Eleanor Lerman, who lives in New York, is the author of numerous award-winning collections of poetry, short stories, and novels. She is a National Book Award finalist, the recipient of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship as well as a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2016, her novel, Radiomen, was awarded the John W. Campbell Prize for the Best Book of Science Fiction.
Tower Review: What inspired RADIOMEN?
Eleanor Lerman: Whitely Strieber said something once that I’ve never forgotten: when he wrote Communion and then subsequent books about his encounters with aliens, he said that people kept asking him why the aliens abducted people, why they seemed to be doing some kind of experiments on them, etc. His reply was that how could he, a human being, possibly understand the beliefs and motivations of other beings? They might have a completely different view of the universe, of living beings’ purpose and place in the universe. He thought it was almost arrogant of human beings to think that their understanding of the universe would be the starting point for any other being’s understanding in any other part of the cosmos. I thought that was a brilliant and profound idea–with one little spin of my own. I imagine that wherever there is life, there is probably some yearning for connection with a higher being and probably the same kind of confusion about who He/She/It is. That’s what began the story for me. But there’s one other thing: when I was a little girl, my uncle rigged a radio receiver that allowed us to hear the sound of one of the later Sputnik satellites. The Soviets wanted people to pick up the signal because they thought it would scare Americans, in particular, into thinking that the Soviets were way ahead of them in the space race. But when I heard Sputnik, I wasn’t scared–I think I fell in love with the idea of sounds traveling through space and being able to hear them on a radio. (When I was a teenager, living in New York, I remembered this feeling when I could pick up a rock and roll station at night from a distant city like Chicago.) Many years later, I came across an audio tape of Sputnik’s telemetry signal online, and when I heard it, it was like hearing the voice of an old friend.
Q: How important was tone to you, related to audiences outside the scifi community?
A: It is very important to me that Radiomen be accessible to both the scifi community and others who are more focused on reading “literary” novels. Most speculative fiction and scifi written by women tends to be dystopian in nature. I’m not really interested in speculating about the end of the world or apocalyptic times. For me, the question of whether or not we’re being visited by aliens and if so, why, is a framework for speculating about why actually lies beyond the human horizon. Questions about why we exist, what our lives mean, whether we are alone in the universe–big questions like that–are the kind of thing that you talk about with your friends when you’re young. But you sort of forget about them in the middle of your life when you’re caught up with work and raising kids and the everyday stuff of life. But as you get older, the questions return again when you start staring mortality in the face. Once that happened to me, as a writer, it seemed almost trivial to be writing about anything else, but I needed a big framework to deal with such outsized, almost metaphysical questions, and that’s how I moved towards scifi. But I was hoping that anyone who wonders about what we can’t see beyond the night sky and the stars would like Radiomen.
Q: Did you hear the audiobook, and if so, what did you think?
A: I have not heard the book yet but I was very impressed by how much effort Dawn Harvey put into making sure that her pronunciation of names and words was something I was comfortable with. I very much appreciated that and I can’t wait to listen, some late night, to a reading of the story.
Q: Will there be a sequel?
A: In a way. A new book called The Stargazer’s Embassy. New characters and, sadly, no dog–but alien beings are once again main characters, although this time what they are confused about is the nature of death. The Betty Hill star map–-her claim that when she and her husband Barney were abducted in 1961, the aliens showed her a map of the Zeta Reticuli star system and said that’s where they were from–plays a role in the story, as does a Hello Kitty phone app and a character based on Ted Serios (who was once famous for being able to take “mental pictures”–-meaning, to transfer images from his mind to the film in a camera).
Review of Radiomen here: