August 2010


The letters began arriving immediately – proud Americans clamoring to hang a moniker on the new world.  Thanks to Antoinette Beiser for scanning a few of these beautiful examples – straight from the gorgeous archives of Lowell Observatory.   Planet Eureka:

And Planet Twelow:

And Planet Burdett, of course!

A fascinating post here braiding together the lives of Clyde Tombaugh, Venetia Burney, and the unusually named Plato Chan.  Born on March 14, 1930, he was supposed to be named Pluto, as it happens — and he would come to his own early fame, as Peter Sieruta points out.  Influences and perturbations indeed!

Plato (Pluto) Chan, winner of the Caldecott at age 12

Nice review of Percival’s Planet today from the Boston Globe – thanks, Ms. Schlack!

“Deserving of our admiration and awe.  In this quietly poignant book about the search for Planet X (eventually known as Pluto), all of the fictional characters orbiting Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto, are in some way navigating that thin and shifting border between what’s literal and imagined, between what’s real and simply longed for.  Pluto, Percival Lowell’s planet, is more than an invisible force exerting gravitational pull. It’s a metaphor for loss and pursuit, for the irregular orbits that define our most meaningful relationships.  Byers’s writing, always lyrical, shimmers and trembles and breaks our hearts.”

One of the many pleasures of writing Percival’s Planet was unearthing the glorious slang of the period.  Edmund Wilson’s journals were great for this – deadpan documents of sex, drunkenness, and various kinds of cant (and other things spelled with a c, n, and t).

It was a sort of sport in that day – getting off the best line.  Here are just a few of my notes on the subject — those with checkmarks made it into the book, at least for the space of a draft or two.

What do you do if you’re a major book chain – let’s just say you’re the #2 chain in the country – and you see a novel gets the lead fiction review from Publishers Weekly, gets glowing reviews from Booklist and other major pre-pub outlets?  And what if that author lives where you happen to have your world headquarters, in Ann Arbor, Michigan?  Not only that, but teaches at the University of Michigan?  Surely you’d want to promote that novel, wouldn’t you?

Eh, not so much.  Borders doesn’t even stock the novel.  Nowhere, nohow, not nowheres — nationwide.  Calling the local flagship store, one is told that “Borders doesn’t stock books that are out of print or self-published.”  Yeah.  Huh.

This is a little embarrassing to an author, I’ll admit.  Yes, it gives me a cringey, gross feeling in my gut to walk into my local mega-chain bookstore and not find the book I spent years writing.  (Plenty of notecards, vampire novels, and calendars, but no Percival’s Planet.)  But I do think it’s considerably more embarrassing to the Borders chain, who might like to explain why a local author of at least some note (not that much, okay, but some!) isn’t carried in their flagship store. It ain’t me, I’m thinking, it’s them.

As to the looming Borders bankruptcy — well, whatever they’re doing…it’s not working so great.

Meanwhile, Nicola’s Books — the independent store in Ann Arbor — is happy not only to carry the book but to host events for their local authors, not just me but Sharon Pomerantz and Steve Amick and Laura Kasischke, among many others, and they’re also getting Sara Paretsky in the store soon, not bad!

So after walking out of Borders feeling like crap, I walked out of Nicola’s feeling really fine.  Nicola Rooney is a peppery little treasure; the excellent staff makes hearty and carefully considered recommendations, they carry litmags and brand-new hardcovers (and ones that aren’t so new), tons of sci-fi and children’s books, and they’re next to a bagel shop, so your entrance is wonderfully perfumed.

Long live the independents.  It matters where you buy your books, it really does.

The New York Times gives Percival’s Planet a solid review  in Monday’s books section – noting the book’s “untamable yearnings” no less!  (Rowr.) (See below.)

“Vivid…lyrical and exact….The search for Planet X offers Mr. Byers a wonderful opportunity for dramatizing the human desire for discovery, but he’s after an even wider story, one that probes the very nature of searching….A deeply generous attempt to explore the forces that make us restless, that make us want to wander the desert or peer into the sky or pace along our own fence lines, dreaming of finding something that might not be out there.  Mr. Byers reminds us that whether we’re gripped by desire for a new planet or for another human being, that yearning has dignity and its own strange logic.”

Very nice.  And I recommend googling “untamed yearnings.”

"She fought the darkly handsome officer at every turn, clinging to her Indian ways and wondering at his notions of civilization. For certainly there was nothing civilized about the untamed yearnings he awakened as he cupped her ripe curves, rained tender kisses over her soft form and led her into a world of unforgettable ecstasy." -- Cheyenne Sunrise, C. O'Banyon (1990)

MSNBC’s Alan Boyle, author of The Case for Pluto, makes a nice case here for Percival’s Planet thanks for the support, Alan!

And if you’d like to check out the trailer shown above, it’s here on youtube.

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