February 07, 2020

Phil Stamper

Love among the stars
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Phil Stamper’s debut YA novel, The Gravity of Us, is the story of two teens, Cal and Leon, who are brought together when their parents are both selected for a new NASA mission to Mars. Stamper magnificently balances the boys’ burgeoning relationship against a backdrop that brings the space race into the 21st century. We spoke to Stamper about his day job in book publishing and writing characters that feel real—and, of course, geeked out about space.

You work in book publishing, so this is a bit of a “chicken or the egg” question: Which came first, working in publishing or writing? Was it ever challenging to balance your knowledge of publishing as an industry with your own creative needs and process?
Writing came first! After college, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do for a job, but I eventually worked my way into nonprofit PR and marketing. I loved writing for a living, but the press releases got old fast, so I started writing fiction to recharge my creative energy. Through the exhaustive process of writing, revising, researching and querying, I really fell in love with book publishing. So much so that I got my M.A. in publishing from a school in London and now I work for one of the Big Five in New York City. (Ed. note: The “Big Five” is a publishing industry term for the five largest American book publishers: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster and Hachette.)

I’m in a lucky spot in publishing. I get to help authors every day but not work on specific titles or marketing campaigns, which gives me plenty of energy to work on my own edits/marketing on my downtime. I’m not sure where this career will lead, but I’m happy with the balance I’ve struck. Even if it can be a little stressful when edits are due!

I think it’s important for authors to understand the publishing industry, and especially their role in it. But the more familiar you are with the industry, the more you realize that “what works” is all pretty random. Stories that don’t fit the mold can get book deals and find success, while stories that tick every single box can get lost in the stacks. At the end of the day, it’s taught me that writing things I’m passionate about is the only thing I can do. If you put that energy into your work, readers will feel it. And that’s about all you can control in this process.

Do you see The Gravity of Us as being in conversation with or descended from other YA titles? Which ones, and how?
This is a really interesting question! I think it’s hard to write YA without reading YA and knowing what’s out there. I do see The Gravity of Us as being “in conversation” with plenty of books. I’ve always felt that we need all sorts of queer stories and experiences out there. I built this book in a world where homophobia is just not acknowledged, and I wanted this story to be a safe space for queer teens who always feel like they have to keep their guards up when reading a book.

In that way, I feel like my book is descended from books like Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli or You Know Me Well by Nina LaCour and David Levithan. But it’s also out there in conversation with heavier (but still hopeful!) stories like Ziggy, Stardust & Me by James Brandon and Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Gravity of Us.

Can we talk about space for a bit? Have you always been into space, or was it an interest you cultivated when you began writing this book? What kind of research did you do to write accurately and convincingly about this aspect of the book?
Oh, yes! We can always talk about space. I’ve been a space nerd for decades now, especially when it comes to the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo missions. I’ve read dozens of astronaut/engineer memoirs, watched documentaries, and I’ve got a growing collection of LIFE magazines from the era.

While reading The Astronaut Wives Club, actually, I realized that one thing in the background of every astronaut story kept calling out to me. The astronaut families essentially became the celebrities of this era, frequently gracing the covers of magazines and giving interviews for national news outlets. This meant the astronauts’ spouses and children had to be immaculately dressed, polished and ready to entertain, all while not knowing if their husbands or fathers would come home alive that night. In The Gravity of Us, I wanted to capture this brilliant tension while also showcasing a contemporary queer love story.

What do you love about the idea of space exploration?
There’s so much to love about space exploration, but for me, that love is tricky and complicated. I often hear that those at NASA were so focused on this exploration that they missed the many important movements of the 60s. But I don’t fully buy that. They saw the world changing around them and refused to change with it. Women and people of color were excluded at every turn, even though NASA had the influence to actually make a change. Too often, I think we focus on that starry-eyed joy and power of the space race and not the realities of it, and I am glad I got to deconstruct that some in my story.

Do you have a favorite constellation, nebula, planet or other celestial body?
Cassiopeia has always been my favorite constellation! It’s easy to pick out, and it’s shaped vaguely like a crown. In high school, my best friend liked it, so we’d always keep an eye out for it. I mention that one in the book, and I also talk about the constellation Lyra, which isn’t one I was very familiar with before researching the book. When naming the Orpheus missions, I was curious to see if there was a constellation representing the myth, and Orpheus’s lyre is represented in the tiny constellation, so that was a fun discovery.

