Podcast #1: Interview with Laura Montgomery, Space Lawyer and Science Fiction Writer

Lawyers have long had a strong connection with literature, with many famous and prolific authors having led a previous life in the legal industry. So to celebrate World Book Day 2018 with a legal twist, Obelisk Support decided to track down a practising lawyer who is also carving out a career as a published author. Laura Montgomery is an American space lawyer and she very kindly accepted to share her thoughts on her work as a space lawyer and as a science fiction writer.


I’m your host, Laure Latham, and today, I’m speaking with Laura Montgomery, a spacer lawyer and science fiction author whose latest book, Mercenary Calling, was recently published in January.

The Attic (TA): Laura, thank you so much for joining us.

Laura Montgomery (LM): Oh, thank you Laure. It’s a pleasure to be here.

On Being a Space Lawyer

TA: Well, I’m very excited. It’s not every day that I speak to a space lawyer. I would like to start the interview with you telling us a bit about your career as a space lawyer…

LM: Well, sure. I’ve been practicing for quite a number of years, almost three decades now. I started out in private practice at a law firm in Washington DC where I did regulatory work. Then the job came open for space lawyer with the Department of Transportation and I went over and interviewed, and it is my firm conviction that I got the job because I went to the Air and Space Museum afterwards and touched the moon rock for good luck! We all got moved into the Federal Aviation Administration, the FAA, after a couple of years there, and that is where I worked for 22 years. The FAA regulates launch and re-entry and the operation of what is commonly known as space ports. I had a great time. I worked on human space light regulations, launch safety regulations, lightning rules, explosive siting, it’s really thrilling even though some of it is grindingly dull! It was a lot of fun.

Now I’ve set up my own shop. I left the FAA about a year and a half ago and I’ve testified to Congress a couple of times, to the Space subcommittees in the House and the Senate and I do different types of legal work, all space related, and now I’m teaching a seminar in Space Law at Catholic University’s Law School.

On Writing Science Fiction

TA: Now, I’m looking at your recent book, Mercenary Calling. I’m not going to give out any spoilers to your future readers but it’s like Star Trek meets Suits, basically.  Because it’s a lot of science fiction interaction. It’s about discovering a new planet that’s livable for humans, it’s about settling on the planet and all the legal implications that it can have for the human race. Tell us why you wanted to write this book and why, in general, you are writing science fiction?

LM: Sure. I’ve been reading science fiction since I was 13. I’ve always loved the outer space books and the thought that we could go to amazing places. When I read these books, I started out with Robert Heinlein, C. J. Cherry and others, I always wondered how people on Earth were reacting to things. You know, let’s say there was an alien invasion at the edge of the solar system. Well, in the books, Earth always mobilises really fast but I’m sure that we would squabble about it first. My books are more “ground based” I call them because there’s going to be a lot of conflict here in dealing with outer space. I’ve certainly seen a lot of that in my own career. The stories that pop into my head are always stories about what’s going on here.

Since I’m a lawyer and I know the law, I do know a bit of space law, I tend to veer in that direction. With Mercenary Calling, I think that if someone left a settlement and it was unclear whether it was authorised or not, they might come back and be in trouble. So my hero, my lawyer hero Calvin Tondini, has a new client. A starship captain is charged with mutiny for leaving this settlement behind. He has to defend her, and she’s he’s got a mind of her own. There’s a lot about the attorney client relationship, as well as the legal issues. Some of my favorite clients have been difficult! I think of one, I really admired her, and she was a handful too. It was a fun book to write and since I know the law and I know what it’s like to be a lawyer, so I felt free to have my frivolous moments with the book.

One of themes in the book is what we currently call planetary protection. Are we going to allow microbes and Earth germs to contaminate Mars when we’re trying to figure out if it has life there? Also, we want to let people go, so those are policy issues that need to be balanced. I didn’t even mean to raise it, but the themes played out in Mercenary Calling. There’s a reason there is alien corn on the cover.

On Combining Professional life and Creative Life

TA: I know. It took me a while to figure out but I found out! You’ve told us that space was your field, there’s a lot of space law woven into the book. Tell us how your professional life influences your creative life.

LM: It’s certainly given me a lot of ideas. There’s always been prizes offered in real life for great innovations, going back to the Longitude prize back when, I think it was the 18th century, when they were having trouble navigating and sailing because they couldn’t figure out the longitude, so a prize was offered, and it took decades to win. Then there was the prize that Charles Lindbergh won for crossing the Atlantic or, more recently, in the space field, the X Prize was offered to anyone who could develop their own launch technology to fly to space twice on a re-usable rocket within two weeks with the capacity to take three people. That was a big deal for us at the FAA because we had a lot of people come in wanting licenses. It was won by Spaceship 1 of Scaled Composites, which was the company that flies Spaceship 1, using Paul Allen of Microsoft’s money – I think they spent $20 million to win $10 million.

