• INTERVIEW with Richard Setlowe



    Existential Astronaut With Gill

    By Wayne Warga

    Times Assistant Arts Editor

  • Rick Setlowe is of this place, which is to say he was born in the East, lived around a bit and then moved to California and eventually went to USC. It is no small coincidence that the heroes of both pieces of Setlowe literature attended USC nor is it surprising they're both frustrated astronauts.

    Setlowe is also of his time, staunchly astride the concerns of his generation. His first hero, Charly Rohr (in "The Brink," published in 1976), flew a fighter off a carrier during the Quemoy-Matsu crisis, endured the monumental pressure–internal and external–of the conflict, and when last we saw him was diving bare-aft off the carrier into Hong Kong harbor, a sort of update Yossarian.

    Now comes Harry Styles, his wife Ruth (they met at USC, pinned and got married straightaway) and their three children. Harry is in his 40s, lives in a nice home with pool in Encino and is dying of lung cancer. Harry knows what's ahead but still dreams of being a hero. The surprise is that he gets his wish.

    Setlowe, who is 45, went to Navy flight school only to get cut off in an economic cutback and end up an air control officer on the U.S.S. Midway during the Quemoy-Matsu crisis.

    "Had we gone to war," Setlowe says, "I would be a strike controller. I would point the planes. I did fly occasionally, in the right-hand seat as an airborne controller. That's where I got the experiences for writing about Charly Rohr."

    Logical Extension

    "The Brink" turned out to be one of those good books with few readers, a taut and exciting tale given to turns of existential behavior and vivid external action.

    Harry Styles is a sort of logical extension of Charly Rohr, enduring frustrations of middle age, the reconciliation of dreams to realities, a man who loves his family, loves the idea of what might have been and who faces death with a mixture of anger and resignation.

    What happens in "The Experiment: (Holt, Rinehart Winston) is just that, an elaborate experiment to implant a gill in Harry Styles' throat. The experimenting physicians tell him he will remain in a coma and won't awake again, but that isn't what happens. Harry gets his chance to be an aquatic astronaut, is nicknamed Glaucus after the Greek myth and begins a very conscious life under water.

    "Both of my characters are frustrated astronauts, which is a kind of touchstone of my life. I was in flight school with Eugene Cernan. Cernan went on to become one of the first men to walk in space, the last of the Apollo commanders and the last man to walk on the moon. I became a writer."


  • But before he turned full time to writing, Setlowe worked on the staff of the San Francisco Examiner, Daily Variety and finally at ABC Pictures. When ABC went out of the feature business, Setlowe took stock and decided to turn to fiction. He subsidized himself by working in the newsroom at Channel 9, and his wife Beverly worked too.

    Skirting the Line

    For "The Experiment," Rick Setlowe has become Harry Styles, the adventure is once again taut and often anxious, skirting–sometimes well, sometimes not so well–the line between implausibility and could-be, could-be. Yet it's all possible; Setlowe has done his research and is meticulous about it.

    "The first literature about a gill implant was written in 1965 and had already been a matter of active speculation for some time. In 1970 the result of an experiment on a dog was published at Cornell. The references in the book are real," Setlowe says.

    Truth may indeed be stranger, and "The Experiment" takes quite a turn when oil companies get interested, the doctors get protective and Harry gets angry and decides to split.

    The idea of a man in a huge glass cage, aswim in his own sea, is, it turns out, also a clever device for dealing with a marriage, and there too "The Experiment" takes some interesting turns.

    "How many of us," Setlowe muses, "have walls of glass and water in our marriages, barriers not easy to penetrate?"

    Setlowe's identification with Harry Styles is more philosophical than physiological. Styles has terminal lung cancer and was up to several packs a day, Setlowe is a well-conditioned distance runner. What led Setlowe to the story of Styles is a life-long fascination with water and diving. At 16, Setlowe became a qualified lifeguard on Atlantic Beach in Long Island and is now a qualified advance and research diver. He is also a commercially licensed pilot.

    And, now, at last, a solvent novelist. MGM and producer Herb Jaffe bought "The Experiment" in a six-figure deal that includes Setlowe as the writer of the screenplay. The script is presently in first-draft form and Setlowe is on a kind of double-hold, waiting for the reaction to his book and his screenplay. And then, he's off to start another novel.


    — Wayne Warga is the co-author of "Return to Earth," the autobiography of astronaut Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, Jr.


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