An Interview with Andy Weir, Author of The Martian

Yesterday I reviewed Andy Weir’s debut novel, The Martian. Mr. Weir graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

Andy Weir; Photo (c) Andy Weir

Andy Weir; Photo (c) Andy Weir

When you were writing The Martian, how did writing and science go hand-in-hand? Did you stop to make calculations as the plot came along, or did you have the science planned out parallel to the plot? Or did you have another method altogether?

AW: I did a lot of stuff in advance. But as specific plot points came up I usually had to get much more detailed information. So there was pretty much constant research throughout the process. 

What kinds of books did you read while you were writing, if any? Survival stories? Sci-fi? Nonfiction about the space program?

AW: I actually didn’t read much at all during that period. I had a full time job during the day and I was sinking most of my spare time in to writing. I just didn’t have the time for other leisure activities.

What would be on your data stick if you were headed to Mars? For that matter, what’s on Watney’s?

AW: It’s funny, but I never defined what was on Watney’s data stick. Presumably not a lot of entertainment; probably botany papers and articles. As for me, I guess I’d want tons of TV shows and movies.

photo (74)You dedicated The Martian to your mom and dad; how did they support your scientific and creative inclinations when you were growing up?

AW: Dad and I would make model moon-bases and such when I was a kid. And his collection of classic sci-fi paperbacks is what got me interested in the genre. Mom always pushed me to take my shot at writing. It’s kind of backwards from the usual dynamic. I was usually the one saying I need to be cautious and have a stable career and Mom was encouraging me to take a chance.

What would wisecracking, ingenious (and sweet) Mark Watney give his mom for Mother’s Day before taking off on a mission to Mars?

AW: I hate to cop out, but if I were going to write that in to a book, I would engineer a sweet backstory for the present. Some childhood story that makes a mundane item the perfect gift for his Mom. Off the top of my head: When he was a little kid, he wanted an expensive toy. His mom got it for him and he immediately broke it and she was mad. He found it later in an old box. Knowing his mother is worried sick about him going on the mission, he repaired the toy (he’s good at that sort of thing). He gives it to her and asks her to hold on to it for him till he’s back. 

After the success of The Martian, what’s next on your writing horizon?

AW: I’m working on my next book. I’m keeping the details quiet at the moment because I haven’t pitched it to the publisher yet. I’d like them to hear about it from me first.

My thanks again to Mr. Weir for his time and his thoughtful answers.

My Mother and The Martian

Which book does one choose as a Mother’s Day gift when one’s mother (a) loves to read and (b) deserves the highest-quality reading material but (c) has very different bookish taste from oneself?

Herewith, Dear Readers, a case study.

My mom sometimes jokes that when she grows up she wants to be a fighter pilot or Ripley, the Sigourney Weaver character in Alien.  I hate to break it to her, but I think she’s grown up, because she is Ripley.

No, really. She’s a steely-eyed missile (wo)man who takes care of threats to her kids the way Ripley deals with the queen in Aliens. Sometimes there’s even salty language involved. She’s ferociously protective of people she loves, fiercely committed to helping those in need (pretty sure she’d want me to tell you here that you should give blood), she works harder than anyone you’ve ever met, and she’s accomplished in her chosen profession, brilliant, practical, and cool as a cucumber in stressful situations. Also funny. She gave me and my siblings the priceless gift of growing up with a mother who kicked ass and took names at a professional level. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

And I’m pretty sure she could drive a powered cargo loader if the opportunity presented itself.

Oh, and once she saved my life (and my brother’s) by jumping into a swimming pool (while she was pregnant) after we fell out of our inner-tubes. So, you know. That’s kind of a big deal. I think I still owe her a lanyard for that one.

In addition to her impressive personal attributes, my mom has great taste: She read us Laura Ingalls Wilder when we were kids (she’s still reading to my youngest sister, and had her three adult children and their spouses transfixed by her reading of By the Shores of Silver Lake recently), and Little Women, A Secret Garden, and Jane Eyre to me. She organized our grandparents and other relatives to record themselves reading chapters of Watership Down as a gift for my brother.

And it’s not just books: We were raised on Twister (so bad it’s good, and one of my favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman movies), All About Eve, Apollo 13, the Jane Eyre with Timothy Dalton & Zelah Clarke, and Star Trek: The Next Generation. She hates cartoons and she won’t watch kids’ movies. And yet: My mom took me — then 13 — to see Titanic three times in the theater (out of seven total times — she’s only human), and it was only the third time that she broke down and started whispering “glug glug” when it looked like Leonardo DiCaprio had had it. I laughed through my tears.

Not being terribly sentimental, Mom doesn’t have much use for Mother’s Day, but since her birthday is in the vicinity, and since I don’t live close enough to “clean something” (the only gift she ever asks for) I feel justified in sending her a present now and then on the family timeline (+ or – 18 months from the event). Naturally, this year I’m sending her a book.

As you might suspect, my mom isn’t lining up for the latest Nora Roberts novel. She’s a brilliant woman, but she doesn’t like Shakespeare, poetry in general, contemporary fiction (aka navel-gazing) or Virginia Woolf. And yet we’re genetically related . . .

She does like Jane Austen (mordant wit), Jane Eyre (independent heroine with strong convictions), and nonfiction about mountain climbing, Antarctic exploration, the history of medicine, and space. She thinks I should blog more about nonfiction, and she’s probably right.

