Behind the book: How I found ‘Percival’s Planet’
by Michael Byers
I'd intended to write a novel about my grandparents. My grandmother Margaret struggled all her life with mental illness; her marriage to my grandfather Paul was turbulent, lasting only long enough to produce my mother and my uncle. In a revisionary spirit I wanted to rewrite their marriage so it didn't end—so that it outlasted its difficulties.
But as I wrote my grandfather's story, I found it—despite everything—boring. I couldn't find a way to make his time at law school exciting. His courtship and marriage lay flat. So I put the book down and wrote another novel about something else entirely (Long for This World, 2003). Still, my grandparents' story remained intriguing to me, so when I finished Long for This World, I returned to that previous attempt.
When I did, I remembered that in the late 1920s at Harvard (during the period in which my grandfather was studying law there), 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 point during my research into the period for the previous version I'd come across this fact and stored it away for later use. Now I thought, All right, what if my grandfather hadn’t been in the law school, but had instead been an astronomer? What if he had been along to assist on the Planet X search? What might have happened then?
In this way, unexpectedly, the book evolved from being about my grandparents to being about the search for Planet X—which was eventually discovered at Lowell Observatory, in 1930, by the high-school educated Kansas farmboy Clyde Tombaugh.
In bringing Clyde Tombaugh into the novel—to eventually become its central character—I read what I could find of Clyde's own accounts of his life. I was particularly interested in how Clyde depicted his experiences as a 1920s-era farmboy making telescopes in his spare time, and in how he described his time at Lowell Observatory conducting the photographic search for Planet X. As a novelist, of course, my attention fastened on the interesting gaps in his own account. What did it feel like to make a perfect 9-inch mirror in the middle of a lonely Kansas farmyard? What did he think when his crucial oat field was ruined by hail, destroying his college fund and diverting the course of his life forever? What must it have been like to receive a letter from the eminent V.M. Slipher, inviting him to come to Lowell Observatory on a trial basis? What must Clyde have felt, arriving as a young man in Flagstaff, Arizona, to meet Slipher at the Flagstaff train depot, and to climb into the astronomer's Model T on a snowy afternoon? And, finally, what must he have felt having actually found the long-sought Planet X?
My most fruitful research occurred at Lowell Observatory itself. There, I handled not only the Pluto telescope but Clyde Tombaugh’s own observational journals, filled out in ink in his meticulous blue handwriting. Turning those ruled pages, I understood who Clyde had been—and why he was the perfect man to find Planet X. Anxious to please, afraid of being fired, studied in the painstaking work of building a telescope from scratch alone—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. The more I learned, the more it seemed to me it should have been impossible for Clyde to find Planet X, and 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 an actual snipe.
As I was writing, Pluto suddenly entered the news by being demoted from planetary status. At first I thought this was the end of any hopes for the novel. Who wants to read a book about a planet that doesn't exist anymore? But I saw, to my surprise, that people really cared about Pluto—the runt planet at the end of the solar system. Who knew? "Save Pluto" organizations cropped up overnight. I, too, think Pluto's planetary status is a fitting monument to Clyde Tombaugh's work, and I hope the book gives him the recognition he deserves for his industry and dedication, and that it captures, at least a little, the experience of discovering a new world.
And, yes, I still haven't really written about my grandparents.
Maybe next time!