What: A Novel Idea — Robert Kurson discusses his book, “Rocket Men”

When: 4 p.m. Sunday

Where: Bend High School auditorium, 230 NE Sixth Street

Cost: All free tickets have been distributed. Limited standby seating will be available at the event on a first-come, first-served basis.

Contact: dplfoundation.org or 541-312-1027

The Deschutes Public Library’s popular community reading program, A Novel Idea … Read Together, explored a new frontier in 2019 with Robert Kurson’s “Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon.”

On Sunday, three weeks of public activities related to the book will culminate in a free presentation by Kurson at the Bend High School auditorium. The event will include a performance by Sisters musician Brent Alan, with audience members invited to sing along.

Published in April 2018, “Rocket Men” tells the inside story of Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders and the first manned mission to the moon in 1968. Readers are immersed in the frantic preparation and dramatic journey to the moon and back, set against the turbulent social and political upheaval in America during the late 1960s.

Based in Chicago, Kurson began his career as an attorney (which he hated) before becoming a features writer at the Chicago Sun-Times. His stories have appeared in Esquire, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine and more. He has written three other nonfiction books, including the 2004 best-seller “Shadow Divers.”

Kurson provided insights via email about how he came to write “Rocket Men.”

Q. Did you dream of being an astronaut when you were a kid?

A. Absolutely, especially when I watched them driving a dune buggy on the Moon! But it wasn’t just the adventure I dreamed of, it was the camaraderie they seemed to share with each other. As I got older (out of grade school) my fantasies turned toward professional sports, perhaps because the Apollo program had ended.

Q. The story of the space race and the American moon landing is fairly well known. What made you think there was a story to be told that people hadn’t heard about the Apollo 8 mission?

A. I think Apollo 8 is the greatest space story of them all. It represented the first time humans ever left home and the first time we ever arrived at a new world. To me, it was Homeric, our own Odyssey, yet almost no one seemed to know much about it and very little had been written about it. That seemed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to me, especially with the 50th anniversary of the flight (in 2018) approaching.

Q. Did NASA give you any special access to their archives or the old capsules and rockets from that era while you were researching the story?

A. Everything I needed to know was publicly available and required no special access. NASA was meticulous about keeping records, and much of it had been put online. As for the rocket, I saw the Saturn V in Houston, a truly incredible experience. And the Apollo 8 command module is on display in my hometown, at Chicago’s spectacular Museum of Science and Industry.

Q. One of the things that makes “Rocket Men” so compelling is the amount of detail that’s included — about actual mission, but also about the astronauts and their families. I understand you interviewed Borman, Lovell and Anders (who were in their mid to late 80s at the time) extensively while researching the book. Was it difficult to get them to talk to you?

A. No, quite the opposite. I was lucky that Jim Lovell had read my first book, “Shadow Divers,” and was familiar with my work. He also happens to live about 20 minutes from me. Lovell put me in touch with Frank Borman, and Borman connected me with Bill Anders. The three of them and their families, could not have been more welcoming or generous with their time. I don’t know that I’ve met three finer guys in my life.

Q. The astronauts themselves get most of the attention in news coverage of space missions, but you focus a lot in the book on how important their wives were. Did you always intend to explore that aspect of the Apollo 8 story?

A. I’m embarrassed to say that when I first started the project I was focused strictly on the Apollo 8 mission. But it took me just a few minutes with the astronauts to realize how critically important, courageous and heroic their wives were, and just how responsible they were to the success of Apollo 8. Within a day, I knew the story of the wives and families would be an integral part of my book and that conviction only deepened when I interviewed Marilyn Lovell and Valerie Anders. By the time I started work on the book, Susan Borman was already too ill with Alzheimer’s disease to talk, but Frank showed me films, letters, interviews, and other materials from Susan; by the time I got to writing, I felt like I’d known all the wives for years.

Q. Of all the challenges the astronauts faced with this mission, what issue do you think was the most critical?

A. It’s impossible to choose a single aspect of the mission — every bit of it was deeply bold and courageous. But one thing many people don’t realize about Apollo 8 is that it was conceived, planned, trained for and executed in just four months, all at a time when NASA typically spent between 12 to 18 months to plan for a space mission. On top of that, so much of what Apollo 8 was going to attempt would be for the first time. To this day, fifty years later, it remains staggering to think of the bravery of the astronauts, NASA personnel and the families involved, and the beauty of the vision of George Low, Chris Kraft and others who conceived the plan to send the first humans to the Moon.