Now they have licensed the technology to Virgin and formed Virgin Galactic. This sort of prize atmosphere in my daily life is what gave me the idea for Manx Prize, where our heroine, an engineer, is trying to win a prize of $50 million in gold, decades from now, for bringing in pieces of orbital debris. Because space junk is a real problem up there. I think that sort of thing had a real influence on some of my plots. I had Charlotte Fisher in my head, I just didn’t know what she was doing and then one day I said ‘oh, she’s trying to win a prize!’ I’ve already talked about the planetary protection issues, mentioned in Mercenary Calling. I just wrote a short story that’s sitting in a magazine, begging to be rejected.

A lot of the legal issues in that, even though it’s about sending a piece of art to Mars, come from [our] weekly phone calls with NASA trying to work out our issues with astronauts going up on launches that the FAA licenses and there were lots of legal issues with that. As I wrote this short story, I just kept giggling because I kept putting in things that were from the government astronaut legal interpretation, from this and from that, and I’m definitely sending that story to my NASA friends when it comes out, they’ll recognise elements! There’s plenty of what we writers call reader cookies for a few folks. I’d say that I use a lot of both law and policy and just factual stuff in my writing. I knew how to research my science fiction novel, my orbital debris one, because I knew a lot about launch and re-entry but I didn’t know a lot about putting stuff on orbit. I kind of knew how to look it up. It’s been really helpful for my creative writing to have done all this work in the field even though I’m not an engineer.

On the Writer’s Creative Process

TA: Do you usually start with a legal idea, an anecdote or something else? Would you describe your creative process to us?

LM:  Giving it the name process is perhaps too much credit: I have these things pop into my head. I don’t sit down and think, oh, I’m going to write a story, what should it be about. I don’t come up with a list. I have either a character or the idea. Sometimes, I marry them up. I have some sort of sarcastic comment that I’m thinking about, ‘this is ridiculous, what if someone really did?’ And then I have a story. Often it’s my critical side at work, and then it takes off. In the writing field, we have these two terms, the plotter and the pantser. There are people who outline their stories and people who write by the seat of their pants.  Even though I’m a lawyer who does a lot of outlining in terms of figuring out the logic of my arguments, turns out that on the creative side, I’m a pantser! I learned not to start things if I don’t know how they end but a lot of the times I write to find out what happens next, and the logic just comes from the writing of it, and then I have to sometimes go back and rip things out. The other thing is, when you do your first draft, I make sure my inner editor is turned off.  I do not worry about phrasing and beautiful writing, I worry about that later. Really, you need to find out what’s going to happen and you need to write it, and then you can edit and fix it later. I know the end, I know the beginning, and I maybe know two things that happen in the middle. The rest of it, I find out as I go along. It’s an adventure.

TA: It sounds like it, it sounds very organic.

LM: It is. You know, I write genre fiction; I write science fiction. When you do that, you need a lot of conflict, you need a strong plot and things have to happen. There’s a part of me that’s a little bit conscious of that. You can’t just write beautiful descriptions for pages and pages. I get bored and I’m sure my readers would get bored. You’ve got to weave things in.

On Making Time to Write

TA: It’s your fifth book so when you published your first book, you were working at the FAA. I’m assuming you must have been very busy. How, as a lawyer, do you make time to write?

LM: Well, as a lawyer, I live by deadlines. Initially, I was like ok, I’m going to write a paragraph every night. That takes forever. You just can’t write a paragraph every night. I came across a book called No Plot, No Problem and it talked about National Novel Writing Month, which turned out to be wonderful for me. Every November, all these people across the entire world sit down and try to write a 50,000-word novel. You sign up online, input your word count at the end of the day, and that’s where I learned to kill the inner editor. You just don’t worry. If it’s crazy, ok. You have to write 1,600 words a day. You have to write more than that because in America, we have Thanksgiving and you know that you’re not going to get a lot done over that weekend, so I aim for 2,000 words a day. The first year I did it, I only wrote 6,000 words in the month of November but that taught me that November is magical, because it has the deadline. The next year, I wrote a lot more. My first book took me five years to finish with this really silly approach but then I learned that you can write a lot in a day, so now I write 10 words at breakfast, because that gets your brain working, and then after lunch I usually write 1,000 words, especially now that I’m gone from the FAA, but I used to write 10 words at breakfast or more, then 700 to 1,000 words after lunch and another 1,000 after dinner. That’s what you do first, before doing everything else you’re supposed to do.

TA: I like the way you describe it, it makes total sense. Write early in the morning and then just keep going.  

LM: Right, because your back brain will work at little problems, while you are doing other things so when you eat your lunch in November, you just sit down and write. And you don’t have lunch with friends. Not in November. Then it’s training for the rest of the year and I now can write outside of November, but November was really key for me so if someone’s trying to figure out how to write., start gathering your thoughts and ideas, do your research now and then in November, that’s it. I mean, by December 5th, I had nothing left to say, so I knew that November really counted because it was a deadline. And deadlines are magical!

