Saturday, August 5, 2023

Q&A with S.C. Gwynne



S.C. Gwynne is the author of the new book His Majesty's Airship: The Life and Tragic Death of the World's Largest Flying Machine. His other books include Hymns of the Republic. He has worked for Time magazine and Texas Monthly, and he lives in Austin, Texas.


Q: What inspired you to write His Majesty’s Airship?


A: I was reading a wonderful history of the British Empire by James Morris, a trilogy called Pax Britannica. In the third volume, Farewell the Trumpets, there was a two-to-three-page bit about this amazing airship and how its fate was linked to the decline of the British empire.


R101 was one of a pair of British rigid airships completed in 1929. I was amazed when I found out subsequently that very little had ever been written about it.


Q: As you researched the book, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: There were many things that surprised me, but I was really astonished that I did not know about the history of airships as weapons in World War 1. They were the first long-range bombers, the first weapons of mass terror. R101 inherited all of that. She was a tricked-out version of the same airships that bombed London in World War I.

Q: In a review of the book in The New York Times, John Lancaster writes, “Like any good popular history, it’s also a portrait of an age — in this case, the age of an empire on the brink of decline.” What do you think of that assessment?


A: Unfair and horribly biased, haha. Seriously, it was a very nice summary of what I was trying to do in the book. R101 was a piece of exotic hardware. She was also emblematic of the early world of aviation.


Q: What appealed to people a century ago about these airships?


A: Good question, part of the appeal then was the sheer size of the rigid airships. R101 was bigger by volume than the Titanic. No one could even imagine that such things could fly and be lighter than air. Part of the appeal was purely technological, and part of it was all wrapped up in nationalism and national pride.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am still fishing around for the next book idea. Often this process takes a lot of fishing around.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Researching this book was a unique experience. I wrote this book during the Covid years. At a time when all libraries, museums, collections, archives, etc. were closed on a global scale, it took some doing, many workarounds, and much help from the airship community in the UK to do the research.


I eventually made it to England, where I found some great information at the U.K. national archives, the RAF museum, Brooklands, etc. I was also lucky enough to get access to some extraordinary private archives. The UK national archives, of course, is where they keep King Arthur’s pipe and slippers and Robin Hood’s tights. It was a very exciting place for a researcher like me.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with S.C Gwynne.

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