Alyson Foster’s brush with space tourism came and went by way of entry form. In the early aughts, she entered a magazine contest to win a free trip on a Russian shuttle. “That was the coolest thing. I don’t know about the possibly sketchy company in Russia, and I didn’t win, and my mom was really glad about that, but I’ve always thought that would be such a great, amazing thing to do,” she says.
God Is an Astronaut, Foster’s debut novel, orbits the life of Jessica Frobisher, a botany professor at the University of Michigan, who gets to see the scenes of her creator’s dreams. Jess is married to Liam, an executive at American space tourism company Spaceco, when cataclysm hits: “Spaceco’s 6:30 p.m. shuttle launch had exploded twelve seconds after liftoff. The two crew members and four passengers inside the Titan had been killed instantly,” Foster writes. For PR purposes, the face-saving aftermath includes allowing a wacky Werner Herzog-like documentarian into their home and, finally, sending Jess into space as evidence of a second shuttle’s safety.
The story is told entirely through emails from Jess to Arthur Danielson, a colleague and former lover who’s away on research in Manitoba. Though there’s ample suggestion that Arthur’s departure is at least in part to escape their affair, Jess writes to him with intimacy, including inside jokes and the minutiae that might delight: “The CNN crew had some sort of miniature grill out, and they were barbecuing what appeared to be breakfast sausages,” Foster writes. Later, in freighted metaphor, “Organisms find a way to the light, or they learn to produce their own light, or they teach themselves to survive without it”—says one brokenhearted biologist to another.
Foster only briefly considered including Arthur’s responses. “For me, was it was really Jess’ story—not to mention the book would have had to have been twice as long,” she jokes. However, sticking with one side of a correspondence was not without its difficulties. “You have to walk this very fine line, because you want to convey the sense that these two people are talking to each other, so they have this whole private code, various things that they don’t explain, but you [the author] have to leave little crumbs, enough to retain the artifice of reading someone else’s letters,” she says.
By day, Foster works at the National Geographic Library in Washington, D.C., which occasionally involves archival research, including perusing the personal correspondence of notables. “Reading people’s letters or their private communications has always fascinated me. It’s like eavesdropping, listening into a conversation. There’s just something about it—I guess it’s the voyeurism—that I love,” she says.
Of course, the ability of an epistolary exchange to unite the minds of its correspondents simultaneously highlights their physical distance. The distance between Arthur and Jess waxes and wanes, but her loneliness is perpetually palpable.
Estrangement is a familiar theme for Foster. Her MFA thesis, a short story collection to be published by Bloomsbury in 2015, is peopled by characters who find it hard to form deep relationships.
“When you start out you’re just writing, you don’t think about themes, but I realized over time that this is something I keep coming back to: being isolated, the difficulty of connecting to people,” she says. “Often, the people in my stories tend to find that one person that they do connect to, and it changes their lives. In [God Is an Astronaut], it destabilizes a lot of things. It doesn’t exactly end Jess’ marriage, but I think her relationship with Arthur is a huge component. I don’t know what that says about me—all the lonely people, people who can’t connect.”Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.