Wendy Mass is the NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author of THE CANDYMAKERS, the ALA Schneider Family Award winner A MANGO-SHAPED SPACE, LEAP DAY, JEREMY FINK AND THE MEANING OF LIFE, HEAVEN LOOKS A LOT LIKE THE MALL, and EVERY SOUL A STAR. Her most recent novel, PI IN THE SKY, was released earlier this week. Wendy lives in New Jersey with her husband and their twins. Her website is www.wendymass.com. The protagonist of PI IN THE SKY, Joss, exists in dark matter and joins Annika in trying to put Earth back in the space/time continuum. This instantly gets into some complicated astrophysics. What was your scientific background before this novel and how much research was required?
Some people idolize movie stars or rock stars. I idolize scientists. I hang on their every word. Ever since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated by how things work, and why things are the way they are. This interest extends from the earth and how it can sustain life, all the way to wanting to know what’s going on at the far reaches of the ever-expanding universe.
Besides one honors chemistry class in high school (where I mostly copied the answers from my lab partner…shh), and an astronomy class in college where I only got an “A” because the teacher graded on a curve, I haven’t had any formal education in the sciences. But I can research the heck out of a topic, and that’s what I did for PI IN THE SKY. I wanted to know everything, from soup to nuts. I started by re-reading A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING by the amazing Bill Bryson, which I had read while researching JEREMY FINK AND THE MEANING OF LIFE. I then gobbled up pretty much any book in my local library system that presented the fields of physics, astrophysics, astronomy, chemistry, and biology in a way that my liberal-arts brain could understand. I watched documentaries, I attended lectures, I contacted scientists online and asked them questions. Eventually I felt qualified enough to build a fictional story around real scientific knowledge. Humor abounds in PI IN THE SKY, but you’ve also included quotes from scientific heavyweights like Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan. How did you manage to have so much fun while making space for these major figures (pun intended)?
After I’d done the bulk of the research, I pulled out about 25 quotes from various scientists that truly fascinated me. I put them all on Post-It notes, and then kept rearranging them on my bedroom floor, hoping they would help me organize a plotline. My husband came in at one point and said, “Oh, so you’re planning on putting those quotes at the start of each chapter. Cool.” And I looked down and realized that of course these quotes had to go into the book. I think it gives the book a real structure, and explains these scientific concepts in a way I never could. Thanks, hubby!
As for the humor, I think the wackiness of the story itself sets the stage for it automatically. And scientists—at least the ones who have become public figures—are generally a wacky, funny bunch, so it was easy to feed off of their energy. Many reviewers noted that they were first introduced to the sensory condition of “synesthesia” in your award-winning novel, A MANGO-SHAPED SPACE, which recently celebrated 10 years in publication. What fresh facts about the universe might a reader discover in PI IN THE SKY?
I know how much I learned while writing [PI IN THE SKY] (a ton), and if the reader comes away with even a fraction of that, I’ll be thrilled. My hope is that it leads them to explore aspects of the story later on, like synesthesia did in MANGO. There are so many concepts in this book—dark matter, wormholes, evolution of planets, stars, galaxies, life on other planets—to name just a few, so it depends on what strikes that particular reader. You’ve said that you find a topic (i.e., space, synesthesia, candy) that interests you and then build the story around it. What are some of the benefits of starting with a topic rather than a character or plot?
Starting with a topic allows me to play around until I find the best type of character and plot to really breathe life into the topic. I have to make sure the topic doesn’t overshadow the character, though, since it has to become the character’s story that the reader cares about. I spend a lot of time outlining the character first, before plotting out the book, to make sure they feel real. Doing it in this order makes it easier for me to put it all together. When asked why you write middle-grade novels, you said that “everyone has a voice in his or her head that stops at a certain age. With me that age is around twelve or thirteen.” How did you discover this?
Basically whenever I’ve tried to write stories for “grown ups,” the character still sounds 13 even when they’re 30. The trials and tribulations of adults don’t interest me in the same way. I guess because I’m stuck living them!
Plus, deep down, I think adults still feel like teenagers inside, like we’re trapped inside this adult life and have to pretend we know what it means to be a grown up.
Or maybe that’s just me!
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