Out of the Office (and the Country, and the Continent)

I’m outta here!

I am finally – FINALLY! – off to my spiritual home of the States for a crazy trip involving three cities, two coasts, a wizard, a prison, a battleship, five flights in ten days, ill-controlled spending sprees in American Eagle, Kate’s Paperie and Barnes and Noble, and the purchasing of as many packets of Oreo Cakesters as I can carry.

I’m replaying some old posts while I’m away; just ignore them if you’ve read them already. And if you see any tweets from me with links to my own blog posts in them, rest assured those babies were scheduled.

If I happen to wonder into a Wi-Fi hotspot I may tweet some jealous-making photos, but otherwise I’ll do it when I get back.

In the meantime, don’t miss me too much.

Catherine x

P.S. Just a quick reminder that if you’re in Dublin on October 14th, I’m doing this.

NaNoWriMo: A Word Count Adventure

November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for… um, short. The aim of the game is to devote one month of your year to getting down 50,000 words, no matter what. It usually involves lots of coffee, pressing the pause button on your social life and typing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” 523 times to get you past the finish line, but it can be done. There are no prizes – other than 50,000 words of a first draft and a smug, self-satisfied feeling – but it’s worthwhile: some published novels, including Sara Gruen’s bestselling Water for Elephants, started life as a NaNoWriMo work.

It also gives you an excuse to disappear upstairs for hours on end, or to drive your car to an isolated (but safe!) spot and sit in the passenger seat with your laptop balanced on your knees. (As John Walsh, author of The Ship of Rome, did.) And most importantly, it’s fun. Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of other people are doing it too, and you can stick fancy badges on your blog to advertise your solidarity.

I signed up once before, in November 2007, but only got as far as putting a badge on my Facebook page and reading NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty’s book, No Plot? No Problem: A High Velocity, Low-Stress Way to Write a Novel in 30 Days. But things are different now: I’m at home all day and I have a second novel to finish. Fifty thousand words would pretty much get me to the end of the first draft. My plan is spend all November writing furiously, and then December and January trying to turn it into something that isn’t completely crap.

Some writerly types don’t like NaNoWriMo because, they argue, they write every day of the year. (Well, how nice for you. And to steal and slightly alter a line from Friends as I am prone to do, is your wallet also too small for your fifties and your diamond shoes too tight?) NaNoWriMo isn’t about getting people to write as much as it is about getting people to write freely. Instead of tinkering away at the Work in Progress at a rate of a few hundred words a day or even a week, open your laptop and go for it.

Forget about editing, forget about scene lists, forget about how long your main character’s been pregnant for, and just write.

Write, write, write, sleep and write, and don’t stop until you have a word count of 50,000 to show for it.

Who’s with me?

You can find out everything you need to know – and register as a participant – on NaNoWriMo’s official site.

UPDATE: Forgot to say that I’m registered on NaNoWriMo.org as cathryanhoward if you’d like to ‘buddy’ me. Or don’t. You know. Whatever.

Me, Talking About E-books: Irish PEN, Dublin October 14th

Something a bit weird has happened: I’ve been asked to give a talk to people.

Like, in public. About e-books.

The invite came from the Irish PEN society, and the talk is The Changing Face of Publishing: How Digital Publishing Can Work for You. It’s in Dublin on Thursday 14th October at 8pm.  (Hopefully between now and then they won’t find out that the last time I spoke in public was in a debating class circa 1998…)

The good news is that I’m not the only one speaking and the other two actually know what they’re talking about: Eoin Purcell of Irish Publishing News and Gareth Cuddy of Directebooks.com. Being digital publishing experts, they’ll be talking about what this e-book revolution is all about, and how it changes the role of publishers, booksellers and writers. I’ll be talking about e-books from a personal perspective, i.e. how you as a writer working on your own can use this e-book bonanza (LOVE that word) to your advantage.

Tickets are €5 (€3 to members) and they must be booked in advance. I’d love it if you – you and ANYONE you know who might even be remotely interested – could come along.

