All history, it could be said, is alternate history. Which is another way of saying: to write the past is to change it. Or, more bluntly: to write the past is to get it – at least a little bit – wrong.
Percival’s Planet had two starting points. One of these was the story of my grandparents. My grandmother Margaret – very beautiful, and by all accounts lively and quick-witted – struggled all her life with mental illness: paranoid delusions, manic depression. Her marriage to my grandfather Paul was turbulent and troubled, and lasted only long enough to produce my mother and my uncle. But in a revisionary spirit I found myself imagining a marriage that didn’t end – one that managed to outlast these difficulties, and that was not only a romance but a partnership. I wanted to change my grandparents’ past, in a sense, in order to make it come out right. I wanted to get their marriage wrong on purpose.
The second starting point came as I was in the early stages of drafting the novel – still discovering the size and shape of the book – when I was reminded that in the late 1920s, at Harvard (where my grandfather was studying law), something peculiar was happening. Astronomers attached to Lowell Observatory were looking for Planet X – the world that would eventually be called Pluto. Evidently at some earlier point (years before I began writing the book at all) I had stored this fact away in my brain – and now, as I wandered the cluttered back halls of my cortex, hunting for stuff with which to furnish the empty rooms of my novel, I came upon this curiosity again. And I remember thinking, Now that’s interesting. What if…?
What if my grandfather hadn’t been in the law school, but had been an astronomer?
What if he hadn’t moved back to his native Seattle, but had instead struck out for new territory – like Arizona?
What if he was along to assist on the Planet X search? What might have happened then?
One of the mysteries the novelist faces is the question of how much we really know about what we’re doing. Did some part of my novelist’s brain suspect, all along, that writing about my grandparents would lead me back to the dimly-remembered story of Clyde Tombaugh, the Kansas farmboy who was building his own telescopes in the middle of Pawnee County, Kansas, in 1928? Or that the enlarging world of the novel would come to include, necessarily, my grandmother’s imaginary brother Hollis, or the dinosaur hunter who would – in my imagination – come to employ my grandmother on his dig in Flagstaff?
At any rate, I knew I had something. I read Clyde Tombaugh’s autobiographical writings, and my attention fixed on the curious gaps in his account. What must he have felt when his oat field was destroyed by hail? What must he have missed about living in Illinois, after his father moved the family to Kansas? What if…? I researched the era, poring over old newspapers, collecting slang (Edmund Wilson’s journals were wonderful for this), listening to the music of the time. I went out and visited Lowell Observatory, where I handled not only the Pluto telescope but Clyde Tombaugh’s own observational journals, filled out in his unbelievably meticulous handwriting. Turning those blue-ruled pages wearing archivist’s cotton gloves, I felt I understood who Clyde was – and why he was the perfect man to find Planet X. Anxious to please, afraid of being fired, studied in the unfathomably painstaking work of building a telescope from scratch – only Clyde could have done such a thorough, uncomplaining job of the Planet X search. Only Clyde could have spent almost a year staring at hundreds of massively populated starfield plates – then finish by spotting the infinitesimal flyspeck of Planet X.
At some point it struck me that it was as though Lowell Observatory had sent the boy out on a snipe hunt – and he came back, all earnest and pleased, with a goddamned snipe.
And the more I learned, the more it seemed to me it should have been impossible for Clyde to find Planet X. When I discovered that Planet X was so much smaller than anyone had expected, and so much more peculiar (not a gas giant but a rocky snowball, and its orbit inclined at a dramatic angle to the orbits of the other planets), more bells began to go off. What was going on here? Did the Observatory astronomers suspect, all along, that the object they’d discovered really wasn’t much of a planet? Might they have had their doubts about the existence of such a thing in the first place? Might they have embarked on the endeavor without any hope of success, simply in order to please their wealthy patrons, the Lowells? And might they have hired, from their point of view, just the right man for the job? An amateur, untrained, without even a college degree? Surely he would never find anything…?
What if they had set out to find nothing, and had – mistakenly – found something instead?
What if the whole story of Planet X was – not a hoax, exactly, but something close to it?
Just around the time I arrived at this point in my writing, Pluto was demoted to ‘dwarf planet’ status. Eerily, it seemed as though the world was listening in on my thoughts – was, somehow, assisting in my work. Commenting on it. Suggesting alternate avenues.
And these were nutty thoughts, of course. But thoughts that any one of the characters in the novel might be caught entertaining. The novel is populated with madmen, romantics, dreamers; and I think now – with the benefit of just a small measure of hindsight – that these characters were colored in their nature by my initial urge to correct, to change things just a little, to improve things by getting them a bit wrong on purpose. The main characters in Percival’s Planet are inveterate improvers. They are all driven by a sense of wonder, or the divine, or by romantic love, or ambition. Like Clyde Tombaugh, around whom these characters all orbit, the people of Percival’s Planet are looking for something that might not be there. And in that hunt, they are driven to make more of themselves, and of the world. And of course this is as fitting a way to describe the novelist’s job as any – to make more of the world. To create; to amplify; and to make what isn’t true come true.