Reading Christopher Cokinos’s new book, The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars (Tarcher/Penguin, 528 pages, $27.95), is like taking an adventurous romp into the realm of meteorites and their hunters. Passion, science, dreams, and desire are all brought together in this book, which makes it an exciting study of the human psyche as well as an in-depth exploration of nature and science. Cokinos currently lives with his partner Kathe Lison along the Blacksmith Fork River in Northern Utah’s Cache Valley. He teaches creative writing at Utah State University, where he has appointments in English and Natural Resources. I recently caught up with Christopher Cokinos to get the scoop on where this book took him (Greenland! Antarctica!), how it gave him a deeper love of his Utah home, and why—despite the far-flung research he conducted for this book—he still considers himself a “reluctant adventurer.” He will read from The Fallen Sky in Salt Lake City on August 27 at King’s English Bookstore (7 p.m.).
New West: You say that your new book, The Fallen Sky, is “an intimate history of shooting stars.” What do you mean by that?
Christopher Cokinos: Well, it’s a way to indicate that this is not traditional science writing or natural history. The book has a strong memoir thread—much stronger than I had anticipated—because as I was researching the passions, the lives, the successes and heartbreaks of meteorite hunters, I was in the midst of a new love, a divorce, a parent’s death, a move across the country, and more.
So here I was trying to track down personal details about homesteaders in Kansas who find rare meteorites and become quite wealthy or about an obscure professor who changes the course of science by studying rocks from space, or just getting a handle on the wonderful and sometimes crazy world of contemporary meteorite dealers. What I found was that their lives interrogated my own. I learned about myself through their histories and experiences. I learned about them through my own. I simply could not untangle all that. It belonged together.
A lot of natural history or history or science writing effaces the author’s participation. Maybe that’s less true now, but I’m writing against that tendency. That’s not to say I didn’t work hard to be balanced in how I presented factual material. I think I did that. But the book is not really “about meteorites,” it’s about people and meteorites. It’s a psychological exploration, at its heart.
By “intimate,” I hope to suggest this sense of reaching into the psyche, my own and those about whom I’m writing.
NW: Okay, so besides covering this personal and psychological terrain, where else does The Fallen Sky go?
CC: The other part of the book is a history—it moves through time to seek out real people who became obsessed with meteors and meteorites, entangled with them, whether for profit or science or worship or what-have-you.
So, yeah, with that history, there does come a lot of science, at least my layperson’s translation of it, my attempts to understand how meteorites may have helped life on Earth and not just devastate it or how these tiny, mysterious things called “chondrules” that are part of some meteorites may have helped planets get built in our solar system. How cosmic dust sifts down from the sky to our skin. I try to make the science as real, as alive, as the characters of the book.
NW: In writing this book, you traveled all over the planet in search of meteorites and their hunters. What place affected you the most, and why?
CC: That’s a great way of putting it. I’ve been asked what was the most exciting or the most intense, but the place that affected me the most? I think there are three places I’d point to, if I can cheat on the question a bit.
First, emphatically, Antarctica. I went there on a scientific expedition in 2003-2004 to collect meteorites for the international research community, and it was right after all the personal changes I just talked about. I was exhausted, really, and pushed that down for as long as I could till one day I was in a tent on the ice and basically said I was deeply depressed and, well, I had a breakdown. It’s not how I would have wanted my stay in Antarctica to have gone, but there it is.
And, truthfully, to tie this back to your first question: I just could not see a way to keep the book impersonal till the very end, when I have a breakdown in Antarctica. Everything that had come before needed to be laid out to prepare the reader for that moment. It was a culmination for me, not a good one, but a culmination.
I guess, though, as I’ve joked sometimes, I got a surprising end to the story, to the book. I mean, I went to Antarctica knowing I would find meteorites—so where was the tension in that?
I still have dreams about being there.
What may seem mundane, in contrast, is a street-corner in the small Kansas town of McPherson. But I stood there one day, it was spring a few years ago I think, and that’s where one of the major characters of the book saw a meteor—a fireball, a really bright meteor—that changed his life. He became obsessed with meteors and meteorites from that point forward. Risked his well-being and his family, right in the middle of the Depression to pursue rocks from space—at a time when leading geologists thought he was crazy to try to find meteorites where none had been found before or seen to fall. I just loved that a simple street-corner was the site of his epiphany. So prosaic and lyrical, that fact.
