Sasha Sagan is a television producer and writer whose articles have appeared in national publications. She is also the daughter of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyen. “For Small Creatures Such as We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World” is her first book.
How did this book start? Were your 2013-14 articles for O Magazine and The Cut, with their explorations of grief and memory, the kernel for it, or had you been working on it earlier as well?
My parents raised me with the joyful, scientific philosophy that is the through-line of the book, so I think in a way I had been formulating this book all my life. Or at least since I lost my dad when I was 14. It was the defining event of my life and for me, writing about loss, especially without faith, is a way for me to come to terms with his death. But the idea to write it as a kind of guidebook framed around the cyclical and permanent turning points in life didn’t arise until after that first piece in The Cut came out. I think the idea for the book really crystallized when I became pregnant with our daughter and realized we—my husband and I—needed to create a framework for celebrations and rituals that honored our ancestors but dovetailed with our modern world view.
You also bring out your mother’s importance for readers who might not realize that she was the writer for “Cosmos” and also the force behind the Golden Record for the first Voyager mission.
Growing up I saw my parents collaborate every day. I see the important, stirring work they created together as a product of a partnership. I hope I’ve found a way to honor them, their work and their philosophy, by writing this book. And emphasize my mother’s crucial role in the books and series that often gets attributed only to my dad.
How did you get into television work, and are you involved with any of your mother’s projects?
The original “Cosmos” premiered before I was born but I grew up with my parents’ stories about traveling the world together, writing together, filming in unforgettable places, madly in love. I think it gave me a very romantic idea of what it’s like to make TV.
My first real job was at a tiny television network and I’ve always loved the buzz of production. There is something so thrilling about the idea of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people coming together to create something.
My mom and I have explored some ways we might work together in the future. And I do make a small cameo in the next season of “Cosmos!”
What was it like growing up in Ithaca with parents who were already household names and a father who was on television every week?
It was a generally very positive thing. Ithaca is a beautiful college town, small and progressive, very international for a small town and full of waterfalls. By and large, my dad being well-known and having an important role in the public arena was a source of pride for me. And nothing’s all that weird if you don’t know anything else!
Your family obviously has close ties with Pasadena and JPL. Did you live out here part of the time while growing up?
Yes! When I was about seven, we spent a summer living there so my dad could be at JPL. It was during Voyager 2’s encounter with Uranus. I remember that summer very fondly! We rented a house that had a pool, which was to me, a dream come true.
You talk about the human need for ritual whether or not someone believes in a god or has formal ties to any religion. Did your family celebrate any Jewish holidays?
No matter what any of us do or don’t believe, we need to mark time. I think the urge to celebrate, to mourn, to create some light (metaphorical or literal) in the dark times, transcends personal philosophy or theology. I think we crave a framework for that. For much of history that framework has been religion. As secular Jews, we celebrated Passover and Hanukkah growing up. I love special occasions, rituals, parties, I love feeling connected to my ancestors by celebrating their holidays, but for me, the deepest, most stirring part of these holidays lies in the natural world. If you strip back the specifics of belief, Passover is about the return of spring, of life. Hanukkah is about finding hope in the darkness of winter. These themes can be found in celebrations around the world, during the period around the spring equinox and the winter solstice. There’s innate beauty in this no matter what you believe. And we humans have found ways to celebrate it, far and wide.
How did you do your research on cultural traditions of mourning and afterlife beliefs, and on the psychology of memory and grieving?
In the book I explore the Jewish traditions that I was raised with and the ways I’ve found them meaningful even through a secular lens. As for the other research, I tried to read as much as I could. I have learned so much from Karen Armstrong’s work. In some cases Google was an excellent jumping-off point for finding a book about something I maybe had not previously known about. I also learned a lot from museums, which I guess are a kind of theme in the book.
Did you go back and reexamine your parents’ work and perspectives for context?
It’s funny, my parents’ work was so much a part of their lives, our lives, that I felt very familiar with it even before I had read the bulk of their work. As I write in the book, I didn’t read a lot of it for a long time because I wanted to keep some part of it, some part of my dad in my future. In the last few years, particularly when I was pregnant with my daughter and starting to write the book, I consumed most of their best-known work. And even though I was familiar with much of the content from our dinnertime conversations or excerpts I had read, they still floored me with their clarity, beauty and poignancy.
In an interview you did with your mother, she said the growing acceptance of ethnic and gender differences is important and that in the early 1970s people considered themselves more tolerant than they really were. Was your parents’ drive to promote rationalism, tolerance and wonder in the physical universe a reaction to the times they came up in?
That’s really a question for my mom, but I will say that they raised me to revere the error-correcting mechanism of science, to celebrate the idea that more information should lead us to reassess, change our minds, move forward. My hope is that my daughter’s generation will think we, the inhabitants of 2019, are not as tolerant as we think we are. Because that would be a sign that society is moving in the right direction.
What are you hoping your daughter can take away from you and your husband?
The entire book, which is dedicated to her, is an exploration of this very question. She is still small and I don’t know what her philosophical or theological views might be, but I hope we are able to impart a sense of what a lucky thing it is to be alive in this vast universe. And that what we share with our fellow Earthlings far outweighs our minor, superficial differences.
Sasha Sagan will be appearing at PJTC on Saturday evening, December 7 for the closing event of the Jewish Book Festival. For more information and to RSVP, go to www.jewishsgpv.org or call the Jewish Federation at 626-445-0810.
The 2019 jewish book festival Lineup
• Sunday, 11-10 at 4:00 pm Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe by Rebecca Erbelding
• Wednesday, 11-13 at 7:30 pm The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats by Daniel Stone
• Saturday, 11-16 at 7:30 pm Not Bad for Delancey Street: The Rise of Billy Rose by Mark Cohen
• Sunday, 11-17 at 4:00 pm Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom by Ariel Burger
• Thursday, 11-21 at 7:30 pm Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim by Barbara Ostfeld
• Saturday, 12-7 at 7:30 pm For Small Creatures Such as We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World by Sasha Sagan
• Sunday, 12-8 at 10:30 am Barnyard Bubbe’s Hanukkah by Joni Klein-Higger and Barbara Sharf
Deborah Noble is A contributing writer To jlife magazine.