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May 15, 2013 BOOKLIST
Find more The Booklist Interview
Colleen Mondor is a rigorous and passionate Booklist reviewer who brings her inquisitive, skeptical, and caring point of view to books about Alaska and the Arctic, environmental matters, aviation, cultural history, and all sorts of burning social issues. With an eye to young adult readers, Mondor also recommends adult books for teens and writes a column for Bookslut. To keep track of Colleen’s literary adventures, visit her website.
We followed the progress of Mondor’s first book, The Map of My Dead Pilots, a memoir about her years as a dispatcher for an Alaska commuter airline, with great excitement (it received a starred review from Carol Haggas). Now we learn a bit of the book’s backstory in an interview with the author.
Can you look back to your girlhood in Florida, and share some memories of when and how books became important to you?
Mondor: We did not have much money when I was growing up. My father worked for the Department of Defense at waste-water treatment plants, a very dirty, dangerous (due to toxic chemicals), and unglamorous job. We stretched paychecks, and life became even more difficult after my parents divorced when I was eight. Both my parents read all the time, though, and we basically lived at the public library. Books showed me what happy families looked like (I remember girl detective Trixie Belden with special fondness) and how you could overcome anything if you believe in yourself (thank you, Madeline L’Engle).
When a lot of my world spiraled out of control, books kept me grounded; they never once let me down. Without access to all those books for all those years, I don’t know who I would have become.
When and why did Ray Bradbury become your guiding light?
Mondor: My older brother introduced me to Bradbury. He was a big sf reader as a teen, so I would have been around 12 or so when I first read Something Wicked This Way Comes. I’ve continued to read Bradbury over the years and find the way he has written across so many genres and captured so much of the experience of what it means to be human to be utterly and completely unforgettable. He makes me think; he makes me smile; he makes me more determined to live well. I can’t imagine better things to get from writing. When all else fails, as a writer, I turn to Bradbury and I learn all over again the power of story.
What inspired you to learn to fly and to study aviation management? Was living near Cape Kennedy a factor in your interest in science fiction and aviation?
Mondor: This is actually kind of funny. Mostly the only reason I wanted to fly was because of Top Gun, which came out the summer I graduated from high school. But, basically, my first degree and private pilot’s license are due to my stepfather, who was career air force and the dean of the aeronautical school at the local private college where I ended up going to school. He made the decision during my senior year in high school that I would major in aviation management and learn to fly. I really didn’t have much say in it. I was 17. My mother thought that having me stay at home was a grand idea, and my father never went to college, so he was just glad one of his kids was going (my brother had left for the U.S. Marine Corps by then). I am glad I learned to fly, although I am not a particularly good pilot, but I was not a good fit for a degree in the management end of aviation. I spent years trying to figure out what I really wanted to do.
As to the close proximity to Cape Kennedy, that was a big part of Bradbury’s appeal as we saw rocket launches all the time. I can remember going to an expo inside the Vehicle Assembly Building when I was young, and I have a picture of my brother and me in a mockup of the lunar roving vehicle. The shuttles came right over my head on the beach, piggy-backed on a 747, and, of course, I remember Challenger very well. Where I grew up, flying and spaceflight are just another day at the office, which is really quite remarkable when you think about it. I waitressed while in college at a restaurant the astronauts used to frequent in the 1960s and 1970s; their signatures were preserved on the wooden tables. Heck, for awhile, we lived not far from the house in I Dream of Jeannie!
There actually seems to be a grand design to my life, but, oddly, there isn’t. I could just as easily ended up writing a book about surfing, which was my passion for a long time as well.
You also have degrees in history and northern studies from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. Can you please explain your interest in these fields and how they have steered your writing?
Mondor: History was always my first love. I excelled at it in school, and I have always been the family genealogist. I went to school at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks while I was working for the Company because I desperately wanted something in my life that was not aviation. The job was so overwhelming and demanding; all of my friends were involved in it; and while I knew I could not make a career in Alaska of dispatching (I needed more pilot licenses to move into management), I didn’t know what to do.
I went to the university out of desperation, and my first professor there was so wonderful that I stayed, majoring primarily in twentieth-century American military history. I taught history as an adjunct at a community college on the local army base for five years. It was awesome. I went on to northern studies because there was no grad program there for history. That may seem like a silly reason, but it gave me a lot of freedom to research what interested me, which at the time was primarily polar exploration history.
My book is full of the influences of both degrees, especially in the areas where I wrote about aviation history and the early pilots Ben Eielson, Russell Merrill, and Noel Wien. The northern-studies degree in particular gave me an appreciation for the North and its unique place in both American history and the world. It actually made me reconsider Florida and the rich history there I never learned or appreciated.
