Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Authors To Watch: Mary Lawlor, author of 'Fighter Pilot's Daughter'

Mary Lawlor grew up in an Army family during the Cold War.  Her father was a decorated fighter pilot who fought in the Pacific during World War II, flew missions in Korea, and did two combat tours in Vietnam. His family followed him from base to base and country to country during his years of service. Every two or three years, Mary, her three sisters, and her mother packed up their household and moved. By the time she graduated from high school, she had attended fourteen different schools. These displacements, plus her father?s frequent absences and brief, dramatic returns, were part of the fabric of her childhood, as were the rituals of base life and the adventures of life abroad.

As Mary came of age, tensions between the patriotic, Catholic culture of her upbringing and the values of the sixties counterculture set family life on fire.  While attending the American College in Paris, she became involved in the famous student uprisings of May 1968.  Facing her father, then posted in Vietnam, across a deep political divide, she fought as he had taught her to for a way of life completely different from his and her mother’s.

Years of turbulence followed.  After working in Germany, Spain and Japan, Mary went on to graduate school at NYU, earned a Ph.D. and became a professor of literature and American Studies at Muhlenberg College.  She has published three books, Recalling the Wild (Rutgers UP, 2000), Public Native America (Rutgers UP, 2006), and most recently Fighter Pilot’s Daughter: Growing Up in the Sixties and the Cold War (Rowman and Littlefield, September 2013).

She and her husband spend part of each year on a small farm in the mountains of southern Spain.


Title: Fighter Pilot’s Daughter: Growing Up in the Sixties and the Cold War
Author: Mary Lawlor
Publisher: Rowman and Littlefield
Pages: 336
Genre: Memoir
Format: Hardcover/Kindle

FIGHTER PILOT’S DAUGHTER: GROWING UP IN THE SIXTIES AND THE COLD WAR tells the story of the author as a young woman coming of age in an Irish Catholic, military family during the Cold War.  Her father, an aviator in the Marines and later the Army, was transferred more than a dozen times to posts from Miami to California and Germany as the government’s Cold War policies demanded.  For the pilot’s wife and daughters, each move meant a complete upheaval of ordinary life.  The car was sold, bank accounts closed, and of course one school after another was left behind.  Friends and later boyfriends lined up in memory as a series of temporary attachments.  The book describes the dramas of this traveling household during the middle years of the Cold War.  In the process, FIGHTER PILOT’S DAUGHTER shows how the larger turmoil of American foreign policy and the effects of Cold War politics permeated the domestic universe. The climactic moment of the story takes place in the spring of 1968, when the author’s father was stationed in Vietnam and she was attending college in Paris.  Having left the family’s quarters in Heidelberg, Germany the previous fall, she was still an ingénue; but her strict upbringing had not gone deep enough to keep her anchored to her parents’ world.  When the May riots broke out in the Latin quarter, she attached myself to the student leftists and American draft resisters who were throwing cobblestones at the French police. Getting word of her activities via a Red Cross telegram delivered on the airfield in Da Nang, Vietnam, her father came to Paris to find her. The book narrates their dramatically contentious meeting and return to the American military community of Heidelberg.  The book concludes many years later, as the Cold War came to a close.  After decades of tension that made communication all but impossible, the author and her father reunited.  As the chill subsided in the world at large, so it did in the relationship between the pilot and his daughter. When he died a few years later, the hard edge between them, like the Cold War stand-off, had become a distant memory.
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Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m a military brat and a child of the Cold War, of the Sixties, of the American Century. I grew up on military bases in America and Europe. My family moved twenty times, and I attended fourteen schools by the time I was eighteen. My father was a Marine Corps and later an Army pilot. He and my mother brought me up to be a good, dutiful, Catholic daughter. That lasted until 1968, when I left their household and started college. I was involved in the huge demonstrations in Paris during the spring of ’68. They were directed against the Vietnam War among other things. At the same moment, my Dad was in Vietnam fighting that very war. This caused huge strife in the family that marked me in many ways. Later we became very close, and that’s very important to how I understand myself now.  Fighter Pilot’s Daughter is an account of all these struggles.

Although I had a hard time with school, given all the moving, I made it through graduate school, earned a PhD in English, and became a professor at Muhlenberg College.

When did you begin writing?

I’ve been writing since I was very young, but I published my first book in 2000. That was Recalling the Wild: Naturalism and the Closing of the American West. Then in 2006, I published Public Native America: Tribal Self-Representation in Casinos, Museums, and Powwows. Both of those were published by Rutgers University Press. Since 2006, I’ve been concentrating my attention on fiction and memoir writing. Fighter Pilot’s Daughter is my first work of non-fiction creative writing.

Describe your writing process. Do you plot or write by the seat of your pants? When and where do you write?

Fighter Pilot’s Daughter is a very personal memoir that includes stories of my father’s life as a pilot and a soldier. His work followed the government’s dramatic moves during the Cold War, so I had to do a lot of research for the book and weave that clearly into the story about what happened to Dad himself, my mother, my sisters and me as a result of his job. The writing process involved deep explorations of memory on the one hand and extensive reading on the other. I wanted to be sure to foreground the family story, simply because it’s closer to me and most of what I care about is embedded there. But I needed to weave descriptions of key moments in the 20th century—like the launching of Sputnik, JFK’s inauguration and his assassination—into that story. This means I really did plot things out in advance. Memories often came up “by the seat of my pants,” so to speak, but once they did, it was clear to me where they had to be placed in the narrative so readers could see how the whole picture fit together.  

