Zach Powers On Learning to Love Cats and Writing Fiction

An interview with the author of 'First Cosmic Velocity'

Zach Powers read a story about two brothers hearing something from space on their shortwave radio. The tale inspired Powers to write what became his debut novel, First Cosmic Velocity (paid link).

Published by Putnam, the novel revolves around the 1960s Soviet space program. From the book’s blurb:

Unbeknownst even to Premier Khrushchev himself, the Soviet space program is a sham. Well, half a sham. While the program has successfully launched five capsules into space, the Chief Designer and his team have never successfully brought one back to earth. To disguise this, they've used twins. But in a nation built on secrets and propaganda, the biggest lie of all is about to unravel.

Because there are no more twins left.

If you enjoy conspiracy theories, historical fiction, space, or a good yarn, First Cosmic Velocity might be for you. Publishers Weekly said about the novel, “Powers’s deadpan depiction of the ruse that drives his tale and the historical figures duped by it will give readers pause to wonder if it really is that improbable.”

Zach Powers is also the author of the story collection, Gravity Changes. It won the BOA Short Fiction. In addition to writing, Powers is the director of communications at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Md. And he teaches writing at Northern Virginia Community College.

In the interview below, Powers talks about learning to love cats, researching First Cosmic Velocity, and liking weird fiction. You can learn more about Powers on his website. You can support him by getting your copy of First Cosmic Velocity (paid link). And by sharing this interview with someone you know, or on social media. Thank you!

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Interview with Zach Powers

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? You’re originally from Savannah, correct?

Yes, I’m a native of Savannah, Georgia. (I lived the first two years of my life on Tybee Island, so technically I’m an islander if you want to get specific). And growing up, I lived for nine years in Metro Atlanta, in a lovely swath of suburbs.

I didn’t actually turn to writing until my early twenties. Before that, for all of high school and college, I considered myself a musician. Then, by the end of college, I considered myself a not-quite-good-enough musician. So, I entered adulthood adrift and gradually moved toward writing for reasons that I can no longer clearly recall.

I live with two cats, who technically belong to my partner, but both of them prefer me, often to my consternation. And especially to my partner’s consternation. I was raised to believe cats are evil, so it took years for me to be more accepting of these strange little animals. I remain a dog person at heart. I take a daily walk and pass by one house in the hopes that their super poofy Samoyed dog will be in the yard.

I read that your idea for the plotline in First Cosmic Velocity was based on a conspiracy theory put forth by an amateur radio operator. What’s the story there?

I would say it was inspired by the conspiracy more than based on it. The old story goes like this: a couple of Italian brothers had a shortwave radio, and they claimed to pick up a broadcast of a cosmonaut stuck in orbit. Basically, they were listening to his dying utterances every time he passed overhead.

There’s no truth to any of that. The story seems less absurd, though, when you learn the Soviets were so secretive about the space program and wouldn’t announce anything until after it had happened. And they did, in fact, cover up accidents and the like for decades.

So, I was inspired not by what actually happened, or was claimed to have happened, but by the idea that the secrecy surrounding the Soviet space program allowed these myths to feel real. The secrecy made even absurd claims plausible, so I made my own absurd conspiracy and ran with it.

What about the Soviet’s space program captured your attention?

I hit on this a little bit in my last answer. But beyond the secrecy, I’ve always been interested in space exploration and the possibilities of discovery within science. My older brother is an aerospace engineer, so I osmosed a lot of that growing up.

I’m doing a re-watch of Star Trek: The Next Generation right now, so the big dreams of science fiction have always been dear to me, too. Do I dream quite as easily as I used to? No. But I believe there’s value in the stories and in the science and in trying to make impossible things possible.

What kind of, and how much research did you do for First Cosmic Velocity?

I researched for about six months before I started writing. I started with history books and supplemented that along the way with Google. I didn’t really have a plan or a method for research. Also, my version of the Soviet space program is made up, so I was mainly looking for compelling details, not historical accuracy. I don’t know how anybody writes historical fiction (much less history itself!).

So, I kept researching and then one morning sat down and didn’t feel like researching anymore. That’s when I started writing. Of course, there was additional research along the way. And I took advantage of my brother’s knowledge. Sometimes I’d just text him when I didn’t feel like figuring out some technical detail on my own.

I guess my advice is to only write about subjects in which your family members are experts?

You said in another interview that when writing a novel you find yourself “branching away from the initial idea, trying to discover what it means for more characters and in more settings.” How did that play-out while writing First Cosmic Velocity?

I don’t really know who my characters are when I start. I like to feel as if I’m a reader even as I write, discovering things about characters as they appear on the page. Of course, in revision, I claim more control. I learn along the way who characters are, so some of their earlier actions won’t ring true anymore.

This happens even more with non-point of view characters. Characters like Nadya and Ignatius quickly grew beyond my initial designs. And that’s what I want. I know a character design is good when it outgrows itself.

I want a character who can surprise me, who can be kind when I don’t expect them to be kind, who can care about things in a way I don’t necessarily care about those things. I want a novel to be a plurality of thoughts, some of which I know I couldn’t have experienced except through the act of writing fiction, of trying to inhabit a different sort of mind.

Who are some of your favorite writers, past or present?

Presented in the form of an incomplete list: Karen Russell, Aimee Bender, Italo Calvino, Roxane Gay, Haruki Murakami, Manuel Gonzales, Amelia Gray, Colson Whitehead.

And there are a bunch of new writers who, based on their debuts, I expect to add to this list. Read new books, everybody! There’s so much amazing work coming out literally every week.

What are some of the best books you’ve read lately?

I had a really good reading stretch in May! Godshot by Chelsea Bieker is an absolute masterclass on scenic writing. How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang has some of the most interesting prose I’ve encountered in a while. It’s just lovely.

Lastly, anything else you'd like Bidwell Hollow followers to know about you or your work?

My short fiction is a billion times weirder than my novel! There are hints of that weirdness in everything I write, but the fun of short stories is that the length allows me to go all out for a premise, and it’s ok if I can only sustain that for three pages. Because three pages is all you need.

I love weird fiction, reading it, writing it, thinking about it. I’ll always be fascinated with the ways a story can defy reality, but in defying it, a story almost always reveals something about reality at the same time.


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