Ten Questions for Heather McCalden

by Staff

This week’s Ten Questions features Heather McCalden, whose debut memoir, The Observable Universe: An Investigation, is out today from Hogarth. In this surprising and touching book, McCalden, born in 1982, confronts the death of her parents in the early 1990s from AIDS-related complications, delving into the history of the disease while linking its emergence to the development of the internet. McCalden structures her book in a manner that captures the frenetic reality of the Information Age, with brief, titled vignettes recording memories, bits of research that read like Google-search revelations, and meditations on science, linguistics, family lore, and trivia that fascinate the author as she circumambulates her loss and attempts to better understand her parents’ lives as well as her own existence. The notion of “virality” functions as a powerful metaphor bridging the medical, digital, and social histories that McCalden seeks to comprehend. Publishers Weekly praises The Observable Universe, saying it “movingly illustrates the fragmentary experience of grief.” A multidisciplinary artist and a graduate of the Royal College of Art in the United Kingdom, Heather McCalden has been awarded residencies by the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and Mahler & LeWitt Studios. The Observable Universe won the Fitzcarraldo Editions/Mahler & LeWitt Studios Essay Prize. She lives in New York City.

Heather McCalden, author of The Observable Universe: An Investigation.  

1. How long did it take you to write The Observable Universe: An Investigation
Overall the process took around six years. I began the book in late 2015—not consciously, but I was just making notes, doing research, and composing sketches of scenes/feelings that all centered around virality. At that point in time I had been out of art school for about six months and was still operating under that paradigm of success, meaning I was glued to the idea that I should be making art installations. With this at the forefront of my mind, I couldn’t really admit to myself that maybe I was writing a book, and for a long time I believed I was generating content that would get siphoned into something visual or experiential. Eventually this changed in 2016 when the volume and diversity of material grew to such an extent it would be impossible to contain it in anything other than a book. After I hit this “acceptance” stage, I worked on Universe nearly every day until the summer of 2019. It was revised in 2021, when I received the Fitzcarraldo Essay Prize and again when Hogarth optioned the North American rights in 2022.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
Facing the darkest aspects of my psyche day after day and figuring out how to put language to it.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?  
My preferred location is my desk, but I can make anywhere work for writing if need be. I write after coffee and before the sun drops out of the sky. I do it every day; I just love hanging out with words.

4. What are you reading right now?   
As usual, too many things! Fiction: Orbital by Samantha Harvey, Alphabetical Diaries by Sheila Heti, and Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan. Nonfiction: There’s Always This Year: On Basketball and Ascension by Hanif Abdurraqib, Atlas of AI by Kate Crawford, and I Heard Her Call My Name: A Memoir of Transition by Lucy Sante. 

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
For this book there were several influential authors: Joan Didion, Raymond Chandler, William Gibson, Mary Ruefle, and Eve Babitz. Outside of literature, I kept Kate Bush and David Bowie close at hand. I needed the energy of lateral thinkers.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of The Observable Universe?
I’m not sure if this counts, but I genuinely gasped when I realized I could quote the film The Matrix in the book without stretching the plot, so to speak. I was so floored that this was possible that I immediately texted a friend who simply responded with, “Now you can retire.”

7. What is one thing your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
There were many things my agents and publishers said to me, but the one thing that really stood out to me was a poem I found in the New Yorker called “112th Street” by James Longenbach taped above my desk. It’s one of those poems that comes into your life by chance and then ends up being something of a North Star. The first few lines:

If only once, if ever you have the chance,
You should climb a volcano.
The hermitage at base camp, the glasses of brandy—
That’s the past.
Who wants to think about the past?

You want to push forward, climb higher, while all around you,
Inches beneath your feet,
Earth is seething, a river of liquid rock.

The words were a reminder to keep working, keep climbing, keep pushing beyond the past.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started The Observable Universe, what would you say?
First I’d say: Just go ahead and write the thing; no one cares. Then I’d say: Trust yourself; if you can manage that, the writing will come.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I mean, of course there was the research, and the sleepless nights on Wikipedia, and trips to the library with the inevitable (and totally embarrassing) issues with the copy machines. But there were also Friday evenings spent at the cinema, long walks along the Thames (I was living in London until 2019), and weekday mornings at the Rough Trade East Café. At the time Rough Trade—a record store—opened quite early, at like 9:00 AM or 10:00 AM, and they had a special on coffees: any type your heart desired for only £2. I used to go in about five minutes after they opened, get a cheap (but amazing) flat white, and just tune into whatever eclectic music the staff happened to put on that day. It used to warm up my brain to prepare for the writing.

Lastly: Dance. In another life I was a dancer, and while I no longer take technique classes, I do spontaneously dance in the kitchen.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
Annie Dillard wrote, “It is no less difficult to write sentences in a recipe than sentences in Moby-Dick. So you might as well write Moby-Dick.” Another way of saying this came out in a lecture by Canadian writer Douglas Glover: “Don’t save your good ideas for the end.”