Author Isa Arsén didn’t set out to ride the wave generated by Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer with her debut novel Shoot the Moon (Oct. 10, Putnam), but the timing is opportune.
An audio engineer by trade, Arsén has written short stories, novellas and interactive stories. Her first novel tells the story of Annie, a lonely, brilliant woman who becomes a NASA scientist working on the moon landing, and whose unquenchable curiosity leads her to an incredible discovery. The book travels in time and space throughout Annie’s life: the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s; Santa Fe, Albuquerque, San Antonio, Houston and Marfa. Setting the book partially in New Mexico was a “no-brainer,” Arsén tells SFR—her grandparents lived in Albuquerque, and she spent summers visiting New Mexico.
In the book, Annie grows up in Santa Fe while her father works on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, and the effect his mysterious, annihilating guilt has on his daughter haunts her throughout the arc of the story. Shoot the Moon’s earliest iterations were inspired by letters written to Galileo during his time, and Arsén originally thought she wanted to write about someone working on the moon landing who was in contact with the renowned astronomer for a story spanning continents and centuries. But as she developed the story, she realized it needed to be more internal than epic. Sticking with the idea of the moon landing and a time-slip element, Shoot the Moon was born.
“It grew its own legs and I was just running after it trying to write it down before it got away from me,” Arsén says.
Of course, writing a historical novel about a NASA scientist comes with its fair share of research. For Arsén, this was half the fun.
“[One day I was] looking at womenswear from the 1960s, and [the next I was] researching the specs of the lunar landing module,” she says. “There were so many places where it turned into a total rabbit hole.”
To make sense of it all, Arsén read up on Einstein and rocket scientist Mary Sherman Morgan. She pored over drawings and handwritten equations from the “incredibly well-kept” NASA archives to learn about the Apollo missions. As true to life as it stays, however, Shoot the Moon blurs the line between historical fiction and sci-fi in a tonal shift that sneaks up on the reader. This genre-bending is true to form for Arsén, who gravitates towards sci-fi that “lets itself be hand-wavy.”
“I love when sci-fi uses the science element to communicate something about the human experience,” she explains.
That, she continues, guided her to focus on Annie’s internal world while using the sci-fi element to explore themes of memory repression and self-discovery. Some might read this self-described “hand-waviness” as plot holes (she’s hand-wavy, too, towards Annie’s untroubled bisexuality in 1950s and ‘60s Texas), but Arsén doesn’t see it that way.
“It’s a little bit of column A and it’s a little bit of column B,” she says. “I wanted it to feel authentic, but at the same time I didn’t want it to be something like The Martian, where you get everything explained to you and that’s the draw of the book.”
Arsén’s sensuous, cinematic style owes much to her background in audio engineering. She’s a big film buff and initially wanted to go into scoring before she realized she didn’t want to work in Hollywood and pivoted into audio engineering.
“The principles that come with writing music are inextricable from the way that I approach reading and writing,” she says. “Everything moves through my inner ear and my inner eye, like I’m directing little movies to myself—I can see the blocking, I can hear the dialogue, I’m building the soundscape.”
The film lingo parallels are apt; Arsén didn’t plan for her novel to come out right after the infamous summer of Barbenheimer, but it’s a happy coincidence.
“I loved Oppenheimer and I was very pleased with how it all came together,” she says of her release.
Asked about that film’s controversial reception, particularly in New Mexico, Arsén notes that, “Existence is a complicated thing, and we live in a country that I think has a lot of complex layers to its history—there’s beautiful stuff, there’s really ugly stuff and I think the most authentic thing that we can do as storytellers is to make space for everybody to tell the stories that are authentic to them.”
All the same, both Oppenheimer and Shoot the Moon raise big questions about the tension between scientific curiosity and social responsibility.
“I think there’s always going to be a middle of the Venn diagram between those two,” she says, “and there’s always going to be opposing feelings between those two,” she says.
Ultimately, what Arsén hopes readers take away is the importance of time.
“We’re living in an age where resources are becoming scarce—the planet is developing in a direction that we’ve had a very heavy hand in causing, and time, I think, is one of the only resources that is untouchable: we can’t mine it, we can’t refine it, we can’t optimize it,” she says. “It’s just happening to us, and it is very important that we all stop and take stock of what we’re doing with this pocket of magic that we have.”
Isa Arsén: Shoot the Moon Reading: 4 pm Sunday, Oct. 22. Free. Collected Works Bookstore & Coffeehouse, 202 Galisteo St., (505) 988-4226