Ms. Koppel is the author of The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story (Grand Central Publishing, $17.00) and will celebrate the book’s paperback release with two Connecticut appearances—R.J. Julia Booksellers on Wednesday, June 4th, and the Fairfield University Bookstore on Thursday, June 5th. (See event details below.) Her previous title, The Red Leather Diary, was a bestseller; she has also written for The New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, Huffington Post and Glamour. Ms. Koppel makes her home in New York City.
The Astronaut Wives Club is out in paperback today and serves as the source material for an upcoming major television series for ABC. Upon its initial release, Publishers Weekly praised, “In this entertaining and quirky throwback, journalist Koppel … revisits the ladies who cheered and bolstered their men to victory in the U.S. space program from the late ’50s through early 1970s, revealing public triumph and rarely private agony … This is truly a great snapshot of the times.” Further, Library Journal noted, “The author's aim was to uncover the real lives behind the "perfect" astronaut wives, and she hits the mark, crafting an exceptional story that seriously examines the imperfection and humanity of America's heroic astronauts, their wives, and their families. This work will hold vast appeal for armchair historians, and those interested in feminism, women's history, and 20th-century history.”
From the publisher:
As America's Mercury Seven astronauts were launched on death-defying missions, television cameras focused on the brave smiles of their young wives. Overnight, these women were transformed from military spouses into American royalty. They had tea with Jackie Kennedy, appeared on the cover of Life magazine, and quickly grew into fashion icons.
Annie Glenn, with her picture-perfect marriage, was the envy of the other wives; platinum-blonde Rene Carpenter was proclaimed JFK's favorite; and licensed pilot Trudy Cooper arrived on base with a secret. Together with the other wives they formed the Astronaut Wives Club, meeting regularly to provide support and friendship. Many became next-door neighbors and helped to raise each other's children by day, while going to glam parties at night as the country raced to land a man on the Moon.
Now, Lily Koppel initiates readers to The Astronauts Wives Club …
1) What inspired you to write THE ASTRONAUTS WIVES CLUB – and how do you feel that it represents a progression from your journalistic roots?
I saw an incredible Life magazine photo of the wives in their skyrocketing beehives, outfitted in their swirling candy- colored Pucci minidresses. I’ve always loved The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 and Mad Men, but I never knew how much I wanted to know more about these women until I saw that picture. I now know that what drew me to those movies and the books was an interest in the women. When I learned that they actually have a club—and that they raised their families in the Houston “space burbs” near NASA’s operations, in a community known as “Togethersville”—the whole thing was just amazing! I knew I had to write the book and tell their story: the emotional side of the space race.
2) The book has been described by many as a perfect “beach” or “summer” read. How do you endeavor to bring history alive for readers – and what is the key to achieving a balance between fact and entertainment?
Although it is serious history, I always wanted it to read like a page-turner. I hope readers will get into the spirit (with me) of what it meant in a very real, womanly way, to send your husband a quarter of a million miles away—to the Moon (and back)! I was looking for little stories of empowerment among the wives. For moments of rebellion. Hey, maybe the man in the moon is really a woman…I focused on the wives who had the most interesting, dramatic, and, at times, difficult experiences. I let their stories, missions, and personalities guide me in an organic way, focusing on the moments that jumped out at me, like when the Mercury wives were introduced to America like the country’s first reality stars, and how this very different group of women bonded and came together. Also, my favorite mission turned out to be Apollo 8, the first flight to the Moon on Christmas 1968, given a fifty-fifty shot (Genesis was read during it), because it showed how two women dealt, in very different ways, with the pressures of having their men go to the Moon. Mission wife Susan Borman truly believed her husband would die orbiting the Moon; while Marilyn, married to Jim (“Houston, we have a problem”) Lovell, who later became famous for commanding Apollo 13, kept the faith.
3) Why do you believe that these women achieved prominence in the 1960s – and how do you view their story as being relevant to today’s society?
Well, there is definitely a different way of living from the 1950s and 1960s to the 2000s. As the wives told me, they were stay-at-home moms first and foremost. They had tea with Jackie Kennedy and appeared on the cover of Life magazine, but they did womanly, wifely things. Revisiting those times was very comforting to me. Just how they would pick up a pink or white rotary phone and call a friend to come over for a cup of coffee and a cigarette, or a cocktail, if they were feeling alone or needed to talk. They walked (and ran) to friends’ homes across lawns. One astronaut kid told me nostalgically how his mother used to lock him and his siblings out of the house and tell them to go play with their friends and be home in time for supper. It was a more innocent time. It was a time when people got to live in the moment without yoga, Twitter, Facebook, and all the rest. It was also a magical time when human ingenuity meant everything and America accomplished amazing things. I think today is wonderful, but we need to incorporate some of yester- day’s examples into how we live (of course, I am a sucker for ’60s fashion, too, not to mention the music).
4) The book is being adapted into a major television series. What is your role in this process – and how do you see this project as enhancing its source material?
The book was almost inspired by the feel of the Mad Men series. There's nothing as cinematic as going into space. But this is the story turned inside out - a reaction to all the male-centric space stories that have been told on the big screen. This is a world of pool parties and splashdown parties, full ashtrays and martinis. Stephanie Savage (the producer and writer of Gossip Girl, on the CW) will write the script and I will consult to make sure the series is as true to the spirit of the book and the wives’ experiences as possible. The TV show will bring the story to a younger audience, and I think that’s what this story needs. I think it’s really exciting they’re taking the time to go down to Houston and film.
5) Tell us: What do you believe to be the role of the bookstore within the community – and how do you feel that author appearances help to solidify the relationship between writer, reader, and bookseller?
I love books and bookstores. As a guy named Thoreau once said, “Books are the carriers of civilization.” Books save lives, so people ought to #SaveBooks. Recently there has been a lot in the media about Amazon eclipsing indie bookstores, and people should take an active interest in how they can promote the longevity of books. We seem to care so much about entertainment in our culture, i.e. movies and TV, and don’t realize most of the great ideas come from books. Even going to the Moon was inspired in part by Jules Verne’s 1865 book From the Earth to the Moon, which many of the rocket scientists, the astronauts and their wives read in the lead-up to landing a man on the Moon. The 45th anniversary of the moon landing on July 20, 1969 is this summer. Celebrate it by picking up a copy of The Astronaut Wives Club and take a journey into outer space just by curling up with a book at home or by the pool. The power of human ingenuity. Magic, right?
With thanks to Lily Koppel for her generosity of time and thought and to Julie Paulauski, Publicity/Grand Central Publishing, for facilitating this interview.
The following are Ms. Koppel’s upcoming local appearances:
Wednesday, June 4th – R.J. Julia Booksellers, 7 PM – This event is free and open to the public. Reservations are required, and can be made online or by calling the store at 203-245-3959. R.J. Julia is located at 768 Boston Post Rd. in Madison.
Thursday, June 5th – Fairfield University Bookstore, 7 PM – This event is free and open to the public; reservations are not required. The bookstore is located 1499 Post Rd.