Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Q&A with Keith O'Brien

Keith O'Brien is the author of the new book Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History. His work has appeared on National Public Radio and in a variety of publications, including The New York Times. He lives in New Hampshire.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Fly Girls, and how did you choose the five women to write about?

A: I stumbled upon this idea by accident in the spring of 2016. I read a stray line in another book – a line that mentioned a female air race in 1929.

To be honest, I had never heard of such a thing. So I dug down a little. And then I dug a little more. And then I went to the library and I stayed there, spending long nights in newspaper archives. It quickly became clear to me that this was an important story that needed to be told.

Choosing the characters – really focusing the story – was the next step. Lots of women flew airplanes between 1927 and 1937 – the decade when Fly Girls takes place.

Who do you include? Especially when each of them is so fascinating? And who do you leave out? This is where it’s important to know your story, know your narrative.

Once I knew that, it was pretty simple to figure out which characters mattered. I was telling a story about women fighting for the right to fly and race airplanes. You can’t do that without the five women who would become the heart and soul of Fly Girls.

Q: What do their stories say about the role of women in the early decades of aviation?

A: Women played an important role in aviation in the 1920s and ‘30s. At a time when most people had never flown in an airplane – and many people feared flying – female aviators helped prove that flying was safe and they encouraged others to fly.

Plane manufacturers quickly realized the power that women had and they used them, at times, for their own ends: selling planes. Women were willing to play along with them – to a certain extent. By working with plane manufacturers, they could get what they wanted too: namely, opportunities to fly.

But it was an uneasy relationship at best, especially as it became clear that women would not get the same chances as men. Early airlines, plane builders, and air race officials discriminated against the women at almost every turn, refusing to hire them, give them planes or give them races.

That was unacceptable, and the women ultimately decided to fight the men for equality in the sky.

Q: Amelia Earhart is well known, but some of the other women aren't. How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: To research this book, I visited archives, big and small, across the country, digging up everything I could: not just old newspaper stories, but diaries, letters, flight logs, unpublished memoirs stuck in a box in someone’s attic – anything that would help me bring these characters back to life on the pages of the book.

Along the way, I found many things that surprised me about Louise Thaden, Ruth Nichols, Ruth Elder, and Florence Klingensmith – the other women who flew with Amelia.

How had we forgotten that Ruth Elder had tried to fly the ocean before Earhart? Or that Ruth Nichols would challenge Earhart for the title of most accomplished female pilot in the world? And how had we erased Florence Klingensmith almost completely?

All of that was surprising to me and, frankly, infuriating. I wanted to change that. 

Q: How would you describe the legacy of these women today?

A: They proved that if you keep pushing, if you keep fighting, if you do not give up, you can change the world. I think that’s a powerful lesson for everyone today.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m not sure! I’ve got a few book ideas rattling around in my head at the moment. And I’m excited this fall to have some time again to do to some stories again for National Public Radio. I just love that medium for storytelling.

But right now, I’m still focused on Fly Girls. The writing is done, of course. But with the book tour just beginning, it’s hard to let go – or find time for anything else at the moment.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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