Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Better late than never

Colleen Mondor's blog Chasing Ray has been a pleasure of mine for many years now, and Colleen herself a wonderful correspondent and internet friend.  Her book The Map of My Dead Pilots, about the years she spent working in the aviation business in Alaska, came out several months ago, but I'm only just catching up with it here.  In the end I asked Colleen a single question, and she was kind enough to give a very rich and full answer....

JMD: I read The Map of My Dead Pilots in a few sittings at the end of December, and it’s stayed very much with me in subsequent weeks.  I loved the piece you wrote for John Scalzi's Big Idea column about what it means to write a story about real things that happened to real people; I’ve been interested in this question for a long time, and I think your discussion there would be of particular interest to a writer in the early stages of a project where it hadn’t yet emerged whether the book was going to be written as fiction or nonfiction (the sort of question one might ask in a creative writing class where one read Tim O’Brien, Mary Karr, etc.).  I wanted to ask you a quite different question, though.  I was struck and moved, as I read the book, by how much it turns out to be a book about your father.  Did you know, when you started writing about flying in Alaska, that this would be such an important component of the book in its final version?  Or was it largely a surprise?

CM: Honestly, when I started writing I never intended to write anything other than Alaska stories. The first one I wrote was about the pilot who crashed on the ice off the coast of Nome. I had interviewed him when I was in grad school and that accident impressed me a great deal - it was so close to being a national tragedy. That was what I thought the book would be about though, the guys I knew, the accidents and incidents I was familiar with and what day to day life at the Company was like.

The turning point came when I wrote about the summer of 1999. Several of my friends were aware I was writing the book and over the years they had asked why I still thought about it all so very much. We have all moved on in many ways (if not physically from AK then professionally and personally with new jobs and children, etc.) and yet for me there is much about the Company that remains very close. I couldn't explain why though until I sat down to write about the day at the bar when I interviewed the pilot who had known my friend "Luke" and was there when he crashed into the mountain while chasing wolves. I wanted to write about our conversation because it was so surreal and it tied directly into my ongoing struggle to absolve Luke of all blame in that accident. But I couldn't write honestly about that summer without explaining what I was going through and that meant writing also about Bryce, the Company pilot who died in the Yukon River in June of '99. And writing about Bryce's death meant writing about where I was when I heard and that was in Florida where I was preparing for my own father's funeral.

Just like that, in careful precise steps, my father entered the story. The chapter radically changed from what I had planned although Luke remained a big part of it. Ultimately though, in writing about that summer I came to understand just how my father, who never visited Alaska, was nevertheless critical to my Alaska experiences. The summer of 1999 is always, and always will be, all about losing him and because of that everyone else who was part of it - Bryce and Luke and all the interviews with all the pilots I did that summer for my thesis - are part of his death as well. And the grief that my brother and I felt so strongly then has not diminished over the years. Thus it will always be the summer of just five minutes ago and all of those young men will be with me in a way that I never expected nor could ever have imagined.

MAP was supposed to be about flying in Alaska but it became a book about why stories matter and how, in that particular place and time, stories took on an unexpected power. My brother and I tell our children stories about our father all the time; they are the only way we have now to make him real for them. We are trying to make a man they never had the chance to know still be unforgettable. It is, we believe, nothing less than what he deserves. I really and truly did not want to write about my father - I thought it would hurt too much - but in a lot of unexpected ways, writing about him in MAP was the best thing I could have done. And thus when I went back to the Company and stood on the now empty ramp, I understood why all of it meant so much. When I was at the Company - when we were all there - my father was alive and well in Florida. It's a snapshot in time I would give anything to have back, for obvious reasons. Just like that, a book on Alaska flying becomes just as much a book about mourning a parent. Writers, I learned, do not write (or live) in a vacuum nor are Alaska and Florida really that far apart.

I set out to write only about Alaska flying and ended up writing also about the beach in Florida. The connection is obvious to me now but it wasn't until I wrote it that I knew it existed. Isn't that crazy?


  1. Wow.
    You really do come, in your own mind, full circle to the place where you are supposed to be in writing.

    I find that in every single book I write, every short story, practically even emails I write about the same things. The links between us. The connective tissues that make up those tenuous bindings between family and friends. The sparking strings of synapses between one thought and the next: connection, and how it ties us all.

    It's funny when you discover what it is that your subconscious is trying to express, many words later. Funny and a little unnerving...

  2. On the positive side, it is cheaper than therapy but yes, "unnerving" is the word!