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From Barbies to Rockets

Having written books on a wide range of subjects, this versatile author and MPW faculty member now tackles opera.

From Barbies to Rockets

No longer do we live in a world divided into two cultures. The literary artist, like the scientist, must embrace science and technology. Telling science stories is an excellent way to do this, though many writers balk at the prospect. They believe — wrongly — that one has to have specialized training to tell such tales, a misconception I myself harbored for decades.

One morning 10 years ago, however, I woke up with a book deadline that required me to explain how a rocket engine works and how engineers direct a spacecraft to another planet. Not your garden-variety predicament, I’ll admit — and one for which I was exceptionally ill-prepared. But I survived, thanks to two key attributes: meticulous attention to the craft of writing, and a willingness to appear dim by asking elementary questions.

Here’s what happened. When I was in junior high, and my mother was dying of cancer, my father disappeared into the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena to work on twin space probes for the Mariner Mars 69 mission. His absence was brutal, but I weathered it and moved on, fleeing Southern California for Yale, where I studied history and studio art, then New York, where I toiled for over a decade as Newsday’s political cartoonist.

While employed as an artist, however, I continued to write, and in 1994 published Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, which sold well. Suddenly publishers wanted to pay me to investigate whatever interested me. Casting around for a new project, I realized: The one thing I burned to know — even after more than 20 years — was where my father had gone. What went on in the Jet Propulsion Lab? Why had he chosen it over his wife and daughter?

A book is a marathon, requiring stamina to write and report. Not all subjects welcome the scrutiny of nonfiction writers, or of outsiders, period. It was far from a cakewalk to gain high-level access at JPL when my principle credential was a social history of the Barbie doll.

But when doors slam in your face, you have to keep on knocking. I spent six years researching JPL and hanging around with engineers. The result — Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science — was an unexpected odyssey of forgiveness. I understood what had so riveted my father because it riveted me.

Reviewers liked the book, and science magazines asked me to contribute. NASA even invited me to deliver the closing keynote address for a conference at the Smithsonian Institution on “The Societal Implications of Spaceflight.” I talked about my dad, which, had he been alive, would likely have embarrassed him.

In my science-writing class at USC, I emphasize the thrill of the chase, as well as ethics and technique. Most of all, however, I try to teach students to read like writers, so they can examine a work in any genre or medium — memoir, science-writing, research nonfiction, dramatic writing — and figure out what makes it work. Once they understand its mechanism, they can emulate it.

We live in a time of great change. The Web has crippled print; no longer can writers rely on traditional markets. Yet transitional times can also be rich in opportunities — for writers flexible enough to embrace them.

This is not just wacky wishful thinking. Last summer, for example, with my writing partner on dramatic projects, I was offered an extraordinary opportunity — a commission from LA Opera for a libretto about the 110 Freeway on its 70th anniversary.

Back in college, in a German literature class, I fell in love with the wit and feeling in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto for Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. I’ve been reading libretti critically ever since, without, of course, any expectation of ever writing one.

Yet because construction on the 110 Freeway began near the spot where JPL’s first rocketeers tested their engine prototypes, an idea for one of the opera’s main characters immediately suggested itself. My writing partner and I accepted the assignment. To compress a long story, at LA Opera’s workshops of the 110 project last month, the tenor, who plays a JPL engineer, sang words I wrote that I had first heard from my father — a happy convergence of science and opera, two disciplines I never expected to embrace.


M.G. Lord is a lecturer in the Master of Professional Writing Program. She is the author of Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science (Walker, 2005) and Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll (Avon, 1994). Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Vogue, The Wall Street Journal, Discover and The New Yorker.


Read more articles from USC College Magazine's Fall 2009/Winter 2010 issue