My Twitter friend and fellow Inkwell Writer Maria Duffy has volunteered/been coerced into organizing a bit of an Irish Twitter Writers outing to the same event, followed immediately by a bit of an Irish Twitter Writers drinks thing in the onsite bar – or wherever the nearest place is that’s open and serves alcohol. (This is also super nice of her considering she has the launch of her own book only the night before!) You can RSVP to her @mduffywriter on Twitter, if you like, or just show up and surprise us.

The details and stuff:

The Changing Face of Publishing: How Digital Publishing Can Work for You

Thursday 14 October 2010, the United Arts Club, 3 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin 2 at 8pm
Just as the music industry has been transformed by on-line and electronic media, so too no writer should ignore the fast-changing market of electronic books and selling and promoting books online. Attend this session to be ahead of the curve!
Booking essential: E-mail info@irishpen.com or phone Irish PEN: 087 966 0770
Costs: €3 members or €5 non-members
Speakers: Author Catherine Ryan Howard, Gareth Cuddy of DirecteBooks, Eoin Purcell of Irish Publishing News
Catherine Ryan Howard is a writer and blogger from Cork who in March 2010 self-published her travel memoir, Mousetrapped: A Year and A Bit in Orlando, Florida. Almost as an afterthought, Catherine released e-book versions on Amazon’s Kindle store and Apple’s iBooks and was amazed at how easily, cheaply and quickly authors could upload their content and start to sell their work. Hundreds of ebooks later, she wants to spread the word. Her popular blog, Catherine Caffeinated, chronicles the highs and lows of her self-publishing experience.
Gareth Cuddy is MD of DirecteBooks, Ireland’s only eBook store. Also publishing in eBook format, DirecteBooks can sell your book in 42 different online book stores including Amazon and Barnes and Noble. www.directebooks.com
Eoin Purcell is ex-commissioning editor at Mercier and a publishing industry analyst. An expert on ePublishing, he runs Green Lamp Media. www.greenlampmedia.com

What I Thought Of… HOW I BECAME A FAMOUS NOVELIST by Steve Hely

Oh, how I do love me a bit of satire, and how I love it even more when the target is a part of the world I’m somewhat acquainted with. Therefore I was, admittedly, pre-disposed to liking How I Became a Famous Novelist, a brutal but hilarious send-up of the publishing industry in which no one emerges unscathed. This is Steve Hely’s debut novel but he has a long list of stellar TV writing credits, including The Late Show with David Letterman, the animated comedy American Dad and what might be my favorite show on TV at the moment, 30 Rock. He’s currently writing for the US version of The Office.

And I think I might love him.

His book, I mean. I think I might love his book…

How I Became a Famous Novelist is the story/downward spiral of Pete Tarslaw, a directionless twenty-something who lives in jeans because they double as a napkin, drinks soda for breakfast while standing in the shower and calls his lunchtime dash across a four-lane highway “the most invigorating part of the day.” He works for a company called EssayAides, re-writing college application essays for foreign students and thus practicing questionable ethics on a daily basis. This bland and bleary-eyed existence suits him just fine, until he gets word that the only good thing that ever happened to him – his ex-girlfriend Polly – is getting married, and he begins to think about having to attend the wedding as a Grade A Loser. What can he possibly do to turn things around, so dramatically and in such a short space of time?

The answer comes from the literary darling du jour, Preston Brooks, who reportedly scored a “high six figures” for the rights to his novel, Kindness to Birds; Pete will simply become the bestest selling bestselling novelist of all time. His decision is cemented by a TV interview with Brooks, filmed at the author’s gabled West Virginian mansion. Brooks is the epitome of literary pretension: he claims he discovered literature in an alleyway the morning after a drinking binge, when a discarded copy of Of Mice and Men showed him “there was stronger stuff than whiskey”, he only writes on a typewriter (“If it was good enough for Faulkner…”) and says of his office, “I call this the dance hall. Because characters will appear, and introduce themselves and ask me to dance. The character always leads. I bow, accept, dance for a while.” Brooks also has the requisite position at a university, where he teaches Creative Writing to a bunch of attractive twenty-year-old women who hang greedily on his every word.