How about a favorite astronaut or other real-life figure from the history of space exploration?
Oh I could go on for days about this, really. I loved learning about all of the astronauts, even the ones that weren’t exactly good people, because they were fascinating. But I guess you’d have to be pretty interesting to willingly take the kind of risks they had to take every day. But to answer your question, my favorite real-life figure from this era is probably Poppy Northcutt. I think she had one of the most interesting experiences of the space race. She was the first female engineer to work in NASA’s control room, and she dealt with a lot of sexism during her time there and because of that experience she later became a lawyer to fight for women’s issues.

She was such an inspiration for her brilliance and tenacity, but she was also incredibly ambitious. She knew exactly how she was being treated and portrayed, and she found a way to turn the media’s sexist coverage of her into her own platform, making space for more women on the team and getting a chance to speak out about these issues on the national stage, in front of a fully captive audience. Her interviews from back then are phenomenal. If you’re interested in learning more about her, this Fast Company piece is a great place to start.

"Too often, I think we focus on that starry-eyed joy and power of the space race and not the realities of it, and I am glad I got to deconstruct that some in my story."

The characters of Cal and Leon feel constructed with a great deal of thoughtful intentionality (which also reads effortlessly and invisibly, making the reading experience an absolute joy). Can you talk about some of the choices you made as you crafted their characters?
Early on, I had sort of figured out the astronaut families. I knew what role I wanted the Tuckers (Leon’s mom, especially) to play in the story, and I also knew how Cal’s family was going to fit into that world. Then I wanted to create characters that really stood out against that. Leon’s mom is at times the voice of NASA, polished and concise and thoughtful. Leon doesn’t have it together, and doesn’t really want to have it together. He’s living in a spotlight he never asked for, and it makes him withdraw a bit. I gave him his own passions, and took a lot of inspiration from my own experience of pursuing things you really care about while depression makes you want to pull back. In this way, he became an earnest, authentic character. When Cal’s thrown into this fake, stressful new environment, he is automatically drawn to the authenticity of Leon and his sister, Kat.

Cal, however, was a foil to everything the media world is inundated with today: clickbait, sensationalism, “fake news.” Cal doesn’t buy any of that, and he will make it his life’s mission to show you that being real is what makes you stand out. I’m a pretty nostalgic person, sitting here with my LIFE magazines and my rose-colored glasses, so I had to put the cynic at the lead of this novel. I wanted this book to be a love letter to NASA in many ways, but I needed it to be relevant. I think there’s a natural urge to romanticize things from the past as well as things that are happening now. And Cal? He’s not having it.

Of course, Cal’s a bit of a hypocrite because he has his own ironic cassette collection. But I liked showing that not all our connections to the past are inherently bad, they just sometimes blind us.

I think readers are going to fall for the romance that unfolds between Cal and Leon in a big way, and I loved the way it was paced and incorporated into the book’s other narrative threads. What part of their relationship was the most fun for you to write? The most difficult?
I’m really happy with how the romance in this book turned out. I think so often in m/m fiction there’s the pressure to write characters who are sweet and devoid of flaws to please a broader audience. In this, I wanted to show two flawed teens who were trying. Cal is a little selfish, Leon’s a little guarded, but I had such a good time bringing these two together and letting them talk it out. From the beginning, they found an ally in each other, and I think they were able to hold onto that feeling of “I’m not alone in this” that got them through the many highs and lows that were thrown at them along the way. It was fun to create that bond from nothing, almost the moment Cal is dropped in on Houston.

The Gravity of Us is populated with a fantastic supporting cast. It’s something of a cliché to say that secondary characters feel as though an entirely new novel could be written about them, but in this case, I think it’s true. From Deb, Cal’s best friend back in Brooklyn, to Kat, Leon’s sister, to Cal’s parents and the other members of the Orpheus team, the crew of StarWatch — you’re balancing a huge cast of characters with lots of conflicting motives and desires that shift realistically over the course of the book. Who was your favorite of these characters to create and write? Who was the most challenging? Who kept trying to steal whatever scene they were in?

I hope that isn’t too cliché, because I love that comment! In all of my stories, I want my secondary characters to be fully fleshed out, have stories of their own and make you feel like you could just as easily be entertained if the book was from their perspective. Though I’m not a rigid plotter, I work off of beat sheets and I put all my characters through the same test. Even if things are happening in the background, their story should progress in a similar way to the main character’s. There are no cardboard cut-outs here, and my editor is great at helping me pull out the emotional arcs for these side characters.

