The Backstory

In 1996, I took a summer job at a bookstore in Harwich Port, a tiny town nestled on the elbow of Cape Cod. One morning, on my day off, I rode the ferry to Nantucket. While I was en route, a squib in a tourist flyer caught my eye: Come and see the home of the famous girl astronomer from Nantucket. The article noted Maria Mitchell’s humble origins on Quaker Nantucket in 1818, her discovery of a comet while she was in her twenties, and her subsequent career as the first professional female astronomer in America. She’d never married or gone to college.

Girl astronomer. I pictured a teenage girl in a somber gray dress, alone on
her roof, obsessively searching the night skies for something that would change her life. I was intrigued, probably because at the time I was single, in my twenties, and searching for something—or someone—that would change my life. When we docked, I made my way past the posh boutiques selling Nantucket Reds and the clubby restaurants selling lobster bisque until I reached the side street where Maria Mitchell’s shingled house stood, a small garden of wildflowers blooming beside it. The dirt was sandy; the air was salty. I was entranced.

From that moment on, I felt compelled to tell Miss Mitchell’s story. I learned everything I could about nineteenth-century astronomy, whaling, and Quakers. I gave my character a period-appropriate name: Hannah Gardner Price. I knew what was on her desk and what the air smelled like from her roof and which constellations would shimmer into view on a warm June night in 1845. But I couldn’t get a handle on her heart. What were her hidden passions, her deepest misgivings? Where were her weaknesses? Why did I care enough to stick by her, year after year, trying to understand?

The answers came, as most do, with time—a decade and a half, in my case. What I thought was a true story about a devoted scientist’s fearsome ambition turned out to be an invented tale of desire and transformation inspired by Miss Mitchell—but not about her. Once I loosed Hannah from the constraints of someone’s life story and freed her to inhabit the story I wanted to tell, the fog lifted. Hannah’s struggle to understand what she wants—and to allow herself to be fueled by her passions instead of shamed by them—this is the heart of the novel for me. It took fifteen years to discover that truth, mostly because I was looking in the wrong place. As Maria Mitchell herself famously put it: [W]e have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire; the more we see, the more we are capable of seeing. Besides learning to see, there is another art to be learned—not to see what is not.