Pete promptly concludes that Brooks is not a literary genius but a complete con artist, and that he can become one too. And he can do it in time for the wedding.

After an in-depth study of the competition (key to success: include at least one murder), one writing class and a few false starts (“Did you just start writing sentences? That seemed a bit rash.”) Pete finally bangs out 331 pages of “greeting card level crap” with the help of whiskey, coffee and an experimental drug used to treat hyperactivity that he cons off his med student roommate. The Tornado Ashes Club is a, ahem, literary novel about a murder at a Las Vegas hotel, a mysterious mission to bring a soul to the afterlife, a quest along America’s highways and World War II. Oh – and chasing tornadoes. Obviously.

Next step: get The Tornado Ashes Club published. Pete sends the manuscript to his college friend Lucy, now an assistant editor at a New York publishing house who tells him that no one in publishing can even tell the difference between good and bad anymore, and confides that she cries herself to sleep at night because the books that move her don’t get published while “the ones that don’t make sense and have adverbs” sell ten million copies and get turned into movies. “Do you realize how many manuscripts we get?” she asks Pete. “Thousands! Tens of thousands! Just stacks and stacks! Some people don’t have desk, they just have stacks. And there are people whose whole job it is to throw them in the garbage. Huge bins! They use shovels! But the manuscripts never stop coming in…” And yet despite this, Ortolan Press is desperate for new talent; Lucy’s boss has sent her to MySpace in search of it, and makes her trawl through blogs. “If I hear the word blog one more time,” she says, “I’m gonna put my neck on the subway tracks.”

In fact, so desperate are Ortolan Press that they agree to publish The Tornado Ashes Club, but Pete soon discovers that getting a book deal isn’t even half the battle. Between him and his wild writer dreams (which include, somewhat bizarrely, snorting cocaine off a manuscript with Zadie Smith, and making a cameo in the film version of his book as “a French resistance fighter or a tornado expert”) are still the hurdles of disastrous Amazon sales ranks, getting bumped from a San Diego BooXpo and terrible book reviews. (The San Francisco Chronicle calls Ashes Club “a road trip that makes you wish you’d taken the plane.”)

Still, all is not lost. After some product placement in the Christian market and a spot on Law and Order: Criminal Intent – in one scene a child molester is reading Pete’s book as he awaits his sentence – things start to look up for The Tornado Ashes Club, and with it, Pete’s appearance at Polly’s wedding…

And that’s when the fun really begins.

A large part of the fun of How I Became a Famous Novelist is the fact that it’s filled with thinly veiled digs at some of the biggest names in publishing today – very thinly veiled, in some cases. Pamela McLaughlin, for instance, is the author of a series of bestselling crime novels featuring the feisty detective Trang Martinez; a tie-in cookbook and a range of wine coolers has helped pay for McLaughlin’s private island and helicopter. This is despite the fact that her books, as Pete points out, “can by read and forgotten in the time it takes for ordered Chinese food to arrive.” Then there’s Tim Drew, a “content producer” who farms out most of his books to Creative Writing grad students, a shining example of the “new model of literary capitalism” and according to a profile in the Boston Globe, last year’s 44th largest economy. His latest title is The Darwin Enigma, a thriller involving a devious secret society, a band of shadowy monks, Charles Darwin, Jesus and Buddha. Phew.

One of the pages that gave me the most giggles is a fake New York Times bestseller list that Pete studied prior to writing his book that gives us – and him – a brief glimpse of his competition. Do any of these remind you of anyone?

  • The Balthazar Tablet by Tim Drew: The murder of a cardinal leads a Yale professor and an underwear model to the Middle East, where they uncover clues to a conspiracy kept hidden by the Shriners.
  • Expense the Burberry by Eve Smoot: A young woman in Manhattan spends her days testing luxury goods and her nights partying and complaining.
  • Indict to Unnerve by Vic Chaster: A prosecutor is the target of an investigation spawned by the daughter of an international assassin he paralyzed in a golf accident.
  • Cap’N Jay and Us by Matt McKenna: A newspaper columnist and his daughter learn lessons from a mischievous squirrel.
  • Abandon the Creamsickles by William Su-choi: Humorous essays on family and childhood by the author of Which Dog Means I’m Fired?