I have a soft spot for Deb, who was certainly the most fun to write. I made sure to give her a full arc, but I also got to talk more broadly about how hard it is to keep a best friend when you move away from them and start to change as a person. Cal and Deb have a messy friendship, but that’s what makes it so real, to me at least. I see the comment “Where’s Deb?” from time to time as people are reading, and though I make sure we check in with her throughout, I want you to miss her. (Sorry!)

As for the others, I really enjoyed building out StarWatch producer Kiara’s story. Without giving spoilers away, she does some great and awful things, and she has her own motivations and frustrations. Leon’s sister, Kat, stole every scene and moment she was in, and I loved how she was so fiercely supportive of her brother the whole time. Cal’s mom, Becca, experiences anxiety, and how she and Cal support each other throughout was really authentic and sweet. And we got to see some of the astronauts’ lives in the interstitial chapters, which were really fun to play with. I just love all of these characters!

“I want my secondary characters to be fully fleshed out, have stories of their own and make you feel like you could just as easily be entertained if the book was from their perspective.”

Since you’ve worked in publishing, you know that authors typically aren’t heavily involved in the process of designing book covers. I’d love to hear a little bit about what (if any) input you had on The Gravity of Us jacket, and how you felt the first time you saw it.
From what I can tell, publishers seem to be involving authors more and more into the process. This isn’t the case for everyone, and many authors don’t want to take part at all, but I think it’s great that authors are at least being consulted or involved in early stages. For The Gravity of Us, I ended up sending over a mood board, had a miniature brainstorm about options with my editor, and they ran one illustrator by me (who was my secret top choice to begin with!) and got him signed up right away.

I will truly never have an easier cover design process. From the very first moment, my editor and I had the same scene in mind for the cover. I wanted the boys to be on the ground, holding hands, watching the satellite launch. Even in the rough sketch, the illustrator, Patrick Leger, captured the perfect emotion and mood of the book, with the warped perspective of the shot and the sunrise gradient, stars and the satellite in the sky. It came together quickly, and Danielle Ceccolini designed the full cover, and everything just clicked perfectly.

I was emotional when I first showed it and when I got to reveal it on Teen Vogue last May, but seeing the finished copy with the embossed text and the full jacket for the first time? There’s nothing like that feeling of seeing your book finished for the first time, especially when that book has such a beautifully queer cover.

What’s something you love about your book? Something you’re really proud of?
I really like that I was able to create a love story between two people who are fully functioning on their own—they have their own stories, struggles, dreams, and they’re both on their own paths when we meet them and when the story ends. I’m also really proud I was able to make this story a love letter to NASA and a nod to the amazing people involved in the 60s space race, while still allowing myself to critique that era and keep the story relevant for a teen audience in 2020.

What’s something you learned from writing this book that you’ve been able to use as you’re writing your next book?
I’ve always been great at plotting and pacing, and I always like my contemporaries to move quickly through beats. My YA origins are in 2010-era dystopian books, and I love action. So no, there are no sword fights in this book, but that urgency and tension can still be built into contemporary stories in a meaningful way. But as for what I learned, while working with my editor, I was able to pull out a lot of emotional moments throughout. She’s great at highlighting points where it’s nice to pause and take a breath, where we can dig into characterization and also just show the aspirational aspects of teens having fun.

I’ve brought that into my next book, a lot, and I think that’ll be the case for the other books I write as well. I will never abandon my beat sheets, but I will fight that urge to push forward and let the readers sit in important emotional moments a bit more.

“I was able to create a love story between two people who are fully functioning on their own—they have their own stories, struggles, dreams, and they’re both on their own paths when we meet them and when the story ends.”

Someone finishes reading The Gravity of Us and they love it. Recommend some things for them to read or watch next (while they wait for your next book).
Ooh, I love giving book recommendations. If you like fast-paced and unique YA contemporary, you’ll love Sadie by Courtney Summers and The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante. If you love unapologetically queer YA, you have to check out Ryan La Sala’s Reverie and Abdi Nazemian’s Like a Love Story. If you love space, but want another book that’s set on the ground, check out The Weight of the Stars by K. Ancrum and, of course, The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel. 

And if you liked The Gravity of Us, I hope you’ll come back in early 2021 when my second book is on shelves!

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