Q & A

Random House speaks with author George Bishop Jr.

1. What was your inspiration for The Night of the Comet?

The seeds of the story were a peculiar set of images that got stuck in my head a couple of decades ago: a broken telescope leaning in a corner of a house, and man in an overcoat leaping off a roof. Sometime later, while living in Indonesia in 1996, I made a note in my journal that I thought Comet Kohoutek could make a good backdrop for a story. I didn’t put those ideas together until a few years ago, though, when Ballantine accepted my first novel, Letter To My Daughter. I wanted to bring some ideas for a second novel to my editor, and so I began researching Kohoutek. I found so much fascinating information on the comet that the real challenge, when it came time to sit down and write the novel, was in winnowing down all of the science and history to shape it into a compelling, intimate story.

2. Tell us something more about Comet Kohoutek. What attracted you to it as a topic for a novel?

I wouldn’t say that The Night of the Comet is really about the comet. Kohoutek serve more as a backdrop to the story of the Broussard family. But having said that, I love this comet for all the rich associations and symbolisms that come with it. Before it arrived, Comet Kohoutek was touted as “the comet of the century.” There was a tremendous build up in the media and in the public’s expectations for the comet: astronomers and scientists everywhere were talking and writing about it, there were songs written about it, there were commemorative coins issued for it. Religious fanatics and counterculture leaders like Timothy Leary proclaimed that the comet portended cataclysmic events for the Earth. It became sort of an overnight pop sensation, if you can say that about a comet. But then when it failed to live up to all the hype—and it really was a spectacular failure—it quickly became seen as the dud of the century. Even today, Kohoutek’s still thought of as the laughingstock of comets. Call me a sentimentalist, but I kind of pity the comet. I mean, who wouldn’t?
But I was also attracted to the time period surrounding Kohoutek. While writing the novel, I came to think of those years, the early seventies, as a transformational moment in America’s history. They were the country’s awkward adolescence, you could say, when it was transitioning from the boundless, youthful optimism of the post-war boom years to the more sober, complicated years that followed. This was paralleled by the gradual falling-off of the fascination with space exploration and a belief in science as the great hope for the future—think of Disney’s Tomorrowland, for example. All of that was beginning to change during this time, and a decade later, the tragic Challenger Space Shuttle disaster pretty much marked an end to the era.

3. Like the fourteen-year-old narrator of Comet, you grew up in a small town in Louisiana. How did that experience inform your novel?

The town where I grew up, Jackson, Louisiana, is more pine country than bayou. The fictitious “Terrebonne” of the novel is farther south, deep inside Cajun country—a part of the state that was completely foreign to me as a kid. I still find that part of Louisiana exotic, which is one reason I set the story there.
But growing up in Jackson certainly gave me a feel for the small-town setting of the book. Like the fictional Terrebonne, Jackson had only a couple of gas stations, a handful of shops, two schools, and a water tower. For a boy, it provided a certain sense of containment and knowability; I mean, I could circumnavigate my whole world in a half hour on my bike. Those were the kind of things I borrowed for my novel.
Most of the other details of the story don’t line up with my background, however. My father wasn’t a school teacher, for instance, but a doctor. I have five siblings, not one. We didn’t grow up in a small house on the edge of a bayou. I never owned a telescope . . . And so on.

4. Speaking of telescopes, astronomy plays a big role in your novel. One of the protagonists, Alan Broussard, is an amateur astronomer, his son becomes something of a stargazer himself, and then of course there’s the arrival of Comet Kohoutek. Do you have a background in astronomy yourself?

I have an amateur’s appreciation for the stars. I didn’t know much about astronomy when I began writing the book, just the usual half-remembered facts from high school. So I enjoyed finally getting to know that part of our world a little better. After all, the sky’s half of everything we can see, and so it seems natural that we should have at least a passing familiarity with it. I read Carl Sagan, and Stephan Hawking, and books like The Amateur Astronomer’s Handbook. I kept a chart of the constellations on the wall above my desk, and I studied online historic star maps, trying to figure out constellations and moon phases for the year 1973. I read all about comets, too, of course, and found a couple of fun, sensationalistic books written about comets, one published in 1910 at the time of Halley’s return called Comet Lore, and another that came out during the build-up to Comet Kohoutek called, appropriately enough, Kohoutek!
I have to confess, though, that I’d still be hard pressed to identify more than a few constellations. And I still don’t own a telescope, although since writing the book I think I’d like to get one now.

5. The story is told through the eyes of Alan Broussard, Jr., a fourteen-year-old boy. Why did you choose to tell the story from his point of view? Were there any challenges in doing that?

One of my reasons for choosing the boy’s perspective is that my last novel, Letter to My Daughter, was told almost entirely from a teenage girl’s point of view and I kind of wanted to balance that book with this one. So I knew going into the book that I wanted to write a boy’s story, but I didn’t know what the point of view would be—whether it would be a first person narrator, or a close third person, or an omniscient third, or shifting narrators, or what. In fact, I waffled a long time between using the first person and third person for Junior, trying drafts of both for the early chapters. But eventually I settled on the first person, the fictitious “I,” because I felt it made the story more intimate and believable.
After that, though, it became quite a challenge to try to include other characters’ perspectives. For the sake of breadth and variety, I wanted the story to have more than just the fourteen-year-old narrator’s voice and thoughts, but how to do that if he’s the one telling the story? I hope that the solution that I found works; I believe it does, if only because I think readers are usually pretty willing to go along with whatever tricks and shortcuts an author pulls while he or she is leading them around through a story.
I also like the adolescent narrator’s point of view because I think his concerns and fears about change—the drama of his transition from boy to man—dovetail nicely with the comet’s trajectory. The comet, without getting too symbolic about it, heralds his arrival into adulthood.

6. Would you call The Night of the Comet a coming of age story, then?

In its overall shape, and by virtue of the fact that the narrator is a fourteen-year-old boy, then yes, I suppose it’s a coming of age story. But I shy away from that label, mostly because I dread coming of age stories myself, or at least what I believe we usually think of when we talk about coming of age stories. That is, a boy or a girl is confronted with some challenge, he or she overcomes it in some heroic fashion, and a valuable lesson about life is learned in the end. Honestly, I kind of hate morality tales like that; I think life is much more complicated—and much more interesting—than that kind of story.
Besides that, though, it always seemed a bit odd to me that “coming of age” in fiction somehow only applies to teenagers. In real life, I think we’re always coming of age: at fourteen, at eighteen, at twenty-one, at thirty, forty, fifty . . . it goes on and on. We never stop growing and changing.

7. The narrator is the fourteen-year-old Junior, but as you mentioned before, the novel also includes other characters’ perspectives: his sister (Megan), his father (Alan Broussard), his mother (Lydia Broussard). Whose story would you say it is, really?

I’d call it the family’s story. In fact, I was pleased to see that the category listing, or one of them, on Amazon.com calls The Night of the Comet a “family saga.” I like that description. I’d say there are four main story lines, one for each member of the family, plus the comet’s story line, plus whatever is going on with their neighbors, the Martellos. It was tricky, actually, weaving all those strands together and finding the right interplay among them, but I think that’s the real craft and pleasure of novel writing: arranging all the different parts to try to create a complex and satisfying story.