This book was published in 2009 but in light of the recent epidemic of Franzen Fever, it felt even funnier this past weekend when I read it for a second time. Even the blurbs on the “Praise for…” page are chuckle-inducing, and reminiscent of the rash of reviewers clamoring over each other to find new and hyperbolic ways to describe Freedom. One of them – by “Susanne Friedegger, author of Myopia Dystopia” – claims that, “You wish to do more with this book than just read it. You must eat it, consume it, make it a part of your physical form, as it is already consuming your mind space. It must have physical space too. It demands it.”

For my own part, I would say that if you don’t read this book your life will forever be plagued by a nameless void that could otherwise have been filled by this searing satire that delights as much as it mocks.

Or something.

I love, love, LOVE this book, and demand that you go read it immediately. Some of it is so close to the truth it’ll make your cheeks blush with embarrassment, but mostly it’ll make them wet with tears, either from laughing so much or recognizing your own wild and completely unattainable published writer dream-related despair.

You can thank me later.

Click here to purchase How I Became a Famous Novelist from Amazon.co.uk.

Click here to read an interview with Steve Hely from The New Yorker.

My Big E-Book Lesson: A Good News Update

You may recall how a few weeks ago I discovered I’d made a rookie e-book error out of sheer laziness and cost myself some sales.

If not, here’s a summary. After I published my e-book edition of Mousetrapped on Smashwords, I downloaded the PDF version and had a quick flick through the pages to make sure everything was okay. After I uploaded to Amazon’s DTP, I did the same thing but on my mother’s Kindle. That too looked okay, and so I decided to ignore Smashwords’ recommendation to download Adobe’s free Digital Editions and the EPUB (standard) version of my book, and then use the first to check the second.

Cut to five months later, when a comment on my blog alerts me to the fact that the EPUB version of Mousetrapped, which is for sale on Barnes and Noble and through Apple’s iBooks, has 1,300+ pages, or a page break after every paragraph. Trouble is, I’ve already sold more than 30 of them. Bigger trouble is, I won’t sell any more, because one of the victims has taken the time to leave a review complaining about the formatting problem. I fix the problem and upload the book, but the damage has already been done. You can read about the full saga in all its glory here.

This past weekend I was checking up on some Smashwords sales when I thought to visit my Barnes and Noble e-store listing and see if anyone had posted any more icky reviews.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that not only had the original icky review disappeared, but in its place was this loveliness:

“[It] is a light interesting travelogue about a young woman traveling from overseas and experiencing the unique world of Orlando Fl and working for Disney. It has been an enjoyable and interesting read. I had a little problem with the e-book formatting on my nook but the author herself saw my review and sent a free voucher to get another download – that’s pretty nice! I am now finished with the book and was nicely pleased with it. I share some of the same fascinations with the culture of the area where the story takes place; Disney, NASA etc. We all have some adventures from our youth, (I like to refer to them as times of Ramen noodles and tuna) at the time it seems like that was the hardest of circumstances ever. But as we grow and learn, looking back we appreciate the past struggles more and more and would not trade them for anything. That is what I got from this book. Keep going and keep writing Catherine.”

How nice is that?

Answer: VERY.

Thank you, anonymous Barnes and Noble reader!

Click here to read all my e-book related posts.

Click here to read more about Mousetrapped.

Oprah’s Book Club: Franzen, Freedom and Forgiveness

So Oprah has indeed chosen Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom for her latest book club selection and it’s a Very Big Deal. Ever since some booksellers spectacularly bad at secret-keeping confirmed the choice to the Associated Press on Thursday afternoon, the internet has practically been emitting an audible buzz with the scandalous news. (Even celebrity gossip blogger Perez Hilton, better known for pictures of Lindsay Lohan stumbling out of clubs, got in on the action; the last book he mentioned was underage popstar Justin Bieber’s “illustrated memoir.”)

I don't usually prefer UK covers to US covers, but isn't the US cover of FREEDOM horrendous?

But why is it such a big deal?