On Your Favourite Part of Writing a Book

TA: What’s your favourite part of writing the book?

LM: I love writing the beginning, even though I usually go change it later. The beginning is just so full of possibilities. And then, as for the drafting, I like the drafting. The editing, not quite as much and I’m sort of dreading the process. You’re like, ‘oh but people will want to know that’, but ‘oh but nothing’s happening here, so it has to go’ your editor says. Fine. You cut it out. It wasn’t really a scene. It was just a lot of people saying stuff, you know, without having any sort of integral role in the plot. It was interesting to me when I wrote it and it helped me get through not knowing what’s happening next. So, drafting is the most fun!

On Your Current Reading List

TA: What kind of books are you reading right now?

LM: I jump back and forth between historical fiction and science fiction. Right now, I’m reading Bernard Cornwell’s Winter King, which is a retelling of the Arthurian legend and I’m loving it. I think Bernard Cornwell’s a wonderful writer. It’s a very vivid, evocative book that immerses you in this very different alien world of Old England, post-Roman England. It’s cool. I think I like very alien settings and that’s part of why I like science fiction, but historical fiction gives you that too.

On Receiving Work Offers from Readers

TA: Since you write about space, have you ever had job offers from readers?

LM: The closest I’ve come is that a physicist from Boeing, who’s now at a think tank or a consulting group, has asked me to co-author an article with him on orbital debris remediation, offering a prize for it. He loved my book Manx Prize. He’s got a fellow who’s going to be doing all the engineering questions, describing the problem on orbit, and then I’ll be doing the legal issues. It’s not a job offer but it’s interesting.

TA: Pretty exciting. Is it published or is it going to be published?

LM: It’s being written right now, so we’re hoping it’ll be published this summer. I think it’s going into a European space journal.

Words of Advice to Aspiring Lawyer Authors  

TA: Last question for aspiring lawyer authors, and I’m sure there are lots of them out there – what would you say to them, some words of advice?

LM:  Oh, boy. I would say that whatever you’re doing in the legal field, it will become grist for your mill later. Go ahead. Take it all in. Learn everything you can. If you’re a litigator, you’re going to have exciting courtroom drama. If you are a regulatory attorney like I am, learn your industry. People love reading books where they actually learn stuff and they feel like they are being told about a world by someone who knows. It’s good to be a lawyer. It’s good to be many different things.  Being a lawyer, you can learn so much about your clients issues and concerns and you can use it. The other thing I’ll suggest, and it’s something that was recommended to me by one of my mentors, science fiction writer Sarah Hoyt. She always recommends that people read Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. If you’re an avid reader, like I am, everything in it is something you recognise, from books you like. He talks about structural issues, how the book has to start when something changes. The beginning is over when someone makes a decision. And you’re like, ‘Oh, I recognise these things’ and it really helps you understand how a book is put together, which is sort of a mystery even if you’ve read thousands and thousands of books like I have. He breaks it down and articulates it and you’re like, now I know how I’m supposed to do it. It’s not happenstance. That worked on me, as a reader. It’s all about the craft [of writing] and there’s lots of books about the craft  but you finish them just as puzzled as you were when you started. This one is good.

TA: That was very interesting and I did learn lots of things today. Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us today. I wish you all the best with your future writings. 

Laura Montgomery practices space law. She also writes science fiction with a bourgeois, legal slant. Her most recent book, MERCENARY CALLING, is a tale of exoplanets, terrorists, and lawyers. She also writes space opera in her WAKING LATE series. Her author site is at lauramontgomery.com.

On the legal side, Laura teaches space law at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law. In her private practice she specializes in regulatory space law, with an emphasis on commercial space transportation and the Outer Space Treaties. She testified last year to the space subcommittees of the House and Senate on matters of regulation and international obligation. She writes and edits the space law blog GroundBasedSpaceMatters.com.

Laura spent over two decades with the Federal Aviation Administration. She served as the manager of the Space Law Branch in the FAA’s Office of the Chief Counsel. Some of her rulemakings included human space flight, explosive siting, launch and launch site licensing and safety, and lightning protection. She addressed a wide range of issues, from amateur rockets, to sea launch, to space balloons.

Highlights from Ms. Montgomery’s time at the FAA include her representation of the FAA at the United Nation’s legal subcommittee of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, her service as chair to an inter-agency working group on space property rights at the request of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House, and testimony to Congress on the FAA’s interpretation of the Commercial Space Launch Act. Before working for the government, she was in private practice in Washington, DC, where she specialized in telecommunications, administrative law, and appellate work. She received her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and her undergraduate degree with honours from the University of Virginia.

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