Q. Your narrative in “Rocket Men” really paints a vivid picture of the social upheaval the U.S. was experiencing in 1968. What impact did the Apollo 8 mission have on the American psyche and did the astronauts realize ahead of time the significance their work might have in that regard?

A. I think it’s fair to say that, separate from Civil War years, 1968 might be the worst year in American history. By late December, when Apollo 8 launched, it appeared that the country was hopelessly divided against itself. By the time Apollo 8 splashed down, it seemed there wasn’t a single American who didn’t believe something beautiful and miraculous had happened. That was evidenced in a telegram the astronauts received after returning, one which has stayed with them to this day. It said, simply, “Thanks. You saved 1968.” I don’t think the astronauts realized the impact their journey would have — they were simply too immersed in their training to think about much else.

Q. Is there any corporate or government program underway in the U.S. now you think compares to the Space Race of the 1960s and the Apollo 8 mission in particular, either in terms of its strategic importance or in the way it captures the imagination of the American public?

A. I don’t think so. Apollo 8 came at a critical time in history during a race against an existential enemy, the Soviet Union. The Space Race and the Cold War, are over. However, it now looks like the United States is aiming to land new astronauts on the Moon within five years. To watch NASA in action now, as well as private space entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, is thrilling, so I think there are echoes to the 1960s in space today.

Q. You were working as a sports writer and magazine writer in Chicago when you wrote your first book, “Shadow Divers.” How did that book come to fruition and was the transition from writing newspaper and magazine stories to writing a full-length book a difficult one for you?

A. I was lucky that a friend suggested I look into the story of two scuba divers who discovered a World War II German U-boat, with full crew aboard, sunk in New Jersey waters. The transition from writing for magazines to writing a book worried me at first — books were so long — but it came easily once I got started. The story of the divers, which became “Shadow Divers,” was so thrilling and so rich it demanded a book-length treatment, and it was a joy to write.

Q. Can you describe your research and writing process for “Rocket Men?”

A. My process for research and writing “Rocket Men” was very similar to the other books I’ve written. I begin by researching the story and doing other homework so that I have a good idea about what happened. I then do extensive and in-depth interviews with my subjects, followed by more research, more interviews and so on. I don’t believe I’ve ever written a word before I’ve done at least a year of research and interviews, and this work continues all the way through the writing process. I’m dependent on the good will and generosity of my interview subjects, and so far, they’ve all been terrific.

Q. All your books to date have been nonfiction, but many reviewers describe your writing as novelistic or almost cinematic because it’s so gripping. Do you think there’s a novel in your future somewhere?

A. I don’t think so. I’m thrilled by a great true story — the idea, while turning the pages, that what’s unfolding actually happened. To me, there’s a power in that reading experience that’s even more thrilling than in fiction. The downside is that great true stories are very difficult to find. The single greatest challenge in my professional life is finding a story worthy of a book; often, at night, I’ll toss and turn and wonder, “Will I ever find another one?” My wife assures me that I will, but she sees the sunny side in everything!

Q. Are there any tricks of the trade you can share for how to tell nonfiction stories in a compelling way?

A. I don’t have any tricks. Often, I think about my dad, who was a traveling salesman for his own motorcycle paints and lubricants business. He was on the road constantly, and he took me on many of his trips, often calling me out of school for weeks at a time. He was the greatest storyteller in the world, and he told me countless tales — some real and some imagined — on endless stretches of freeways and blue highways. The only catch is that I had to tell him stories, too. If he looked interested, I knew I was doing something right. He died nearly 25 years ago. Today, when I write, I sometimes imagine myself in his old car, doing a 10-hour stretch with him between cities, telling him the story I plan to tell readers in my book.

Q. Are you already working on your next book?

A. How I wish it were so! I’m currently at work full-time searching for the next great idea. It’s going to be hard to top mankind’s first journey to the moon, but I’m trying.

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