Because back in 2001, Jonathan Franzen did the unthinkable: he pissed Oprah off. He managed to put his own foot and the hand that was feeding him into his mouth at the same time, and bit down hard. The story goes that in October of that year – after his book The Corrections had been announced as Oprah’s next pick, Franzen had been interviewed by the Big O herself and shot some footage of his home for the show – he went and told The Portland Oregonian of his discomfort with having a corporate logo on the cover of “his creation.” (Apparently forgetting that his publishers’ corporate logo would be on there already.) If he’d shut up then he might have got away with it, but he went on to tell NPR that:

“So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator or whatever. I worry — I’m sorry that it’s, uh — I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say “If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it.” Those are male readers speaking.”

And then, to stick a couple more nails in an already airtight coffin, he opined that picking The Corrections would do as much for Oprah as it would for him, and admitted he’d never actually seen an episode of the show in a tone that suggested he’d never lowered himself to the mind-numbing activity of daytime TV-watching, what with him being such Very Important Writer and all.

Oprah’s response? A clipped and pointed disinvitation.

“Jonathan Franzen will not be on The Oprah Winfrey Show because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as a book club selection. It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict. We have decided to skip the [discussion] and we’re moving on to the next book.”

Franzen made a few groveling apologies, but it was already too late. Oprah was hardly going to devote an hour to his book, hand him a sustained spot atop The New York Times bestseller list and encourage all of her female viewers to read it when he’d implied that they weren’t worth anywhere near as much to him as their male counterparts. You have to wonder how his publishers felt, especially since they’d already upped the planned print run from 80,00 to 800,000, and each one with that beautiful little O-shaped logo on it. (Which makes me giggle.) Although the blow couldn’t have come too hard: the pick had already been announced and so many viewers – including me – had already bought the book. And then there’s that old no such thing as bad publicity chestnut

In the interests of delayed full disclosure, I should tell you that I love Oprah. Not just her show, but her as well. I think she’s amazing, and she’s taught me a lot. I’ve discovered over the years that the vast majority of people who don’t like Oprah don’t watch her show, and have some very skewed ideas of what it’s like, with most falling somewhere between Jerry Springer and E! News. Of course everyone is entitled to their opinions (unless they’re wrong; this is my blog, after all), but I don’t understand how anyone can fault her book club, or what it’s done for writers, publishers and readers, not only in the U.S. but all over the world.

Oprah started her book club in 1996. The way it works is she personally chooses a book, personally calls up the author (I remember Maeve Binchy saying this in an interview in 1999 when Tara Road was an Oprah pick, and that she thought at first it was a wind-up), and then invites her viewers to start reading it. A month or so goes by, and then a whole episode is devoted to discussing the book, which usually involves input from viewers who felt a strong connection to it and an interview or dinner with the author. (In 2007, Oprah bagged reclusive author Cormac McCarthy’s first ever on camera interview.) According to the American Library Association, publishers touched by Oprah’s hand have donated some 500,000 books to American public libraries – this is part of the deal – and she’s been applauded by the organizers of the National Book Award for her contributions to the publishing industry.

Most importantly, she’s got people reading. Like all good uber-fans, I am in possession of the eighteen hour, 20th Anniversary DVD boxset, which enabled me to watch all the episodes I missed due to the fact that I was a kid who had to go to school and lived in Ireland where the Oprah supply was scarce and on a six month delay. There’s a special feature devoted to the Book Club and on it, a woman in her thirties stands up and admits that the latest pick is the first book she’s read since she was forced to read books in school. Watching the Book Club shows she felt she was missing out, and so sat down with a book for the first time in her adult life. (Oprah and I always tear up at that part.) I also think it’s important to remember that Oprah is not telling her viewers to gobble up the latest Cecilia Ahern. Among the authors she’s chosen over the years are Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Joyce Carol Oates, Gabriel Gárcia Márquez, William Faulkner and Leo Tolstoy.

I was only 14 when Oprah’s Book Club started, but I tried my best. Over the years, I’ve read a number of Oprah’s selections, and have notions of getting through the rest of them on some sandy sunny beach on some dreamy day in the future. Many of them I might never have come across otherwise, and all of them I loved. They include:

There was also Eat, Pray, Love – not technically a book club selection, but with the Big O’s full and enthusiastic support and no fewer than three dedicated episodes to date, it may as well have been.

