar planets.
I also was inspired by Marcy’s personal journey, which became an integral part of the story. Marcy invited me to watch him planet hunt at the W. M. Keck Observatory, 14,000 feet above sea level on the top of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. We talked about the difficulties he confronted along the way to becoming a planet hunter. Studying did not come easily to him, and even after he became an astronomer, finding a career path was difficult. It wasn’t until he went back to the questions that excited him as a boy that he found his way. Are we alone? Are there other Earth-like planets? It took him ten years before he and his research partner Paul Butler detected their first planets, but they never gave up.
When and why did you start writing for children?
In my “first life” I was an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan, but I always loved to write. When my children were young, and I wanted to spend more time at home, I stopped practicing law and started writing articles and short stories for children’s magazines. Recently, I went back to school, and received my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College. The MFA program accelerated my learning curve, but my legal training has been surprisingly helpful, too. I enjoy researching the nitty-gritty of a topic, paring down the information to the most salient points, and then figuring out how to explain and write the material for a young audience. Whether I am writing fiction or nonfiction, these same skills come into play.
What is the most valuable advice you can give to a newly published writer?
As Planet Hunter is my first book, I can only give beginner’s advice! But one thing I have realized is how easy it is to become bogged down with marketing. Scheduling time for school visits, conferences, book signings, and blogging can be a full-time job. My advice is to try to keep the marketing in perspective, and to remember that writing comes first.
What is one of your favorite children’s books that you’d like to recommend?
Tough question! I am always reading and finding new favorites. On the non-fiction side, I just finished Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared To Dream, by Tanya Lee Stone, about the Mercury 13 women who fought to admit women into the space program. Stone is adept at choosing just the right details to convey emotion and story. I couldn’t believe the awful tests these women were subjected to! Zu Vincent’s The Lucky Place, is a heart-warming and beautifully written novel about growing up with an alcoholic father. Vincent is a master at creating an endearing voice and a close psychic distance, so that the reader deeply feels the characters’ joys and sorrows.
What are you working on now?
I’m researching a second book about space, trying to finish a novel, scheduling school visits and writing a curriculum guide for Planet Hunter, finding time for family and friends. . . a lot!
What is your favorite dessert and why?
I am a major dessert freak! Anything chocolate works best! I especially love warm lava cake. If it’s baked right, liquid chocolate oozes out when you pierce it with a fork. Don’t forget to add a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top!
Vicki Oransky Wittenstein graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell Law School. She received her M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has been a prosecutor and an advocate for children and families. Since the 1990s, she has been writing nonfiction for children, with an emphasis on science and history, and has published articles in Highlights for Children, Odyssey, Faces, and The Best of the Children's Market. She and her husband live in Brooklyn, New York, and have two children. Planet Hunter is her first book.