Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Q&A with Sara Ackerman


Photo by Tracy Wright


Sara Ackerman is the author of the new novel The Uncharted Flight of Olivia West. Her other books include The Codebreaker's Secret. She was born and raised in Hawaii.


Q: What inspired you to write The Uncharted Flight of Olivia West, and how did you create your characters Olivia and Wren? 


A: The idea for this novel came about while I was leafing through an old book called The Saga of The Sandwich Islands.


When I came upon a page on the 1927 Dole Air Race from Oakland to Hawai’i, I was immediately intrigued. How had I never heard of this incredible story of courage and tragedy?


Charles Lindbergh had just completed his famous Atlantic Crossing, which inspired James Dole, pineapple magnate, to offer up a large prize purse for first and second place. Aviators from around the country scrambled to take place.


But since it was 1927, there were no female pilots in the race, only a female passenger named Mildred Doran, despite the fact that there were many capable female pilots out there at the time.


Since I write fiction, I thought it would be fun to create a few of my own characters in a kind of what if scenario. Thus, Olivia West was born. 


As for Wren, I thought it would be fun to build a character around a young woman who is sort of lost in her life, almost the opposite of Olivia, and watch her transformation as she inherits this remote piece of land with a dilapidated barn on it full of interesting artifacts. For Wren, this is a coming of age type of story, which I always love. 


Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: For this novel, I didn’t have the ability to interview people I know who have lived through the war or the time period, so that made it more challenging. In addition, I had to study what airplanes were like in the 1920s.


Books I found very helpful were The Spirit of St. Louis, which was a huge wealth of information. Everything from how the planes were constructed to how they were modified for a long flight over water to the thoughts and feelings a pilot experiences alone in the air for that long.


I also found a fabulous book called Race to Hawaii, which had detailed information about the Dole Air Race and several other attempts to fly to Hawai’i.


Surprisingly I also found some old film footage of the Dole Air Race and other vintage flights. Airports back then were mostly just fields of mud and hard packed dirt, full of potholes and rocks. It’s truly astounding to think what the pioneers of aviation braved in order to fly. 


One thing that surprised me was finding a book that belonged to my grandfather called American Practical Navigation published in 1926, just one year before the Dole Air Race, so the timing was serendipitous. It was just what I needed at just the right time. The book showed me how complex early navigation really was, and what geniuses these people must have been.


I was also surprised at how long those first flights to Hawai’i were –27 hours give or take. Can you imagine?


Q: The writer Jasmin ‘Iolani Hakes said of the book, “Olivia West and Wren are unstoppable, spirited heroes ahead of their time.” What do you think of that description?


A: I love it! Olivia West was definitely a hero ahead of her time, a pioneering badass in the classic sense. At a time when men were aviators and women were housewives.


Wren was a bit more of a quiet hero. She was brave in a different way, running off to the woods and then determined to get to the bottom of the mystery that landed in her lap. She also saves a dog, and in my mind, people who save dogs are heroes.


Both women were absolutely spirited and unstoppable. Two qualities I greatly admire.


Q: You alternate between the two characters’ perspectives in telling the story--did you focus more on one of them before turning to the other, or did you write the book in the order in which it appears?


A: I’ve found with dual timelines (this is my second) that I have to write the older timeline first, so that I know what happens. Then I write the second one, and later weave them together. It’s almost like writing two shorter novels.


It gets tricky trying not to give stuff away and knowing what to put where. I really loved how this one came together in the end!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on revisions for my first contemporary novel that comes out in November (crazy to think I have two books coming out this year) and I have just started writing book 8, another dual timeline set in Waikiki in 1905 and 2005–a murder mystery based on real events.


I’m really excited about this one, because it involves one of America’s great unsolved mysteries!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I love hearing from readers, so please follow me on Instagram @saraackermanbooks and on FB @ackermanbooks. Also, find out more about me and my books at www.ackermanbooks.com


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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