You write a bit wryly about Alaska’s fabled allure to outsiders. What brought you there all the way from Florida?
Mondor: I went to Alaska because a lot of the guys I graduated with wanted to become professional pilots, and Alaska is one of the few places where a low-time pilot can get a decent-paying job. My boyfriend at the time got a job in Fairbanks, and I followed him in a bid to find something I wanted to do. In many ways, I am the classic Alaskan story. I went there to find myself (or reinvent who I was becoming), and the job at the Company gave me a vision for what my future could be. Alaska was simply as far away from who I was as I could feasibly get. My father, who joined the air force at 17 and ended up shortly thereafter in Greenland, appreciated this more than anyone else. He is the only one, other than my brother, who didn’t tell me not to go. (Ironically, I ended up both at the Company and in Alaska long after my former boyfriend moved on to a flying career in the Lower 48.)
In your reviews for Booklist, you often debunk myths about Alaska that appear in books by outsiders. Is it a mission of yours to dispel such misperceptions?
Mondor: Yes. This originates with Into the Wild (1996), which we read in grad school, when it was just becoming a phenomenon. My husband (who I met at the Company and who was born in Fairbanks) is well acquainted with the Chris McCandless bus. His family members have been there more than once, and they are collectively baffled by how it could ever be compared to a Walden-like experiment. It has been very frustrating to see someone who messed up so massively become a standard bearer for Alaska.
As more and more reality-TV programs have come out about Alaska, it has become increasingly more difficult to separate fact from fiction and convince people that, on all levels, the state is no more intense than anyplace else. (It gets just as cold in many other places in the U.S., and many places are remote and endure more extreme conditions with wind and snow.) The myths about Alaska cause a lot of people to take chances up there and to believe that the rules (such as those governing aviation) should not apply. And somehow dying in Alaska has become noble or exciting when, really, it’s just dying, and there is never anything about that other than sadness.
What was it like to be a young woman in such a macho-guy world?
Mondor: As long as you knew your job and worked hard at it—as long as I was willing to lift the boxes like everyone else no matter how heavy they were or how cold it was—then you got the same respect as anyone else. I had to stand up for myself though; that was the most critical thing. There was an inclination among my coworkers to be dismissive about what I had to say, although I think that was as much because I was not a high-time pilot as because I am a woman. I had to make sure I wasn’t ignored or patronized, so I worked long, and I worked hard, and I became the person the pilots and cargo relied on. The guys came to know me as the one they could trust and the one who would not let them down, and when someone new showed up and tried to push me around, I pushed back hard. My years there made me fearless in a lot of ways.
Your graduate thesis was on pilot error accidents in Alaska. How difficult was it for you to translate some of your findings into a personal narrative?
Mondor: The thesis gave me the facts and a lot of the history. From there, I had to find the stories to make all of that come alive for the reader. The research I did for my thesis convinced me that there were stories that needed to be told beyond my academic work (such as the one a pilot told about when a passenger pulled a gun on him when he tried to turn around due to bad weather, or the tale of another pilot who was convinced his bosses were trying to kill him). Before the thesis, I thought there was nothing there but the facts, afterward I knew I had found something unique that needed to be told.
What was your biggest challenge, artistic or otherwise, in writing The Map of My Dead Pilots?
Mondor: The format. I knew I couldn’t tell a plot-driven story since there was no single arc to weave through it. It was really hard to find a way into this that went beyond an occasional essay on something like the “dead body contract.” It was also tough to figure out how to incorporate so many stories from so many pilots into a narrative that was not too cumbersome for the reader but was still, at its heart, true. I honestly didn’t think it was going to be possible to write the book for a long time, and then I read The Things They Carried (1990), by Tim O’Brien, and it all came together. I was also inspired by Jean Potter’s The Flying North (1984). As the last truly great and comprehensive book about Alaska flying, it was indispensable. She was in Alaska in the early 1940s and met and talked to friends of Ben Eielson and Russ Merrill as well as all the surviving pilots. She saw all the early pilots as men first and foremost and did not fall for the myths. Her book gave me a lot of confidence to move forward. I wish more was known about her.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
Mondor: On the surface, it is a book about commercial flying in Alaska, and I hope readers will learn a bit more about what the job is like. But for me this became much more a book about memory and truth and the power stories have to carry both of those things forward, to keep them alive, long after the people who were part of them are gone. I didn’t expect to write about my father in this book because he never went to Alaska, but what I found is that I could not write about who I was then without writing about him. I hope readers can see how much power our memories have from reading The Map of My Dead Pilots and how much we need our memories, even after we leave the place and time when they were born.