When I’m in Spain I write in a small cottage on our farm. The room has a view of the mountains to the south and Gibraltar. There’s a cork oak tree right outside my window that shades the room in summer and reflects the light in winter beautifully. I keep my eyes on my laptop screen but every once in a while I look up. The view is inspiring.

When I’m in Pennsylvania I write on a stationary bicycle in my office. It has a shelf that holds my laptop. I peddle so slowly while I write that I barely get any exercise from it, but it energizes my brain nevertheless.

I almost always write in the morning In both places. I often listen to music through ear phones. The sounds of Mozart, Erik Sati, and Paco de Lucia, for example, are great fuel for writing.
Can you tell us about your most recent release?

Fighter Pilot’s Daughter is a story about my life as the daughter of a military pilot who was often away from home and dramatizes the ways the Cold War sifted down into our household. The climax of the story comes with me getting caught up in the heat of the student uprisings in Paris when my father was in Vietnam. The story concludes with our reconciliation: we found our way back to each other as the Cold War ended.

How did you get the idea for the book?

With the Marine Corps and later the Army, my family moved so many times that I grew up without any sense of place.  Both of my parents grew up in New Jersey, but my own attachment to that state was slim and tenuous.  We visited our cousins now and then—not even once each year.  Shifting from the northeast to the deep south to California and then Germany—and many places in between—made it difficult for my sisters and me to find models for how to talk, how to look, how to walk, what to think.  How to see ourselves.

I wanted to go back through the memories of places like Dothan, Alabama and Opa-locka, Florida, try to see them again—what they smelled and looked like—and feel again what it was like to be there.  And I wanted to feel again what it was like to leave after, say, two years.  We would just start getting used to the ways other kids talked, to peculiar words they used; and we’d just start getting close enough to other girls to be almost friends with them when it would be time to leave.  So any familiarity with people or ways of living that my sisters and I started to develop, any developing sense of who we were or who we might become, would go out the window.  We’d have to start over again in a new place.

In writing Fighter Pilot’s Daughter, I wanted to map all of this and try to understand what I couldn’t when I was growing up: how the moving stalled my ability to shape myself as a person and “grow up.”

I also wanted to make sense of what the moving meant for my mother, as she tried to create a healthy, stable household.  What were her feelings about her own life when she herself was constantly being treated like a stranger, never belonging to any community?  And I wanted to understand the causes and consequences of the explosions—my mother’s and later my own—that nearly ripped our family apart.  Memoir seemed the best and really the only choice for me.  I suppose I could’ve made the story into a novel, but I needed to have more direct contact with the powerful feelings that were still unsettled in me, even after the years of being a military daughter were long over. 

Of all your characters, which one is your favorite? Why?

It’s hard to say which of the people in Fighter Pilot’s Daughter is my favorite. It’s a memoir about my family, and they’re all my favorites! My father and mother are the central characters. They were vivid, strong characters in life, and I tried to capture some of their energy on the page. My sisters are very dear to me, and they have big parts in the book too. They have their own ways of seeing our past, so I tried not to tell my story as if it were theirs too. But they have important roles in the narrative of my own development, so they’re very present in the book. 

What was the most challenging aspect of writing your book?

The greatest technical challenge was also a personal challenge: I had to shed the academic, professor’s voice in writing Fighter Pilot’s Daughter and replace it with a more personal voice, one that would show who I was as teller and who I was as actor at different stages in the book.  It needed to be the voice of a good story teller who could invite a reader to follow her back in time, through the dramas, and feel them along with her.  Although it felt very good to write in that voice, I often caught myself slipping back into the academic style, explaining too much, and sounding like a teacher.  I really had to work hard to train myself to stop doing that. 

The greatest personal challenge was facing the memories that I wanted to get back to.  It’s a contradiction, but the desire to go back into memory meant I had to stay with a lot of painful recollections.  The writing process ended up being a kind of auto-therapy.  I came to understand a lot about myself and my parents, but it was a tough struggle at many points.

Which authors have inspired your writing?

Among contemporary writers, I like Colm Tóibín, Don DeLillo, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, Thomas Pynchon, Bathsheba Monk, and David Mitchell.  I also love Henry James, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Frank Norris, and Virginia Woolf.

What projects are you currently working on?

I recently finished a novel about an American woman who’s trying to make a life for herself in a small Spanish village. She’s quite a loner but doesn’t want to be.  Her story is paralleled by that of a younger Spanish real estate developer.  Both feel like outsiders in the village, but while she wants to heal old wounds by enclosing herself in the mountain landscape, he wants to transform the place. It’s a story at once of expatriate life and of the huge waves of development, corruption, and then economic catastrophe that have washed over Spain in the last decade, leaving lives and landscapes transformed forever. I don’t want to give away the plot, but they both end up subtly changed for the better.

At the moment I’m working on a new novel, this one also set in Spain.  (My husband and I have a small house there where we spend a lot of time, thus the interest in that setting.) It’s about a young Spanish woman, just setting off for university, who discovers her family’s roots in medieval Al-Andalus during the time when Spain was Arabic speaking and Islamic.  She goes back in time—in her imagination or perhaps through actual time travel—to visit a medieval astronomer who works with an astrolabe.  He keeps track of the hours so people know when to pray.  There’s a parallel in the girl’s own life, as she recovers her family’s lost history and her own daily struggles with time’s power to carry things away.

What advice would you offer to new or aspiring authors?

I’d say don’t worry too much about trying to get at the minute, details of the non-fictional matters you’re writing about.  Let your feelings about them and your impressions—you don’t have to be obsessed with having only the facts all the time—come forth and land on the page.

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