In case you missed this interview when it aired live on KPOV in Bend, you can catch it here. Thanks, Pearl, for having me on the show. It was such a pleasure to talk about THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN and THE V-WORD!
The holidays are over. The new year has begun. We’re all back at work… whew… if you need a little break from the madness of “real life,” you can listen to me talk about THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN with Kathleen Stephenson on Between the Covers at KBOO radio.
I really hope I don’t sound like a dork! XO
This is the thing about writing… I get to fall in love over and over again. And not just over shiny story ideas. I know writers gush about that a lot, but I tend to make an idea prove itself to me before I commit.
(Run with that, Dr. Freud.)
No, I fall in love with the deep substance of the story and–especially with nonfiction–the subjects.
Last week, I spent three days in Astoria, Oregon, doing research for a new book project on the pilots who work the Columbia River bar.
I interviewed two pilots, toured the boat basin and climbed aboard both of the pilot transport boats (Chinook and Columbia), and checked out their shiny new helicopter at the airport. And, in a completely unexpected turn, one of the pilots offered to let me ride along as they transferred a pilot to an inbound bulk carrier ship.
The two bar pilots I interviewed held me rapt. I could have listened to them talk for hours. And if you had been there and heard the way they talked about the sea and the ships and the life of a sailor, you would’ve fallen in love too. And if you had been on Chinook, zooming across the most dangerous river to ocean crossing in the world, you would have lusted for the power of her engines, the grace of her handling, and the perfection of her lines.
You would fall in love too.
I am thrilled to welcome Michaela MacColl to my blog! Her book PROMISE THE NIGHT tells the story of young Beryl Markham, who grew up to be a record-breaking aviatrix, an adventurer, a nonconformist, and a writer.
Read an excerpt here.
Below you’ll find the conversation we shared about her lovely book.
I have a lovely critique group. We’ve met weekly for six or seven years now. Most of us are published, but we didn’t start out that way. I have to admit that my group saved the world from a very bad biography of Beryl Markham.
When I first decided to write about her, I found that the only kids’ biographies were very dated. Aha! I thought. (And I can’t believe I even said this) How hard can it be to write a biography? Apparently it is really hard. I couldn’t get away from the fictionalized story I wanted to tell. Finally my group metaphorically shook me and said “Just write a novel!” They were right and so supportive.
One of my greatest challenges was how to write a story about Beryl the child, when Beryl the adult is the one who did something famous (she was the first to cross the Atlantic East to West solo). At first I wrote the flight as an epilogue, but it felt too tacked on. I had to find a way to show how Beryl’s adventures as a child enabled her to break flying records as an adult. It was complicated because I wanted to relate each adult vignette to a childhood chapter – but after many outlines and a ridiculous number of post-its, I came up with a structure that worked.
On the one hand, it’s a gift to have her own words in front of me. I learned so much about her personality from the way she described her childhood. On the other hand, it’s pretty daunting since the memoir is so good. Ultimately, I tried to channel her spare prose into mine. I ruthlessly trimmed (and then my editor got started) until I told the story in as few words as possible. Beryl wouldn’t have wasted words, neither should I!
Of course this was such a departure from my first book, Prisoners in the Palace about Princess Victoria. There the language is ornate, layered and thick.
I’m pretty squeamish, so I didn’t want to make people squirm. I’m also the parent of two teenage daughters and it’s important to me that kids can read my books without feeling too uncomfortable. Ultimately the answer to dealing with these issues was to plant my narration firmly in Beryl’s point of view. She’s not shocked so why should the reader be?
I’ve wondered about that. Thoroughbred racing and flying were inherently exciting and a natural destination for a risk-seeker no matter how inappropriate they were for a girl to do. But I think if she were alive today, she would be taking even greater risks. Ultimately though, Beryl didn’t think of herself as a girl breaking gender barriers, she was just doing what she wanted to do. The first page in Promise the Night is a quotation from Beryl where she says she wants to fly the Atlantic not as a society girl but as pilot. No gender specified.
They say that thoroughbred stallions are bred to win. They run fast to achieve dominance over their peers (so to speak). I think the explorers and the pioneers are all trying to win the acclaim of the other explorers and pioneers. But there is also a financial consideration. The person who breaks the record is the one who gets the sponsorship deals, the speaking engagements, even the movie gig.
The first thing that comes to mind is President of the United States… And if that’s the last frontier, then girls are doing well!
Yes! (I had to talk my husband out of naming our first daughter Cassandra. Can you imagine a more ill-omened name?)
Beryl’s childhood is full of instances when she challenges the societal norms and does purely as she likes. When she continued to do this as an adult, the stakes get higher. The most fascinating thing I found out about Beryl involved her love life. She married Lord Markham in her late 20’s, but at the same time, she also had a very public affair with the Duke of Gloucester (the brother of the Prince of Wales) when he visited Africa on safari. Her husband got fed up and threatened to name the Duke in the divorce. Needless to say Buckingham Palace had a strong opinion about this; Markham was told in no uncertain terms to involve the Duke. He replied that he wasn’t going to support her. So until the day she died, Beryl received a pension from Buckingham Palace. It’s a great story, right? So inappropriate for middle grade!
I wouldn’t mind going back and writing about her life as a racehorse trainer. I grew up on the Black Stallion novels and I would love to write about racing. Otherwise, on to the next novel!
In a few days, I get the distinct pleasure of interviewing Michaela MacColl, author of PROMISE THE NIGHT (Chronicle Books). This middle-grade, historical fiction tells the story of Beryl Markham–adventurer, pilot, race-horse trainer and non-conformist. She’s a dazzlingly unique character made all the more fascinating by the fact that she was a real person!
Here’s a bit of the beginning:
Later, when it was all over, she wondered what would have happened if she had remembered to tie down the burlap door. If she had not been so careless, would the danger have passed her by?
Her only warning was a patch of lighter night by the door. The leopard must have slunk in, crawling soundlessly on his stomach the way cats do. Ears flat to his head. Spotted fur standing up on his back. Eyes fixed on his prey. Waiting. Waiting. . .
Buller’s anguished yelp filled the hut. When she heard the deep yowl, she knew it was a cat, probably a leopard. Beryl huddled beneath the safety of the mosquito netting, afraid the cat would finish off Buller and then go after her.
“Buller! Be careful, boy!” Beryl screamed at the top of her voice. She waved the knife in the dark. She couldn’t see what was happening, but she could hear Buller’s low growl. She imagined that the leopard was poised to spring onto her bed.
“Daddy!” she cried. She ripped off the blanket and snapped it toward the battling animals. Even if she had the courage, Beryl knew she shouldn’t join the fight on the floor; she was just as likely to hurt Buller as help him.
Beryl could make out the leopard’s shadow, spotted even in the dimness. It sprang onto Buller’s back and sank its sharp teeth in the loose skin at the back of his neck.
Beryl heard what sounded like Buller’s back cracking as he tried to shake off the cat. Before she could scream again, the leopard had dragged her best friend in the world out of her hut. Buller’s cries ended as suddenly as they began.
You can read the entire first chapter here. And don’t forget to check back on the 20th for the interview!
This was my very first podcast interview! Big fun was had by all, meaning me, Monte, and Rob, up-close and personal with the microphones. You can listen here for the inside story on writing the Angel Punk novel and other freaky stuff about yours truly.