How does one tell the story of an entire galaxy? In The Milky Way (Grand Central, Aug.), astrophysicist and folklorist Moiya McTier lets the galaxy do the talking, writing its history and evolution as an autobiography, with the Milky Way itself as narrator. PW spoke with McTier about lending the galaxy a voice, the intersection of science and story, and what the human experience has in common with the life of the Milky Way.
Why write this book as an autobiography?
I’d just read Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower. It’s this book with a sentient rock-god as a character, and I thought, “Oh, that’s cool.” I’ve always been a huge sci-fi and fantasy nerd. So when I was faced with the opportunity to write a nonfiction book, I wanted to bring some fictional elements in. Writing it as an autobiography seemed like the perfect way to bring in a storytelling arc and make it something that’s told from the perspective of a character.
How did you develop the Milky Way as a character?
The Milky Way, like all other galaxies, has a central black hole. As I was getting into the mindset of the Milky Way I thought that was a perfect metaphor for depression. So I framed a lot of the narrative around the Milky Way learning to cope with this giant hungry monster in its center. One of the big science questions that I wanted to answer was: How do black holes form? It felt like a great metaphor for all of the things we think about ourselves. There are love stories in the Milky Way. It has these close relationships with other galaxies in our local group. That all came from science. I thought that making the Milky Way a character with an emotional arc was a nice way to get normal humans here on Earth to empathize with this big galaxy.
How did you balance the science with the story you were telling?
It all started with the science. I had an outline of the book and the scientific points I wanted to hit. I knew that I wanted to start with cosmology, the origin of the universe, and the formation of galaxies. I wanted to talk about the evolution of our Milky Way galaxy and how that relates to star formation and star death. Then I wanted to talk about the future of our Milky Way and its role in the ultimate end of the universe. I also wanted to talk about things that we don’t know yet. When I had those milestones figured out, that inspired the narrative. There were several times when my science communicator brain and my storyteller brain were at odds. Like when I wanted the story to go a certain way but the science didn’t support it, so I had to go back and change some of the narrative. That was frustrating but a valuable exercise. I think a good writer, a good storyteller, is one who follows what the story naturally wants to do instead of fighting it and inserting their own decisions. So starting with the science really helped, and then the story filled in from there.