Monday, January 4, 2016

Interview with Mary Lawlor, author of 'Fighter Pilot's Daughter: Growing Up in the Sixties and the Cold War'

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.

For More Information

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.

For More Information

  • Fighter Pilot’s Daughter: Growing Up in the Sixties and the Cold War is available at Amazon.
  • Pick up your copy at Barnes & Noble.
  • Discuss this book at PUYB Virtual Book Club at Goodreads.

Thank you for this interview!  I’d like to know more about you as a person first.  What do you do when you’re not writing?

I hike in the mountains near my house in Andalucia (southern Spain) and in summer go down to the coast to swim as often as I can.  My husband and I have several very good friends who we have dinner with regularly, and this often involves cooking together with them.  It’s great fun.  I like to ride horses and look at birds.  I read a lot of history, in addition to novels and newspapers.  And I keep close track of politics in Europe and the US.

When did you start writing?

When I was in second grade.  I never had anything published, though, until I was in graduate school.  I published two academic books and many academic articles, but I’m embarrassed that I didn’t start writing from my heart, so to speak, until later in my career. That’s when I published my memoir, Fighter Pilot’s Daughter, that just came out in paperback; and at the same time I’ve been working on two novels, The Stars Over Andalucía and The Time Keeper’s Room.

As a published author, what would you say was the most pivotal point of your writing life?

One day about fourteen years ago I heard a voice saying It’s really the best hardware store in the mountains.  I thought somebody might’ve said it, but it turned out to be a line in my head.  For some reason I listened to it and wrote it down.  I’d heard random sentences and phrases like that many times before but never took them seriously.  This time, the sentence wanted to be heard and remembered.  It was the beginning of my life as a fiction writer.  I’ve learned from it to try hard to listen to words and lines circulating in my head that come into audibility, wherever I am and whatever I happen to be doing.

If you could go anywhere in the world to start writing your next book, where would that be and why?

I’d like to go to a particular artists’ residency in Ireland.  It’s beautiful and quiet there, and you can spend long hours doing nothing but imagining your characters, following their stories, and writing them down.

If you had 4 hours of extra time today, what would you do?

I’d write!  Then I’d go for a swim in the sea or a hike in the mountains.

Where would you like to set a story that you haven’t done yet?

What an interesting invitation to think about this.  I’d like to try to set a story in or near Allentown, Pennsylvania, where I live for part of the year.  Allentown has always been a workplace for me, not a place where I go to have fun.  I’d like to have a deeper imaginative life there, and this would help.  Perhaps it would be a story about a girl who finds she has the ability to see not into the future but into the deep past.  She wouldn’t have prophetic abilities to see Allentown’s future, but she could fathom the city’s distant past in ways that would help her understand why it’s like it is now.

Back to your present book, Fighter Pilot’s Daughter, how did you publish it?

I had an agent, Neil Salkind, at Salkind Literary/Studio B.  He was wonderful and worked very hard to place the book for me.  When Rowman & Littlefield said yes, he kept working to get me a good contract.  I was very happy with him and disappointed that he retired (but happy for him).

In writing your book, did you travel anywhere for research?

The research I did for Fighter Pilot’s Daughter mostly consisted of my father’s records, printed histories, and online materials I could access through my university library privileges.  In addition, I had journals, letters, interviews with family members, and photos.  Beside these materials, memory was the most important resource I had.  I was able to do all this research at home, in the library, and online.

Why was writing Fighter Pilot’s Daughter so important to you?

Growing up in a military family meant we moved about every two years.  By the time I graduated from high school, I’d been to fourteen different schools.  It was exciting, but it was also a difficult way to grow up.  For a long time I’ve wanted to map the sequence of moves and of my Dad’s missions; and try to make sense of what it all meant for my mother, for my sisters and myself.  And the best way for me to do that was to write it all down, make a story of it.
Making a story called for describing the people in my family as if they were characters.  It required a plot—not just the sequence of our moves but the dramas that came with them.  This demanded a lengthy journey into memory and into the complicated feelings I’d had about these experiences for so long. It also required, or so I thought, some sort of larger focus, something to link my experiences to those of others. I began to think of my experience as bearing on those of military families generally. And I began to see it as speaking, in many ways, to our national experience of the cold War and Vietnam.

All the moving was hard on my mother.  Every couple of years she oversaw the wrapping and packing of each tea cup and piece of silverware, every book and painting we owned.  It was hard for my sisters and me to leave behind friends, and later boyfriends.  We didn’t have a stable place to relate to as we grew older and were trying to figure out what kind of people we wanted to be.  
Growing up with the military also meant my Dad was away a lot.  We’d worry about him being in dangerous places where violence was his daily fare.  And when he’d come back, we weren’t used to him, nor he us.  He was strange and frightening at first; then he’d be wonderful fun.  We never talked about any of this, so our house was often a tense, uneasy place and then an almost hysterically joyous one.  Writing Fighter Pilot’s Daughter I gave myself the chance to finally “talk” about these complicated experiences and look at them from a distance. 

The book grew in particular from the confusing feelings I had about the work my father did.  As a child, on  many occasions I overheard my parents talking about the Distinguished Flying Cross Dad won for bombing missions he flew in the Korean War.   They also talked about the nick-name he and his co-pilot were given  by a North-Korean radio personality: the killers of Charlie Kahn:.  I didn’t know what that meant.  I knew my father was a fighter pilot, and I knew what a war was, that people got killed.  But there was something unbelievable, unreal about him being called a killer.

As a teenager I struggled to understand how I felt or should feel about these things.  When I went away to college, I drifted away from my parents and got involved with left political groups and the anti-Vietnam War movement.  In 1968 I was in Paris, participating in the May demonstrations while my father was posted outside Saigon.  When I saw him again, the resentment between us was powerful.  We had huge arguments, and for a year or so we didn’t speak.   I wanted, perhaps needed, to write about these things in order to sort out the emotions that were still with me.

Much later my parents and I got to be very close, and I’m deeply grateful for that.  Being retired from military life, Dad had changed dramatically.  He’d been a hearty heavy drinker in his flying days.  This stayed with him into retirement until he sought the help of Alcoholics Anonymous.  AA and the peaceful life he by the sea affected him and my mother in interesting ways.  Dad became more reflective,  and I like to think my mother left aside some of her anger for having had to follow him around the world without a house or career of her own.  All of this fueled the writing of Fighter Pilot’s Daughter.  The book made it possible for me to hold my own feelings out in front of me, see them from a distance.  I learned to feel more sympathetic towards my parents and  the military culture they believed in.

Where do you get your best ideas and why do you think that is?

I get my best ideas in the mornings, when I’ve had a cup of tea and I don’t have to be anywhere.  Opening the computer, I feel ready to write. The ideas and the words seem to come best then.  I think it’s simply because I’ve slept, am rested and open to the images and sounds coming up in my head.

Any final words?

I hope readers of Fighter Pilot’s Daughter understand more about ordinary life for service families.  Many of the biggest difficulties for spouses and children in the Army and Marine Corps are built into the structures of everyday life in military environments.  I hope readers take from my book a sense of how complicated it is to maintain a healthy, optimistic family life when you’re  having to move all the time and when a parent has to spend long months away from home on deployments.  For all the armed services do for America, they can bear down hard on the lives of soldiers’ wives and kids.  And they can make make their lives wildly interesting too, as I hope Fighter Pilot’s Daughter shows.

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