Benjamin Johncock is here this week talking about his novel, The Last Pilot, which was published by Myriad Editions earlier this year and has received critical acclaim and love from book bloggers far and wide. It is a remarkable book and so assured for a debut, and I’m adding my recommendation to all the others that it’s received.
Ben, as a writer one of the things that impressed me most about your novel is how you’ve placed yourself in another culture in a time and place so significant in history but have got the voice, the idioms and the feeling of that time and place so spot on you’d never know you weren’t an American who lived through it. How did you manage to immerse yourself in this character so completely to manage that?
“Immerse” is a great word to describe the process – I immersed myself in the world of test pilots and early astronauts as much as I could, and I was very lucky that there is so much material available to use – less so with the test pilots, but it wasn’t too hard to get my hands on useful stuff. So I just soaked it all up over a long period of time whilst writing the book – old astronaut autobiographies and biographies, interviews, flight transcripts, documentaries, historical footage, magazine articles, newspaper cuttings – and what a privilege it was to have people like Mailer writing about the psychology of astronauts!
But I never really thought of it as “research”, which, to me, sounds like such a dry, formal process: a writer, locking themselves in a dark library for two years making notes, then emerging into the daylight to then sit down and write a novel. To me, that approach produces bad stories. The writer is putting the research at the top of the pile, even if they do their best not to. I did the opposite – I started writing and researched when I needed to. Now, that might mean I had to stop three times in one sentence, but it ensures you get things the right way round.
As a reader, I was emotionally drawn into the marriage of the main characters but never in a way that felt sentimental – the prose tends to be spare but the impact the writing has is big. How did you feel when writing such emotional scenes and did you consciously reign in the language you used?
I just left out as much as I could. And it was hard writing the more emotional scenes—you need empathy to write truthfully.
Although the space race is a major element of the story for me it is was all about the relationships and, in particular, Jim’s inability to properly connect with people and his own emotions. I think you captured this so well. Who would you say has inspired you to write this kind of story?
I’m not sure anyone inspired it, to be honest – it grew out of something that reached way back to when I was a little boy of three or four. My dad had this old book on the Apollo missions, called Moon Flight Atlas by Patrick Moore, that he used to read to me. Not a traditional bedtime story, but I loved it; I was utterly captivated – but it wasn’t the rockets and spaceships, it was the men. I remember pouring over illustrations of Jim Lovell, Apollo 13’s commander, in danger, hundreds of thousands of miles from home, staying calm, working the problem, as Dad told me how little oxygen they had, how much danger they were in. Lovell, Swigert, Haise. Real heroes! So focused and cool under pressure. That stayed with me a long time.
When I was 26, I became very ill with an anxiety disorder called Adult Separation Anxiety Disorder and obsessive, intrusive thoughts. It was a hellish period of my life. When I eventually started to get better, I started writing fiction again, and found myself turning back to those men, those heroes of my childhood; men who (unlike me) could control their emotions, who were so calm and collected under pressure (unlike me). That’s where The Last Pilot came from.
Some of Florence’s story was inspired, in part. by Neil Armstrong, who also lost his little girl, Karen, when she was only two years old. It devastated him. But Armstrong was such a closed guy that colleagues didn’t know he even had a daughter. And, when he died, none of Armstrong’s obituaries mentioned Karen, or made any reference to this terrible loss. As a novelist, I found that interesting. It was very difficult to write though, because I wanted to be extremely respectful of Armstrong’s family. So The Last Pilot is, in some small way, a tribute to Karen’s memory.
Which other writers have influenced your work and really captured your mind as a reader?
So much influences you as a writer, from so many places, and so many mediums, it’s hard to pull out one or two things to highlight. As a reader, here’s a list of my favourite books – all of which have had an impression on me. I also watch a lot of movies.
Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on now?
I’m just finishing up a short story – a slightly surreal LA crime story set in the early seventies – and then heading back into my next novel, which I started earlier in the year. It’s set in Mississippi in 1901, about a 12 year old girl who embarks on a dangerous journey north through the Mississippi Delta when her father goes missing. What she discovers there will profoundly affect her for the rest of her life. It’s sort of To Kill A Mockingbird meets Deliverance meets Danny The Champion of The World meets Huck Finn meets True Grit. It’s about the bond between father and daughter, the nature of evil, and the redemptive power of forgiveness.
Thanks for coming, Ben, and for your honest account of finding the way into the story through your own illness. I find it very interesting that all of your stories you mention are set in the US – a place that obviously holds a great fascination for you!
Coming next in the Year of Indie debuts series is Deirdre Query talking about her novel, Eden Burning, which tells the story of two families in Northern Ireland, one Catholic the other Protestant, and how their lives intertwine.