Defying the Odds: A Conversation with Keith O’Brien

Surmayi Khatana
Aug 20, 2018 · 7 min read

The author of Fly Girls talks about his writing process, routine, research for the book, and its modern relevancy.

Surmayi Khatana: I’m speaking today with Keith O’Brien, author of the newly released nonfiction book, Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History, an account of five real-life female pilots who broke into the men’s world of aviation in the 1920s and ’30s. Mr. O’Brien, let’s start with my asking what was your writing process like? The placement of each part and chapter seems perfectly balanced and planned; how did you approach this?

Keith O’Brien: I like to approach stories with the mindset of a carpenter — only instead of building a house, I’m building a narrative. So I do plan things out to a certain extent. I will take a couple hours, sometimes a day, to lay out the research material I need in order to write a particular section. I know right away, upon reviewing the documents once again, which scenes and background details I will be including in the coming pages. I then identify how that section will start; this could take a while — beginnings, transitions, and endings are important to me. And I definitely know how each section and chapter will end. I often even have that ending written out — or roughly sketched out — in some way on the page, before I’ve written anything else. The ending, to me, is everything. If I know where I’m going, I can start writing. I may still get lost at times, double back, cut things, or change course. But as long as I know where I’m going, where I’m heading, I can keep writing.

Where did you gather the information needed? What amount of research did the book take?

I utilized online newspaper archives, whenever possible; a lot of archival material is online these days. But research for the book often required me to travel to archives and libraries, big and small, all over the country — from Washington, D.C., to Portland, Maine; Los Angeles to Wichita, Kansas. In all, I visited 10 states, gathering material for the book. Some of these archives are famous. While working at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., I would walk past the Enola Gay on my way to the research room. But the smaller, lesser-known archives were just as important to the research, sometimes more so. I found some of my most valuable material in a small historical society in Moorhead, Minnesota, and in a windowless cinderblock storage room inside a little-known museum in Cleveland. I lived in archives like these for months.

What did you edit out of the book, and why didn’t it make the cut?

Plane crashes, mostly. In the editing process, I cut out lots of plane crashes. It was hard not to delve into every crash because each was so dramatic and shocking. But I felt it was important to really focus in on the crashes that mattered to the narrative. I also cut out a lot of side characters — or trimmed them down significantly. In a story with five main characters, you can’t have too many others around the fringes. This, too, was difficult — all of these characters were so interesting to me. But in the end, you have to do what’s best for the story. And inevitably, that means ruthlessly cutting your own stuff.

How apposite are the tales of these five women to the idea of and to the movement of feminism as it is today?

I certainly hope that the stories of these five women are relevant to what’s happening today. These women were fighting to fly airplanes in the sky at a time when laws still banned them from doing all sorts of things on the ground — serving on a jury, driving a taxi cab, or working a nightshift, just to name a few. And still they kept going. They knew they couldn’t quit, in fact. Earhart once said that women had to keep knocking on the door if they ever hoped to be accepted in a male-dominated world. “As more knock,” Earhart said, “more will enter.” She spoke those words in 1935. Sadly, they still ring true today.

Why did you decide to write this particular book?

I stumbled upon this idea by accident in the spring of 2016. I read a stray line in another book — a line that mentioned a female air race in the 1920s. To be honest, I had never heard of such a thing. So I dug down a little. And then I dug a little more. And then I went to the library, and I stayed there, spending long nights in newspaper archives reading about these women and falling in love with their story. It was the story of an epic quest, populated by compelling characters who risked everything to do the thing they loved, who triumphed in the end, and then were forgotten. How had that happened? How had we forgotten these great women? I felt compelled to change that.

What is your writing routine? Do you write at a desk or do you write on the backs of napkins as soon as you get an idea? What does your desk look like?

I write in my office, inside my home, often with my loyal dog sitting in (or eating) his favorite chair near my desk. I have two young kids. So I get started as soon as they’re on the school bus in the morning. Whenever possible, I will write all day. But if I need to get the kids to after-school activities, cutting my writing day short, I will return to my desk at night, and get back to it. I don’t like to stop for the day until reaching a natural breaking point in the narrative — the end of a section, say, or the end of a chapter. Some place that gives me some mental closure. Then — and only then — do I feel good about stopping. As for my desk, it’s a total disaster. Don’t believe the carefully curated picture of my desk on my website. When I’m writing, there are stacks of paper everywhere. I write inside a tunnel of clutter.

What drives you to write?

I’ll quote Amelia Earhart here. When publisher George Putnam identified her in 1928 as a candidate to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, men interviewing Earhart asked her, “Why do you want to fly the Atlantic?” Earhart just smiled and said, “Why does a man ride a horse?” That’s how I feel about writing. It’s just something I’ve always loved, something I want to do.

Out of the three divided parts of Fly Girls, which one is your personal favorite?

It’s impossible to choose a favorite part of the book. None of them works without the other. But I do like how the story builds — I hope readers can feel the anger rising, the urgency growing, with each chapter. And I really hope readers love the ending of the book. I know I do.

The five women in the book are headstrong and defied the norms. In the present day and age, how important do you think such stories are for young girls to hear and to grow up with?

I think it’s always important to hear the untold stories from the underrepresented. And I do hope that the stories of these brave female pilots in the 1920s and ’30s will resonate with young girls today. I hope they see that it was more than just Amelia Earhart — more than just one great woman — making history in the sky. It’s a squadron of them, really — and each of these women can be a role model to young girls today. But I also think that boys need to hear this story, too, and grow up with this story, too. Boys need to see that girls are just as tough as they are, just as bold, just as smart, just as fearless. That, to me, is the story of Fly Girls.

KEITH O’BRIEN is a former reporter for the Boston Globe and a frequent contributor to National Public Radio. His work has appeared on shows such as All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and This American Life. He has written for the New York Times Magazine, Politico, and Slate, and is also the author of Outside Shot: Big Dreams, Hard Times, and One County’s Quest for Basketball Greatness. He lives in New Hampshire.
SURMAYI KHATANA has a short-story collection, Cadence, and a blog, and is a former Star Student Reporter for the Times of India. She is presently president of her school Editorial Board. Her work has been published in Pilcrow and Dagger Magazine, and she has been awarded Best Poet in the Chandigarh Literature Festival.

The Coil

Literature to change your lightbulb.

Surmayi Khatana

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A writer trying to pen down words made out of ink from sunset colours. An author with a short story book to her name and a blog.

The Coil

The Coil

Literature to change your lightbulb.

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