And then there was A Million Little Pieces.

Ugh. Just thinking about it gives me a bad taste in my mouth.

What happened was this: In 2005, Oprah chose James Frey’s “memoir” A Million Little Pieces, a hard-hitting, graphic and devastating account of addiction, centered around a stay in a rehab centre. I picked it up that Christmas, and had to keep flicking to the ‘About the Author’ page at the back to check that Frey had indeed survived the horrors I was reading about. On the episode devoted to him, Frey sat and listened while Oprah viewers and former addicts told him that his book had saved their life, that his motto “Just hold on” had got them through their darkest days, and that they wouldn’t be there today if it wasn’t for his book, for his experiences, for his life.

Problem was, it was all a lie. The depths of his addiction, his girlfriend committing suicide, getting a root canal without Novocaine because his doctors feared giving him any drug at all would make him relapse – it was all Grade A BS. Oprah brought him and his editor back for a second show, and then proceeded to rip him a new one.

The controversy churned up new arguments about memoirs and fiction and which truth is true?, but all that missed the point. It wasn’t that Frey had embellished his story, it was how he’d sat there and accepted thanks for saving peoples’ lives with his lies, lies that might now send these people back in the wrong direction. (Frey had rejected AA’s 12 Step progam in favor of a kind of “Just say no.”) As for me, I felt sick, cheated and lied to. I hated the man and the New York loft (complete with an original Picasso) my money – our money – had helped buy him.

Another part of me wondered if perhaps we should have known, considering his biggest writing credit pre-Pieces was the screenplay for that enormously dull thud of a romcom, Kissing a Fool.

The UK cover of FREEDOM.

Here’s hoping Oprah contains her writer-related forgiveness to Freedom, eh?

And so, yes, it is a shocking choice, picking Franzen after all that hooha last time round, but this is Oprah’s last season and perhaps now is the time for big gestures. But what will happen now? An Oprah Book Club selection sticker guarantees bestseller status, but what happens when the book is already the hottest thing to hit publishing since… well, who can remember a publication like this? If I hear that Freedom sales has outsold The Bible to become the bestselling book of all time, I’m not entirely sure I’d be surprised…

Also, I’m sick with jealousy. And I’m off to buy the book.

Click here to pre-order Freedom from Amazon.co.uk.

Moonwalker: Meeting Apollo Astronaut Charlie Duke [Squeals!] Part II

[Last Friday I travelled to Glasgow, Scotland, to meet one of my Apollo astronaut heroes, Apollo 16 Lunar Module Pilot Charlie Duke. You can read the first part of this post here.]

The John and Charlie Show: Apollo 16

Finally it came time for Charlie to fly in space himself, piloting Apollo 16‘s Lunar Module Orion in April 1972.

Alongside Commander John Young and Command Module Pilot Ken “I Never Got the Measles” Mattingly, Astronaut Duke would finally get his wings on a trip to the moon’s Descartes Highlands, where NASA geologists hoped to collect some volcanic rocks. (The previous mission, 15, was a tough act to follow in specimen terms: they’d come home with the so-called Genesis Rock, a slice of the moon’s primordial crust a cool 4.5 billion years old and as exciting to geologists as a seat on the Space Shuttle would be to me.) Young was even then a veteran space traveller, having flown on two Gemini missions and on Apollo 10, but Duke and Mattingly were rookies. For them, this trip to the moon would be their first into space.

Charlie Duke in silhouette against a photo of himself en route to the moon in April 1972.

Getting to the moon would prove eventful. Radio communications were frequently interrupted by a Spanish man whispering sweet nothings to his girlfriend over the phone, and then the lunar landing was delayed after problems with the engine control system on the Command Module Casper. All signs were pointing to an abort, which must have been especially hard on Duke and Young who had already undocked and were orbiting the moon when they got word of it. It’s one thing to be told your moonlanding has been cancelled without having the lunar surface just outside the window when you’re told. But after a risk assessment that delayed their lunar landing by some six hours, Orion was given a “Go” for descent.

