NEA Literature Fellowships

Margaret Lazarus Dean

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(2008 - Prose)

Excerpt from novel The Time It Takes to Fall

The shuttles launched, one after another. When I was there to see them, close up, they were thumb-sized things struggling their way into the sky on a pillow of steam. When I didn't go to the launch, I looked outside for the bright vertical streak, too bright and fast and upright to be a plane. When the shuttles returned, the double sonic boom startled me, the Orbiter breaking the sound barrier, first with its nose, then with its wings. I kept track of the launches: which mission was being assembled or loaded, which was moving out to the launch pad, which one was scheduled to launch, delayed, in orbit, reentering the atmosphere, landing, or in processing again.

When the shuttles launched, everyone celebrated: bars served free drinks, kids were allowed to miss school to watch our fathers' accomplishments appear on the national news, and for a time, our fathers were happy. But when the launches were delayed, everything moved into a strange sort of limbo time. People in from out of town extended their hotel reservations, grew weary and then contemptuous of central Florida, looking around as if they were being held here against their will. A launch that was supposed to have gone up one morning but wouldn't attempt again until the next made us all feel we were living in a day that didn't count, a day between parentheses. The fathers looked out windows, confused and distracted, refiguring their plans. We could see them shuffling Orbiters and manifests in their minds, feeling for temperature and wind, thinking through contingencies. Sometimes I caught my father whispering to himself: if not tomorrow, then not till Sunday. If windy on Sunday, then not till Tuesday. The fathers were somehow tinkering with time itself, it seemed to me. Time would not move forward properly until after they had fixed the flawed parts, tested them, reinstalled them, and fired the shuttle off successfully, sending a vertical column of steam into the air to announce: here. Start the clocks. Begin again.

Margaret Lazarus Dean is the author of The Time It Takes to Fall (Simon & Schuster, 2007). She grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, and received a BA in anthropology from Wellesley College and an MFA from the University of Michigan. She is currently a lecturer at the University of Michigan and lives in Ann Arbor. Visit her website:

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Author's Statement

My son was born a few months after my first novel was published. In those early days and weeks of motherhood, I started to suspect that I would never write another book. Babies are so demanding of time and energy, and child care is expensive. Now my son is seven months old, and though nothing has ever made me happier, I was right in my prediction: I've written hardly at all since he was born. This gift from the NEA will mean the difference between writing and not writing for me in 2008. I'm deeply honored to have been chosen and grateful for the opportunity to work on my next novel, which is about deceit, garage bands, and the Y2K disaster.