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Mary Winn Heider on The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy

The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy started with a single scene that arrived like a tiny bolt of lightning to my brain:

There was a football field. And on the field was a bear in a cage. And a kid, transfixed by the bear and finding something oddly familiar about it, stepped closer and closer until the bear took a breath and roared, sending the kid running around the perimeter of the field, caught in the bear’s orbit but desperate for something just beyond.

At the time, I knew the bear didn’t belong in the cage, and that the kid needed to save both the bear and herself—but I didn’t understand why yet. And why football? I didn’t know anything about football except what I’d gleaned during my long-ago years in marching band! I did, however, remember with terrific clarity the intoxicating feeling of being out on the field—the lights, the sound—and how sometimes the pressure of it all was…a lot.

I knew that this kid was under a lot of pressure.

In the early phases of a project, I generate a lot of words and phrases on random bits of paper and then sift through them as I begin writing. One of the phrases I jotted down (from somewhere in the deep recesses of my science brain) was escape velocity—the physics term that refers to the velocity required to break the pull of gravity. I taped that particular scrap of paper to my computer as I became obsessed with what this kid needed to escape from, and just what that escape would require.

When I started writing the story, I certainly didn’t anticipate the collective grief we are experiencing now as the book comes out—but at the time I was grieving my own losses. And it took me longer than it should have to realize that grief was the key to this story, that I was writing about the escape velocity for grief, and that this kid was one of a pair of siblings experiencing loss for the first time, the loss of their dad. That the two of them, Winston and Louise, were caught in the gravity of despair in different ways, and that they were going to have to rely on each other to break through.

Winston and Louise’s dad is already gone when the book starts, and every part of their journey through music and chemistry and friendship and first crushes is inextricably entangled with his absence. But what had happened to him? As I pulled back layers of the story, it became clear to me that there was no way I could write about football without acknowledging CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). I courted despair myself as I dug into research on concussions and the effects of CTE on brain tissue, on behavior, on the families of people who suffer from it. Traumatic brain injuries are devastating. While Losers isn’t strictly about CTE, it is absolutely about the aftermath of the disease and a family splintered by its particular kind of insidious destruction.

Which is all great…except I write funny books! What did I have to say about despair? My first (funny) book was all about death—and I wholeheartedly believe in finding our way through dark times with humor. But writing about despair? Where death felt like a landscape, despair felt like a shroud: intimate and impenetrable. Still, I kept working, exploring the ways grief can be absurd and ridiculous and petty and at-all-costs-avoided, trying to find the fault lines in despair.

And from that exploration came the story of the children of the worst quarterback in the history of football and the way they figure out how to live their lives without him. Eighth-grader Winston tries to lose himself in Darth Vader and the tuba. Seventh-grader Louise reigns over Chemistry Club as she aims to find a cure for the disease that took her dad down. The siblings have gone from being friends to being strangers, and not until somebody throws all the tubas off the roof of the school do they begin to make their way back. They find their escape velocity in each other, and in remembering how to risk it all and care about other people, even when those people are bears in cages or pop superstars who dress like cats.

When I was young, reading helped me understand and process loss; the humor and whimsy in the books I read were essential as I slowly built a sense of resilience. I hope that readers of The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy can see themselves in Winston and Louise, and feel their own strength, understand their own escape velocity for all of the things that are weighing on them. I hope the book becomes part of their own scaffolding of resilience.