Tuesday, January 3, 2017

PUYB Virtual Book Club Chats with 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.


About the Book:

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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Before you started writing your book, what kind of research did you do to prepare yourself?

I wanted to structure the “plot” of my family’s life chronologically, with the focus alternating between the larger picture of the Cold War, the more intimate dramas of our gypsy household, and the private convolutions of my own psychological development.  These were very different stories, and each demanded its own kind of research.  

For the larger picture of the Cold War, I had, of course, all kinds of books and articles at my disposal.  Studying multiple histories of the many dimensions and geographies of the Cold War as a professor had given me a lot of background material for the book.  Still, I had to go further, read more, think harder, about the particular phases that determined my Dad’s career.  Spending time with the wars of the twentieth century wasn’t pleasant.  Those are bloody stories for anybody, but for me they brought back memories of hard times at home.  With the names—Eisenhower, Kennedy, Diem—and the places—Vietnam, Moscow, Havana—came recollections of base housing, where we waited for Dad to come home and hoped he was alright.  Apart from the emotional edginess, though, this kind of research was relatively straightforward.  

For the stories of my own family, the sources were more complicated.  First of all, my father had never told us anything.  Like other military dads then and now, he was committed to a code of secrecy about the missions he was involved in.  He took those secrets to his grave.  And he chose not share with my sisters and me those episodes he could relate: they were too violent or frightening in some other way that might shock our young (and girlish) ears.  I have reason to think he did tell these stories to my boy cousins and perhaps to my mother; but she too was very circumspect and kept them to herself if she knew them.

What I did have from my Dad was a substantial collection of letters he wrote.  They start during his years in college and in flight school and continue through the later years.  I’m really grateful to my mother for keeping them and to my sisters, Nancy and Sarah, for letting me hold onto them for as long as I have.  And a lot of military records ended up in my mother’s files after my Dad passed away.  Those provided a crucial map of the very complicated chronology of his career and definitive, if cryptic, indications of where he went and what the missions were.

But much was missing nevertheless.  My Dad was a good letter writer, but he would go for long periods of time without communicating anything.  During his first tour in Vietnam, for example, there was a six-month period when we didn’t hear from him at all.  My sisters and I had nightmares and my mother worried constantly.   Eventually we heard from the Red Cross that he was alright.  It was still a while before we heard from him directly.  I describe the effects of all this on my psyche in the book, but for the purpose of building the narrative it meant I had to try to sort out the speculative from the factual in family rumors (still circulating) about where Dad was and what he was doing those months he was in the dark. 
And all the military records aren’t there either.  Big gaps fall between years, and much information about unit missions is absent.  I spent a lot of time trying to get the missing records from the various US Army and Marine Corps archives.  You’d think this would be pretty straightforward; after all, it’s the military, and they’re the epitome of organization, right?  But not so.  There are a number of these archives scattered across the country.  Some of them house certain materials, and others different things.  Archivists don’t all seem to know which facility has what.  And one of them, a large storehouse of military records located near St. Louis, burned down in the 1970s.  All those documents were lost forever. 
I should say, though, that those archivists and librarians who I asked for materials were very helpful and did all they could to steer me in the right direction.  Without their help, I wouldn’t have had nearly as much information to use to build the narrative of Dad’s assignments that was the plot of FIGHTER PILOT’S DAUGHTER. 
My mother, of course, was another resource for the story of our family.  She was a great story teller.  A striking character herself, she gave dramatic accounts of my Dad, his friends, the extended family, and my sisters and me as kids.  But she was unreliable.  She loved the story more than anything, and the truth sometimes suffered from this.  I interviewed her over a period of several months—this was a few years before I wrote the memoir—and learned a great deal about our early years that I hadn’t known before.  Much of it turned out to be accurate.  When I checked on her versions of the larger history and her tales of my Dad’s work, however, I saw that in some instances she’d picked and chosen scenes and dialogues for their effectiveness in her story rather than as they had actually happened.  I tried to make that in itself part of her portrait in Fighter Pilot’s Daughter—without dishonoring her memory.