In other words, finding a book for my mom is tricky, very tricky (just like book shopping for Ripley would be, I imagine). However, I’m going (boldly, of course) to throw caution to the winds and send my mom her very own copy of Andy Weir’s debut novel, The Martian*.photo (74)

Mark Watney is a wisecracking MacGyver-type who specializes in botany. He’s also stranded on Mars.

Alone after his crew accidentally leaves him behind during a hurried evacuation, Watney decides to try his damnedest not to be the first person to die on Mars. With grim determination, creative engineering skills, long-term strategizing and way too much 70s tv, he takes painstaking steps to save himself, recording them in detail in his mission log.

The Martian is fiction that reads like nonfiction, which is part of why I think my mom is going to dig this book. Mr. Weir conducted painstaking research for the novel; as he notes in an author Q&A, “All the facts about Mars are accurate, as well as the physics of space travel the story presents. I even calculated the various orbital paths involved in the story, which required me to write my own software to track constant-thrust trajectories.”

Yes, you read that right.

The novel is chock-full of Watney’s nitty-gritty calculations for survival, which heighten the realism and the tension of the work. The pacing is fast, but Watney notes the long stretches of days when not much happens except survival in the wilderness against daunting odds; there’s no tedious day-by-day, blow-by-blow replay, but neither are we to believe that Watney survives a new catastrophe daily. The novel also features tense Mission Control scenes; the only thing missing is Ed Harris in a white vest. (Maybe not for long — the movie rights have already been sold).

Thanks in no small part to Watney’s sense of humor, his plight evokes sympathy rather than sentimentality; The Martian is a good old man vs. the elements survival thriller. The emotional payoff is comparable to a viewing of Castaway or Apollo 13, to which The Martian is often compared, but with fewer scenes calibrated as tear-jerkers. You’ll also learn a hell of a lot about potatoes and atmospheric regulators, and have a pretty great time in the process.

In other words, it’s the perfect novel for the resourceful and resilient woman who happens to be my mom.

Book’s in the mail, Ripley.

UPDATE, Christmas 2014: Ripley loved the book. So did my grandma, my brother, three uncles, and one cousin. So far.

Tomorrow: An interview with Andy Weir, author ofThe Martian

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

P.S. Bonus points, Dear Readers, for those who know the literary connections in Alien and Aliens.

“Three days of spring winter and suddenly / birds everywhere.”

I had a lovely Mother’s Day — thank you for asking! My husband gave me the gift of extra sleep in the morning, which was glorious, and I woke up to homemade biscuits smothered in hollandaise. Couldn’t have been better.

I was looking, this week, for a poem about mothers, but I find that they tend to be, necessarily, incredibly specific, tied to the poet’s or speaker’s own mother or conception of motherhood. And, as I thought about it further, I realized how difficult it would be for me, personally, to write a poem even about one small aspect of my relationship with my own (amazing, kind, generous, hard-working, accomplished, intelligent, warm, self-sacrificing) mother.

So I gave up, and nosed around for a poem that would express a little of the happiness I’ve felt over the last few weeks when enjoying time with my son (it’s only my second Mother’s Day), and I came across Kathy Fagan’s “Letter from the Garden,” from her 2002 book The Charm.

Now, a disclaimer here: Professor Fagan teaches at my alma mater, and while I never had the privilege of taking one of her courses, several of my friends did, and I’ve met Professor Fagan once or twice, though there’s no way she’d remember me. Personal feelings and alumni pride aside, she’s a wonderful poet, and you should head over to your local bookseller and ask for one of her books.

“Letter from the Garden” has nothing to do with mothers and sons — it’s addressed to a lover — but what made me choose it this week is the poem’s attention to birds, filling the space of early spring, appearing “everywhere.” We’ve had that experience this year. I rather dislike birds (excepting only penguins, owls, and ducks) and their beady, gold-rimmed or black-pooling eyes and reptilian feet. Flying dinosaurs.

My son, however, loves them. He stares at them from the dining room windows. He chases every single one he sees, despite the fact that they always flee from him, and seeing ducks in a pond or robins at the cemetery is the highlight of many a weekend.

looking at the birds


Two weeks ago, we saw a wholly golden-yellow small bird (a finch?) alight on a tree next to us, and he turned to me and whispered, “Quiiiiii–et”; when it disappeared, he determined that it was sleeping, and that’s why it wouldn’t come back. I try now to see the birds through his eyes: the graceful hops and undignified racing for the trees when they see his little body bopping toward them, the sudden, knowing turn of the head.


Recommended Reading: Fludd, by Hilary Mantel

My husband, bless him, knows very well that the presents I like best are books. For my birthday the first year we were married, he picked out Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and for my first Mother’s Day, it was Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel. Forget brunch and overpriced flowers: I’m all about Cromwell and Anne Boleyn.  As a bonus, he gave me enough time away from my beloved son to devour the book in two sittings.

Since it appears I’ll be waiting a while for the third installment, my last birthday brought with it A Place of Greater Safety (very long, and to be embarked upon when my beloved son decides to sleep through the night and past 5:00a.m.) and Fludd. [And the new biography of Leonard Cohen, which I can’t wait to get to, and The Song of Achilles, so good I read it twice, and a few other gems.]

Fludd is a slim volume (under 200 pages), with a cover design I can’t quite get behind, but it’s a gem of a novel. Ms. Mantel regards her characters with an unsentimental but ever-interested eye, transforming, like her creation Fludd, the frustrated men and women of cold and grimy (and fictional) Fetherhoughton in subtle and not-so subtle ways. Ms. Mantel’s mordant but quiet wit suffuses the novel, which I highly recommend.