And so began what A Man on the Moon author Andrew Chaikin calls “The John and Charlie Show.”

Reserved wasn’t a word that could be applied to either of them: Young’s wit was as dry as desert sand and he was known to speak his mind, while Duke was incapable of playing it cool. (And who could blame them? They’d just landed on the moon!)

Watch Charlie Duke talk about landing on the moon:

Speaking of the landing last Friday (see video above), Duke said, “The engine was stopped, the dust cleared, and I hollered out, ‘Houston, Old Orion is finally here. Fantastic!’ And that was the first of about 900 times I used the word ‘fantastic’ on my three days on the moon…We were like two little kids at Christmas. We were so excited.”

Listen to the Apollo 16 lunar landing radio transmission:

At 10.57 a.m. Houston time and suitably space-suited up, the hatch was opened and as Commander, Young ambled out first. “Hey, John,” Duke called from behind him. “Hurry up!” And Duke’s first words as he stood on the moon? “Hot dawg, this is great! That first step on the lunar surface is super!” And it wasn’t just him. Picking up an instrument that had been as heavy as lead back on earth but was now easy to carry in one-sixth gravity, John Young said gleefully, “Look at that, Charlie! Look at me carrying it! I’m carrying it over my shoulder! Ha ha ha.”

For the next three days and night, Duke and Young lived it up on the lunar surface. They got the Lunar Rover – a battery powered car – up to eleven miles an hour, and are still the Guinness World Record title holders for the fastest speed record of any wheeled vehicle on the moon. They took the famous “jump salute” photo (above), Duke making a show of trying to blow the moon dust off his camera. They held their own “Moon Olympics” during which Duke fell over no less than six times, seriously winded himself, nearly comprised his life-giving backpack and annoying both his commander and Mission Control. (Although even at the best of times, Duke looks awkward on the moon, half-falling, half-skipping across the surface.) Young wrecked an experiment by pulling a power cable loose with his foot, and in what he calls his “most embarrassing moment” Duke dropped a $10 million dollar piece of equipment live on camera. (Watch him do it in the video above.) “I thought I could get away with it,” he said on Friday, narrating a video of the event. “But then I looked over and saw that the TV [camera] was pointed right at me.” On returning to the LEM after they last moonwalk, Young said to Houston, “Man, you don’t know how much fun this has been.”

“The Dust of My Life”

Last Friday, Duke spoke of his lunar trip as “a fantastic adventure.” During the Q&A session, an audience member asked him how he felt now when he looked up at the moon, and he said proud of NASA and proud of his country, and that he wants to go back. But the evidence suggests that he didn’t always look upon his NASA career with such love. Some years ago he told Chaikin that his lunar landing was “the dust of his life” and that his greatest achievement was the Christian ministry he’d set up with his wife Dotty in the years after it, partly as a response to the downward spiral of alcoholism he’d slipped into after leaving NASA. He certainly wasn’t alone; many of the astronauts found life wanting upon their return to earth, for what could possibly top a trip to the moon? What do I do now? But more recently Duke told Moondust author Andrew Smith (are all good space authors called Andrew?!) that the message had been garbled in a bad analogy, and that what he’d meant was Apollo was just one part of his life, and rightly so. “If your whole life revolved around something you did thirty years ago,” Duke said, “I think your ego would be effected tremendously.” (See Buzz Aldrin for plenty of examples of this.) Sitting there listening to him last week, I certainly saw a man more than happy to talk about his trip to the moon.

(Incidentally, Duke inspired the writing of Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth, my favorite Apollo book and one-time Richard & Judy Book Club pick. Smith had been sent to interview Duke for a magazine feature and during their meeting, the news broke that another moonwalker, Pete Conrad, had been fatally injured in a motorbike accident. On learning this, Duke said quietly, “Now there’s only nine of us” – a phrase that hit Smith like a sucker punch to the gut, and sent him off on a search for the other eight.)

