Author Interview: Margaret Bechard on Spacer and Rat

Spacer and Rat by Margaret Bechard (Roaring Brook 2005). Jack has lived his entire life at Freedom Station, a supply outpost run by the Company for those en route to the asteroid belt. His life is under control, and he has booked passage to finally meet relatives at the even more remote Liberty Station. Then he meets Kit, an “Earthie,” which by definition means trouble. Worse, she carries a contraband maintenance “bot” named Waldo that the Company is seeking to get its hands on. Should he turn them in or help them and complicate his life? Margaret Bechard has created a “world” that will feel familiar and yet fresh, with engaging and compelling characters. Ages 12-up. Recommendation by Greg Leitich Smith.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

My husband, Lee, is a computer engineer, and he loves gadgets. For his birthday about eight years ago, my kids and I gave him a handheld GPS. Of course we had to try it out, so the next Saturday Lee and I coerced our youngest son, Peter, into taking a hike with us. Peter was thirteen years old, and of course he ended up carrying the GPS. As we hiked, he gave us minute-by-minute reports on our location, our speed, our elevation, how many satellites were available; basically everything you want to know when you’re out communing with nature. Suddenly he stopped in the middle of the trail, and he turned to me, and he said, “You know who could really use a GPS, Mom?” Hm, I thought, not us…. But I said, “Who could really use a GPS?” “Pirates,” Peter said. “If pirates had a GPS, they wouldn’t need to waste time drawing those treasure maps. They could just put the coordinates in the GPS, and then they’d always know where their treasure was.”

Pirates with a GPS? It was an easy leap — for my brain anyway — to pirates in space. I spent the rest of the hike with space ships and laser guns and techno pirates buzzing in my head. And Spacer and Rat was conceived.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I keep a writing journal, very sporadically; I keep thinking that somehow writing about my writing is going to make me actually do more writing. I’m not sure this works. But according to my journal, in the winter of 1999 I was working on “this sci fi story.” Thinking a lot about pirates and space ships and space treasure. And not making much headway. Because, at the same time, I was getting flashes from this other kid — glimpses of scenes, whispers of dialogue, a few pages of 17-year old commentary — I was “channeling that teenaged boy with the baby.” After a couple of months of trying to shut him out of my office and my brain, I finally accepted that I was trying to work on the wrong story. So I put the sci fi story away, and I wrote Hanging On To Max (Roaring Brook, 2002)(excerpt) instead.

When I finish a book, my editor always says, “So. What are you going to work on next?” When I was able to put Sam’s story to rest, I remembered that I still had those characters off floating around somewhere in the Asteroid Belt. And I felt kind of bad. I’d abandoned them out there. They were probably running out of air by now. So I took out my old notes and the scraps I’d managed to write. And it took me another two years to figure out how to tell their story.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

My biggest challenge writing this book was that I thought it was going to be so easy. Oh, sigh. This was going to book that was just going to write itself. Why? Because Robert Louis Stevenson had already written it. Yes, I admit it. When I first started thinking about this book — when I first thought, “Pirates in space! Ooh!” — I immediately thought “Treasure Island! I’ll just take the plot of Treasure Island, and I’ll move it to outer space…. It will be perfect!”

I actually dug out our copy and reread the book. I made charts of the action. I made chapter by chapter plot outlines. Terrific, I thought. I’ll plug my characters and their world into this story and, hey, in two, maybe three months, I’ll be done.

Except that every time I got to about chapter eight, the story would just die on me. Every time I got to the point where my characters had to get on that space ship and go out there and look for that treasure…they wouldn’t go. They’d just sit around and talk. And talk. And talk. None of them wanted to do anything. And they certainly had no interest in doing what Stevenson’s characters had done. Treasure? They didn’t care about treasure. Why would they want to go looking for treasure?

I finally realized that Stevenson’s story was, well, his story. I finally realized that my characters had to have their own story based on who they really were, based on what they cared about, based on what they wanted and needed. It was, in many ways, a sad day. But I finally stopped whining and feeling sorry for myself. And I scrapped months of work and went back to the beginning….

At the same time, I was also realizing everything I didn’t know about the world I was building. I had done some research, but I realized I had only scratched the surface. I went back to the library and did more reading on space stations and robot design and rocket propulsion. At the same time, I had a lot of help from my husband and my three sons. Many of our dinners began with me saying, “Okay. If you were going to design a space ship, what would you use for fuel?” Or “Let’s talk about artificial intelligence. How would you define sentience?” Listening to them talk and debate and argue helped me organize my own thinking. And gave me new ideas for more research…. But as the world became clearer to me — and the rules that govern that world became clearer — I also started to understand my characters better.

How would you describe the current state of YA sciene fiction? What are the challenges specific to it? What are the encouraging signs?

I think the current state of YA science fiction is strong. The genre is getting more attention and more respect; I’ve heard several editors in the past few months say that they are looking for science fiction stories to add to their lists. The challenge of writing science fiction is to stay as true to science fact as we know it, to try to get the science part as right as possible, while getting the emotional life of the characters right as well. I also think it’s important to remember that science fiction doesn’t have to be depressing. YA science fiction often paints a very bleak picture of the future. I think science fiction can be hopeful. I think it can even be funny.

But what excites me about writing these stories in the opportunity it gives me to think about current ideas and issues from a different perspective. It lets me ask those important, intriguing questions — “who are we?” and “why are we?” and “how can we change?” — in new and interesting ways. While still telling an exciting and compelling story. Plus, I just love aliens and space ships and robots….

Cynsational Notes

Related bibliographies include young adult books and science fiction.