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Essay

The Krone Experiment: an ‘astro lit’ family saga

Adventures in publishing a lab lit thriller

Craig Wheeler 3 March 2013

www.lablit.com/article/764

Secret perils: detail from the cover

In a delicious epiphany, I realized that what I had deliberately set out to write, all those years ago, was ‘astro lit’, a sub-genre of lab lit

I got the idea for my novel The Krone Experiment while sitting with my feet on the rail of the balcony in the old library at the Harvard College Observatory, listening to a colloquium being presented on the floor below. I do not recall the topic of the colloquium; I don’t think it was related to my day-dreaming. That day, I wrote the first and last paragraphs. Over a decade passed before I had anything approaching a finished novel. Several more years went by before it was finally published, in 1986.

The overall spirit of The Krone Experiment is that of a spy thriller, because that is what I like to read. It also has an infusion of science, astrophysics, because that is what I know. From the beginning, however, I was consciously aware that I wanted to write a novel in a contemporary setting, not futuristic “science fiction.” As I have told anyone who would listen over the years, I wanted to show that scientists are human, with all the strengths and flaws that implies, and not just automatons who put on lab coats and go “do science.” I did not consciously realize that I was writing in a particular genre until I read the New York Times article about Jenny Rohn and her effort to bring focus to the genre of lab lit. In a delicious epiphany, I realized that what I had deliberately set out to write, all those years ago, was ‘astro lit’, a sub-genre of lab lit.

I worked on The Krone Experiment in my spare time as I pursued my day job, assistant professor, then associate professor, then full professor of astronomy. I wrote most of it on airplanes where I was free of distractions or in stolen time on the road, writing over breakfast before attending a meeting. I cannot write with the TV or music on; that destroys my concentration. I can, and did, write in restaurants where the background is a burbling “white noise.” In the right environment, I write about 1000 words per hour.

Over those years, I filled in the bits between the opening and closing paragraphs. It was a very non-linear process. There were major re-orderings of chapters and significant later additions. I first showed the manuscript to an agent in Boulder, Colorado, where I was on sabbatical in 1979. He pointed out I had no female characters. I changed Pat Danielson from a male to a female and found a whole rich new vein to tap in trying to flesh out that character. My mother, an inveterate reader of anything, cereal boxes if she had nothing else, suggested that I add vignettes at the beginning of each chapter to show how individuals were personally affected by the otherwise unknown disaster being revealed by the principal characters. Those vignettes were great fun to write and added a lot to the final tone of the book.

Once I had something I thought vaguely resembled a book, I begin the hapless process of sending it off to all the slush piles I could. This over-the-transom approach was fruitless. I finally made contact with Anne Dickson, a person I knew from the support group of McDonald Observatory and the Department of Astronomy at the University of Texas where I have spent most of my career. I knew Anne was a person of some wealth who owned a large ranch in West Texas, but found out that she also ran a publishing house, Pressworks, in Dallas where she lived. I worked up my nerve, driven by desperation, to ask Anne whether or not she might be interested in my book. She read it, and, to my surprise, she was.

Pressworks had published Joyce Carol Oates, and I pictured Anne running this sprawling Dallas publishing empire. As it turned out, Pressworks was Anne and a part-time secretary. Famous authors like Oates occasionally get irritated at the system and turn to small presses to put out some work. Pressworks had done that with Oates before Anne bought the business. Anne hired an editor to work with me. I benefitted greatly from the keen eye of Lucille Enix, though I adopted none of her specific suggestions. Lucille had a great eye for flaw, but was not able to write her own graceful prose. Anne also hired David Hartwell, a very well-known editor, to work with me for several days when I was on a two-week visit at Princeton. David came down from New York. That was when some major chapter rearranging occurred.

Perhaps the biggest, boldest thing Anne did for me was to hire a publicist. This was after The Hunt for Red October had come out from the Naval Institute Press. Tom Clancy was getting press, but he was not yet TOM CLANCY. Anne thought: Clancy was an unknown author who published with an obscure press and made a lot of money; you, Craig, are an unknown author, and Pressworks is an obscure press, so let’s make money, too. Anne contacted Clancy’s publicist at a book convention in New Orleans. That led to a contact with Clancy. At another book convention in Washington, D. C., Clancy actually came by the Pressworks booth to talk. I had not gone to that convention, cutting off my nose to spite my face, thinking Anne should have paid my way. Anne met Clancy; I never did. I did speak to him by phone one day, trying belatedly to set up a meeting, but by then he was TOM CLANCY, and demurred since he had an appointment to appear on the cover of Newsweek.

What we did get out of this was for Clancy to read the book and write a blurb. He called it a “uniquely intelligent novel.” That might be read several ways, but we had the quote with the ever-more-famous name. Anne contracted out the printing in Dallas. The cover design was done by a local outfit here in Austin. The back cover featured the Clancy quote and one from John Archibald Wheeler, the great physicist, no relation, who named black holes. The first and only print run was about, I think, 5000 copies. I think we sold something like 2000. Neither Anne nor I had the heart to remainder it, so I still have a lot of these, if anyone wants one. At this point, I think the publicist was the only one to make any money. She got hers up front.

The publicist then got us a deal with John Silbersack at New American Library for a paperback. That got me as close as I ever made it to the big leagues. I still recall the amazing kick in the head when I was rushing past the bookstore in American Airlines Terminal C in Dallas and there, on a shelf out front, was The Krone Experiment. My book! With my name on it! There is nothing quite like that experience.

The paperback was, for a brief interval, on the best seller list at the now defunct B. Dalton bookstores. There is an interesting backstory there. The buyer for B. Dalton was an aesthete young man who tended to favor old English literature. Management said that doesn’t sell. The buyer said, “you want schlock, I’ll stock schlock,” and promptly overloaded B. Dalton with The Krone Experiment. Once in the store, the Clancy blurb helped to sell books. All told, the paperback sold on the order of 20,000 copies and helped me to put my oldest son through MIT. Copies showed up in weird places. A friend found one in Egypt. You can still get them on Amazon for a penny if you pay a couple of dollars shipping. It gets decent reviews on Goodreads. There was also a Japanese translation, a story on its own.

Things then ground to a halt. Silbersack was prepared to offer a three-book deal, but did not like any of my proposals. Anne had supported me wonderfully, but essentially acted as my publisher and agent, and I never got a real, independent agent. I wrote a sequel that was more of a saga, as it needed to be, but that was widely refused by both publishers and agents as being different from the original. I’m sure I got a lot of good advice about abandoning the sequel and writing something else like the original, but I was swamped by the growing demands of my day job, including national service. I spent a lot of time on airplanes, but not a lot of it writing. There was, however, a film option, a screenplay written with my son, and a starring role in the film he subsequently made. Then there was the ebook revolution. I’ll save those two chapters of this saga for later essays.