Something New

Gearing up to go to Glasgow, I was excited about meeting a real, live moonwalker, but not sure what to expect. After all, hadn’t I already heard it all? Hadn’t I read every book, seen every movie, bought every documentary box-set? Hadn’t I made more visits to Kennedy Space Center than I care to count? As much as I wanted a signed picture, was there anything new he could tell me?

Charlie Duke watches footage of his Apollo 16 crew capsule returning to earth.

The short answer is an emphatic yes! I hadn’t known, for example, that while getting ready to leave the LEM, Duke had battled with a wayward globule of orange juice that had escaped from a valve inside his helmet, or that to one side of his visor was a chewy chocolate bar he could snack on while he moonwalked, or that the blackness of space was really – totally – black; in space it is always day, and so no stars are visible. His description of the lunar view of earth gave me goosebumps. I’d always thought it looked like a setting sun to them, hanging low in the horizon, but in fact for Duke and Young the earth hung like a glittering snow-globe directly above their heads. And while I’ve heard countless facts and stats about how little computer memory the entire Apollo ran on, hearing Duke himself say that the 8GB memory card he bought for his digital camera last week has 100,000 times the memory of his LEM brings a  new weight.

The best moment? When Duke offhandedly mentioned, “my boss – Chuck Yeager.” And the worst? When an Apollo bubble of mine got unceremoniously and unexpectedly burst.

I’ve long loved the story of how Charlie decided to leave a photo of his family on the moon. A family friend took a portrait, and on the back he wrote, “This is the family of Astronaut Charlie Duke from planet Earth who landed on the moon on April 20, 1972.” During their last moonwalk, he dropped the photo onto the dust and took a photo of it (above), later calling the gesture, “a special moment.” This story had always warmed the coldest corners of my heart, especially when I thought of how the photo must still be up there, undisturbed, like their boot prints and Rover tyre tracks. But it’s not. During the talk, Duke disclosed that almost as soon as he dropped the photo, the plastic covering around it began to melt (it was in the sun’s glare) and in all likelihood had disintegrated by the time they took off on their journey home.

[VERY SAD FACE.]

The NASA Spirit

My favorite Apollo 16 story, while we’re on the subject, has – strangely – nothing at all to do with the moon, or even being in space. A few weeks before launch, Ken Mattingly went out to the launch pad where the Saturn V stood, patiently waiting, and rode the service elevator up to the third stage, or near the top of the mammoth moonrocket. There he found an open hatch inside of it, a busy technician. Startled by Mattingly’s sudden appearance, he shouted, “Who are you? Get out of here!” but changed his tune once Mattingly explained who he was: one of the men who would ride this monster into space. “You know,” the technician said, “I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like for you. But I can tell you this: it won’t fail because of what I do.”

And that, Mattingly realized, was how America had won the Space Race and its space agency had carried men to the moon. It because 400,000 people had said to themselves, Whatever happens, it won’t fail because of something I do.

That, in a sentence, is the NASA spirit. If they had a winning motto, it would easily beat “Failure is not an option” (which was never actually said) to the title. It is this outlook on life, also encapsulated by Apollo 17‘s Gene Cernan’s line, “Take the word impossible out of the dictionary” that gives Apollo such appeal. We can do anything. We can go anywhere. We can achieve our dreams.

A large section of the audience in the Carnegie Lecture theatre last weekend were young children and teenagers, enraptured by Charlie Duke’s amazing story. I hope they – and you – take its message to heart. And if you’re looking for some inspirational bedtime stories to tell your kids, why not tell them of the men who went to the moon?

In other news, flying home from Glasgow to Cork I was forced to not only board a tiny plane with propellers – propellers, people! – but sit in a jump seat backed up against the cockpit, or facing the wrong way. I don’t like take off or landing at the best of times, but doing them while facing in the opposite direction and feeling faintly motion sick was not a pleasant experience. Of course, as soon as I got home and voiced my complaints, my mother pointed out the irony of me wanting to go into space but not being able to sit backwards on a commercial plane. Yes, Mum. But to go into space? I’d pay any price.

Click here to read all my astronuts posts.

Thanks again to Ben Johncock for a ticket to A Walk with Destiny.

Images not taken by the author appear courtesy of NASA.