As The Plot Thins (ATPT): How has early press of the book been?
Benjamin Johncock (BJ): It’s been beyond my wildest dreams (and I have some pretty wild dreams). I’ve been stunned, and humbled, by the response. As a writer, all you want to do is connect to readers in a meaningful way. The whole purpose of a novel is to affect change in people through emotional resonance. Vonnegut saw the novel as a black box, that the reader enters into and emerges from changed. It’s not up to the writer to know what that change is, but merely to present the truth in such a way that enables it.
ATPT: The Last Pilot tells the story of a particular pilot, but also a very pivotal and important time for our country. Was there some inspiring moment that led you to want to write about the 50’s and 60’s?
BJ: It’s a strange thing, how novels come to be written. The process has deep roots in the stuff from your formative years that resonates into adulthood – the themes, ideas, experiences that tug at some deep part of you – your make-up, if you will. My father used to read to me from an old book he had on the Apollo missions, called Moon Flight Atlas. I was probably about three or four years old. Unusual bedtime choice, for sure, but there you go. The book was primarily the story of Apollo 13, years before the movie. It wasn’t the rockets, though, that fired my imagination, it was the men. Men in peril, stranded in deep space, close to death… and yet, they remained so calm, so cool under pressure; so focused. I was utterly captivated. That stayed with me a long time. When I was in my mid-twenties, I developed a full-blown anxiety disorder with obsessive and intrusive thoughts, which led to a hellish few years. However, as I started to get better—and started to write again, because I couldn’t even write a shopping list during that time—I found myself returning to those men; these heroes of my childhood, men who could control their emotions (unlike me), who remained to calm under pressure (unlike me) and writing about them.
ATPT: I imagine research for this book was pretty intensive. In the acknowledgements you mention you read several books in preparation to write this story, did you imagine you’d be doing that much research when you got the idea originally?
BJ: I didn’t really do any research in preparation, to be honest – the story came first, and the research followed, as and when I needed it. Sometimes that was three or four times per line, but that’s the way I did it! I think the other approach leads to problems—that is, you research, then you write. The danger is that the research is front and centre, when the story should be there. This story is not about the space race, this story is about a marriage in crisis.
ATPT: One of my favorite characters (and probably most everyone who will read the book) is Pancho. Did you discover her first, in the middle or was she an afterthought? Being that she is a very real person, was there anything you read in your research about her that was amazing, but didn’t make it into your novel?
BJ: Pancho was by far my favorite historical figure to write. What a woman. I came across her very early on, and it was one of those cliche sit-bolt-upright moments. It felt like I’d stumbled upon a hidden stash of gold bullion. The jackpot of Pancho Barnes! The more I discovered about her, the more excited I became. There was a lot of good stuff that didn’t make it into the novel, especially from her barnstorming racing days with AE, and her time as a stunt pilot in Hollywood—as well as the time she sued the Air Force…
ATPT: The Last Pilot features several real life aviation figures like Pancho Barnes, Chuck Yeager and mentions of John Glenn. Was Jim Harrison based off a real life figure or is his story wholly original?
BJ: Jim’s completely fictional, although aspects of his character were drawn from real life people, as well as fictional ones, as well as myself. There’s elements of Yeager, of Lovell, of Armstrong, and there’s a little Han Solo and Indiana Jones about him too. In terms of Jim’s story, the loss at its center is, in some small way, a tribute to the memory of Neil Armstrong’s little girl, Karen, who died when she was only two years old. The the loss devastated Armstrong. However, he was such a closed guy, colleagues at Edwards didn’t even know he’d had a daughter. And when Armstrong himself died in 2012, none of his obituaries mentioned her, or that he’d suffered this loss. It was very difficult to write, because I wanted to be extremely respectful of Armstrong’s family.
ATPT: How long did it take you to write The Last Pilot?
BJ: Six years. But add in another fifteen spent trying to get progressively less crap at writing novels to get to the starting point.
ATPT: Describe to me your typical day.
BJ: Well, I have two small children, so the day usually starts with them. The very greatest thing about being a novelist is not writing novels – that is, I get to see my kids whenever I want to. Sure, there’s work to be done, but they come first. I split my working day between the library here in Norwich (the busiest one in the UK for eight consecutive years) and various coffee shops, depending on what I’m working on. My bag is my office. Actual writing is best done in the library, where as edits, emails and other miscellany are better tackled in an environment with lots going on around you and a good supply of caffeine. I’m usually home soon after 5pm, for the children’s dinner, bath-time, stories (always lots of stories) and bed. And then I sort-of collapse and attempt to read the whole internet.
ATPT: 2015 is just half over. Are there any novels released this year that you thought were fantastic? Any you are looking forward to reading?
BJ: Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg is my book of the year so far. It’s outstanding.
ATPT: Lastly, is there anything you want to say to your fans or readers of your very first novel?
BJ: It is the privilege of a lifetime to have someone spend a portion of their wages on something you’ve written; to demand, then command, the complete attention of a stranger—to momentarily pause their life—so I would like to say, simply, thank you.
This week we’re giving away a copy of The Last Pilot. Details on how to enter are here.