For the convolutions of my own psychological development, I had my girl-diaries, journals, and letters to consult.  They brought back some of the crucial details of daily life in our household and in the scattered rooms and apartments I called home after leaving my parents’ care.  The smells of particular kinds of paint or the odd placement of windows—these details can really bring life to a memoir, and I was grateful to my younger self for having kept a record of them.

But the greater pool of information lay in my memory banks.  These in some cases were wide open, but in others not so much.  For the harder memories, I had to sit with whatever I could clearly recall and wait for more to come.  Sometimes it took days of going back and waiting.  It was like courting somebody or, I imagine, being a therapist hoping a patient would come to see something crucial.  Memories of my mother’s anger at me when I came home from college in Paris during a time when I was breaking away from the family ethics and beliefs came slow and with difficulty.  What was even harder to get back was the recollection that finally emerged of her actually fearing me.  She didn’t understand what influences I’d been exposed to in Paris and was frightened to know what they might mean.  In the end, it was all much ado about nothing, but it was a hard picture to look at: my own mother, afraid of me.

Living in memory as continuously as I did during the writing of FIGHTER PILOT’S DAUGHTER introduced a rich practice in my life.  The more I remembered, the more I remembered;  and writing was an important vehicle for drawing it out.  I’ve tried to keep that going in the months since the book first emerged.  Not that I’m plotting another memoir (I’ve turned to fiction now and have a novel ready to go…), but the whole experience of going into the deep past of my youth has given the self-portrait I carry around with me a lot more dimension than before.  You’d think that somebody who took on the project of writing a memoir would know a lot about the self being narrated there.  On the other hand, all this the research—into the histories, letters, journals, interviews, and my own mind—not only made the book possible, but it worked like a kind of self-therapy: and a lead to several new understandings of myself as a fighter pilot’s daughter.

Did you pursue publishers or did you opt to self-pub?

I pursued publishers through an agent and was happy to get a contract with Rowman & Littlefield.

If published by a publisher, what was your deciding factor in going with them?

Rowman & Littlefield has a reputation for publishing good memoirs and particularly those set in the second half of the twentieth, so I felt it was a good choice. 

If published by a publisher, are you happy with the price they chose?

I wasn’t happy at the beginning. I thought it was too expensive. But the book sold well after it’s first year, so it was reissued last fall in paperback. The price is much better now. A lot more people have been buying it in paper (and the kindle sales have gone up to!).

Did you purposefully choose a distinct month to release your book?  Why?

I was happy with the month the publisher chose, September, because it’s when everyone comes home from summer vacation or summer jobs and when schools and universities start up again. I wanted it to be a new book available for that moment.

How did you choose your cover?

The designers at Rowman & Littlefield came up with a few options, and I chose the one that appears on it now. It has a photo of my sisters and me wearing our father’s Korean War helmets—it’s an absurd picture in a way, but I like it very much. I thought it fit the designer’s image quite well.

Did you write your book, then revise or revise as you went?

I revised as I went and then revised the entire draft several times. Each day I would start out by re-reading what I’d written the day before.

What are three of the most important things you believe an author should do before their book is released?

-Make sure you’re on as many social media platforms as you’re familiar with;
-Create a website for yourself or update an already existing one to show the new publication
-Alert as many bookstores and book clubs in your area of the upcoming release and tell them you’re available for readings & signings.

What are three of the most important things you believe an author should do after their book is released?

-Sign up for a virtual book tour with Pump Up Your Book!
-Pay attention to your social media
-Spread the word in any way you can

Do you have a long term plan with your book?

I’d love to see it emerge as a screenplay and am learning how to write one for that reason. It’s a long shot—a really long long shot, but I’d like to try.

What would you like to say to your readers and fans about your book?

I’m very happy I wrote it and grateful for the good reception it’s had.

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