But, in retrospect, the place that probably mattered the most was northern Utah, where my partner Kathe and I moved in 2002. We were both coming out of other relationships, and I was starting a new job at Utah State. Thing is, it’s intensely beautiful there, and so big, so big, so much to learn and so many things and places to explore. It became our home while I was writing The Fallen Sky. I had pictures of our house and the river we live next to with me in the tent in Antarctica. The book is also a meditation on that, on leaving and returning. On home.
NW: How did your roles as a writer, scholar, nature-lover, and adventurer all come to influence the way you approached writing The Fallen Sky?
CC: God, adventurer? Me? I’m the most reluctant, neurotic adventurer in history, I’m sure. I’d only gone overseas once, to visit Kathe in China, before I started globe-trotting for The Fallen Sky. I feel like an accidental tourist with too many notebooks.
But, you know, yes, the book brought together my obsessive need to research the hell out of something—the scholarly side, I guess—and the need to write lyrically—where appropriate—about the science of meteorites, the history of human entanglement with them and the lives of the meteorite hunters and the scientists, my own circumstances.
Writing this kind of nonfiction really unites my apprenticeships from years ago: journalism, where I learned that accuracy matters, and poetry, where I learned that language matters.
Oh, nature-lover—well, I’d like to think I’ve developed keener eye for details because of that too, because of observing things in the field. Certainly I wanted to evoke places that I visited, and one way to do that is to pay attention to landscape, to rocks, to the green world, birds, and so on. On a purely technical or craft side of things, it helps to have an eye for such things while setting scenes or reconstructing them from primary and secondary sources, like photographs, articles, weather records, that sort of thing. Erik Larson has talked wonderfully about this process, by the way.
NW: Of all the meteorite hunters you researched or met while writing this book, which personality did you find the most intriguing?
CC: That’s easy. Harvey Nininger, the fellow from the street corner. He was teaching biology and doing work in that field when he saw the meteor. He was at a tiny college, had no reputation to speak of, and was trying to see his way into something big, scientifically. He was after something new and after legacy. And he did it. He defied conventional wisdom—not without some cost and tragedy—and basically pioneered the idea that you could go out and hunt for meteorites and study them in ways no one else had studied them. He took and still takes a lot of flak for his methods at times. He’s been dead for many years now, but he’s a controversial figure still. I’m sure my admiration for him—which is mixed with some ambivalence—comes through in the book.
I have tried to be even-handed in the book, but another reason it’s “intimate” is that I don’t try to hide my personal feelings about some of these characters. Harvey roamed the world, the country—the West in particular—and his love for meteorites and for the outdoors—well, I identified with that. I know I also feel a bit of kinship with his push to leave something behind.
NW: The Fallen Sky is lyrical and deeply researched. How long did it take you to write it?
CC: I spent eight years working on The Fallen Sky, in large measure because of the research I felt was required to know these people and the science of meteorites too. My previous book on extinct birds, Hope is the Thing With Feathers, took me ten years to write.
So that means Hope is the Thing with Feathers and The Fallen Sky have taken, and I find this hard to fathom, 18 years of my life. I’d like to shave a bit more time off the next mammoth research-based, first-person project. I have nearly as many end-notes as I do pages in The Fallen Sky.
NW: Speaking of “the next mammoth research-based, first-person project,” do you already have something in mind? What comes next?
CC: Right now I’m thinking of writing a book about the American West and space exploration, looking at each through the lens of the other. You know, Loren Eiseley meets Percival Lowell with a backpack and telescope somewhere in the Rockies, with a dash of John Wesley Powell. We’ll see.
But first I’m going to work on completing a collection of lyric essays and make more progress on a book of essays about Utah. I have a collection of aphorisms I’m circulating, and I feel like if I can’t tackle another multi-year project just yet, that’s cool. I can write more aphorisms. They’re shorter and don’t take as long. The Utah material matters a lot to me, because I feel at home here, and there’s a potent literary legacy in the state, from DeVoto and Stegner to Abbey and Williams to Meloy and Steve Trimble—so whatever I do I want to work hard to make it worthy, at least somewhat worthy, of that company. Fingers crossed.
Christopher Cokinos will read from The Fallen Sky in Salt Lake City on August 27 at King’s English Bookstore (7 p.m.).