Lily Koppel is the bestselling author of The Red Leather Diary. She has written for the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, the Daily Beast, the Huffington Post, and Glamour. Her most recent release, The Astronaut Wives Club, is out now from Grand Central Publishing. She lives in New York City with her husband and their two spacey rescue dogs, Ozzy and Lucky.
(Photographer credit: Mark Seliger)
Midwestern Gothic: First things first, tell us about your Midwestern roots.
Lily Koppel: I was born in Chicago. Raised in the city. My parents were both New Yorkers, transplanted to Chicago, as my dad was a trader back in the day at the Merc. Very Gordan Gekko stuff. I grew up going to the Lincoln Park Zoo. Staring up at the Sears Tower and the John Hancock, which I prefer. My mom and I used to take the bus every Friday when I was little (this is the early and mid-1980s) to the old Marshall Fields department store on State Street, which felt to me like a relic back then. They used to have an ice cream parlor, it was so magical. All the chairs were white with the heart backs, each either a powder pink leather cushion seat or mossy green. I would always get vanilla ice cream with hot fudge and she would always have a scoop of pistachio.
I went to the same school, Lab, part of the University of Chicago from kindergarten until I graduated from high school in 1999. It was very Hogwarts-like in retrospect, gargoyles, and mad brilliant teachers. I was a bit of a bad kid in high school, always studious, but had a wild side. I got my first fake ID at 16. I was out clubbing at Buddha Bar by then and telling people I was “a grad student at the U of C.”
MG: Both your books are strongly rooted in reality—stories about people and events that actually took place. Was the choice to write these stories as they happened an obvious one for you? Why or why not?
LK: I like to see the magic and potential in small things. I believe life is very mysterious and finding stories points that out. I guess I wanted to be struck by lightening, and with The Red Leather Diary and The Astronaut Wives Club I was. What are the chances? If my hair starts standing up on end and I get goose bumps about the story (as I did when I found the diary and again, when I saw a Life magazine photo of the wives in their skyrocketing beehives, outfitted in their swirling candy-colored Pucci minidresses, and turned to my husband, who’s also a writer, and said, “Has a book ever been written about the wives?”), I know I need to write a book and tell the world these amazing stories.
MG: The Astronaut Wives Club is a nonfiction story about the group of women who were suddenly in the spotlight as their husbands went into space to beat the Russians in the Space Race. What about this subject matter most fascinated you?
LK: I’ve always loved The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, and of course Mad Men, but I never realized how much I wanted to know more about these women until I saw that picture. It was just the tip of the iceberg. I now realize what drew me to those movies and the books was an interest in the personalities, especially the women. When I found out that they actually have a club—and that they raised their families in the Houston “space burbs” near NASA’s operations, in a community known as “Togethersville”—the whole thing was just amazing! I knew I had to write the book and tell their story. The emotional side of the space race.
I think what I was most surprised to learn was that the wives were like America’s first reality stars, with reporters embedded in their suburban homes. After their husbands became astronauts, and Life magazine bought the rights to the couples’ “personal stories” for half a million dollars in 1959, the astronaut families were all thrust into the spotlight. The wives’ mantra throughout the space race was “Happy, proud, and thrilled.” It was their “keep calm and carry on” motto, the women’s way of coping with having their lives turned inside out, and the press camped out on their lawns during the missions. On top of dealing with your husband riding a giant stick of dynamite, the women had to worry about how all of America would receive them on television and the cover of magazines.
MG: Reality-TV, movies, novels…it’s so present in today’s modern culture. What do you think is the appeal, and any opinion on why now we are so drawn to it?
LK: Because we long for honesty in a highly corporate world. We crave any normalcy, warts and all, thongs and confessions and love and sorrow and desperation. It is silly, but there is meaning hidden there, and of course watching these shows can be addictive, especially if you are on an airplane.
MG: You grew up in the Midwest, but currently live in New York. Do you still feel a special connection to the Midwest?
LK: Even though I have lived in New York for fifteen years, since I left Chicago to go to Barnard College in 1999, whenever people ask me where I am from, I say, “I live in New York, but I’m from Chicago.” I grew up in Lincoln Park and in Hyde Park, where Obama is from and where I went to school. I think it gave me a very down to Earth side. Me and my five best friends from growing up back in the day used to complain about the lack of anything to do in Hyde Park, except for go to the Medici (which had the best hot chocolate and chocolate croissants) and hang out in Bixler, the local playground. We wanted more glamour, but we had what then felt like eons of time to get to know each other and create lasting friendships.
MG: What do you think defines this place?
LK: For me Chicago was more about my friends, and crushes, and driving around with them while I was in high school. I had my prom at the Museum of Natural History. My dad and I were once sailing when I was little in Lincoln Park and capsized and he thought I might have drowned (I was fine). Going to the Adler Planetarium and looking up at the stars as a child. To me the Midwest is a swath of very personal memories. I had the pleasure of spending a lot of time in Chicago while interviewing and getting to know one of the wives for The Astronaut Wives Club, Marilyn Lovell, who is married to Jim “Houston, we have a problem” Lovell, played by Tom Hanks in Apollo 13. They live in Lake Forest, where they also have a family restaurant, Lovells of Lake Forest. You can order a Mount Marilyn Martini there (with a fudge rim), named after the lunar mountain Jim romantically named for his wife.
MG: One of the big things we focus on at Midwestern Gothic is how overlooked the region is, both from a cultural/literary perspective. Can you elaborate on why you agree or disagree?
LK: The Midwest is seen as less sophisticated than New York and LA. And perhaps it is—but it has a whole lot of heart. One of my favorite characters from The Astronaut Wives Club is Betty Grissom, the wife of astronaut Gus Grissom, known in some parts as the Hoosier astronaut. They were both from small town Mitchell, Indiana, and met during halftime on the basketball court back in high school (Gus being like most of the astronauts, small, and too short to play ball.) He used to take her to movies about his passion, flying, and taught her to drive (since her dad believed women weren’t smart enough to take the wheel). They have a very Jack and Diane in the Heartland vibe to their love story.
Of course when Betty joined the other astronaut wives, they saw her as unsophisticated, the fact that she didn’t want to get her hair or makeup done, but she had a wild side, which she still lets if she trusts you. When I visited with her for the book, she got a glint in her eye: “You wanna see my fur hot pants?” She still had her Neiman Marcus fashions from back in the day.
MG: What is the most influential book you’ve read?
LK: To the Lighthouse.
MG: If you could go anywhere with one dead literary figure, who would you pick and where would you go?
LK: I’d take Shakespeare and go to the Moon, naturally.
MG: What’s next for you?
LK: I am working on a novel. Perhaps unusual for someone who has written two non-fiction books, I love the Harry Potters and books of that ilk. This time I’ve found an untold story like the Astrowives and the red diary, but it is fiction. It gives me goose bumps just to think about it.