Interview 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.
I grew up in an Army family, which meant I moved constantly and still have little sense of home. I have, however, managed to keep two houses in the same two towns for the past many years. One is in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where Muhlenberg College is located; and the other is in Gaucin, Spain. The Gaucin place is small and rustic, but it’s where I enjoy life most. I write and hike and swim there in the summers, and skip the swimming in winter.
I’ve taught American Studies and literature at Muhlenberg for years. My favorite courses have been Native American Literature (I wrote a book about contemporary indigenous museums, powwows & casinos called Public Native America), lit & film of the Cold War, and 19th century American Lit.
My memoir, Fighter Pilot’s Daughter, tells the story of growing up in the Army and daily life during the middle years of Cold War. I’m celebrating that it’s done well enough to have very recently come out in paperback.
Where did you grow up?
Since my father was a military pilot, he was often transferred so he could fly new planes and teach others how to fly them. My mother and three sisters and I followed him from one post to another, packing everything up and then unpacking it in the new house each time. I lived in fourteen different places—from upstate New York to Alabama to California and Germany—by the time I graduated from high school.
What is your fondest childhood memory?
When I was 11 years old, my family moved from Alabama to California. We drove all the way across the country on the southern route, passing through places like Biloxi, Mississippi, El Paso, Texas, and the old Disneyland in Anaheim, California. When we finally arrived at our new home in Monterey, I was overcome by the beauty. Alabama had been an overexposed, strange place to live and the towns we’d passed through on the trip were bland and offered little to attract interest. The Monterey Peninsula was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. The waves of the Pacific washed up on it, and there were Cyprus trees everywhere along the rocky shore. In the mornings, fog would roll up from the beaches, and you could only see tree tops, bits of road, beach, the roofs of houses. Gradually the fog would thin, and you could see more. It was magical, like the world was slowly appearing for the day. Kids don’t always appreciate landscapes or views, but I was really taken by all this. It stimulated my imagination like nowhere I’d ever been.
When did you begin writing?
I always wanted to be a writer and actually started playing with writing when I was very young, before we moved to California. But once there, my imagination came awake pretty powerfully. I wrote stories and sketches—and I spent a lot of time dreaming up stories I never wrote down. I took a course in creative writing in undergraduate school but set aside fiction-making when I went to graduate school. I studied centuries of English and American literature at NYU, as well as the cultural and political histories that came with it. I wrote a couple of academic books (one about the literature of the American West at the time the frontier was declared closed, and the other, as I mentioned above, was about Native American museums, powwows, and casinos), but it wasn’t until I wrote Fighter Pilot’s Daughter that I managed to break out of academic publishing into more personal and heartfelt writing.
Do you write during the day, at night or whenever you can sneak a few moments?
I usually write in the mornings, as soon as I get a cup of tea made. If I can find an hour or two later in the day, I’ll certainly take it. If writing in the morning doesn’t happen, I’ll try to find time later in the day—even if it’s late at night.
What is this book about?
Fighter Pilot’s Daughter is a narrative of my girlhood years in a Marine Corps and later Army family. It describes the many episodes of our lives on the road and in the many places where we lived. The book gives a close account of our family relations and of the Cold War, Irish-Catholic context of our many households. The climax comes in the late sixties, when I went away to college and began taking a different view of life from that by which my parents had raised me. We came into sharp conflict with each other, and it wasn’t until many years later that we resolved our differences. The book relates those conflicts in detail, and it ends with the story of how we finally came together again as the Cold War ended.
What inspired you to write it?
Because of all the moving, I had a very thin sense of place and this had paradoxically a big influence on my character. The book explains how this is so, but briefly the absence of time spent in any one place left me drifting in the wind as I came out of early childhood and started the long process of trying to figure out who I was and who I might become. Writing Fighter Pilot’s Daughter helped me sort through the memories of all the moving and the experience of being a constant stranger, of never belonging. For years before I started writing this book, I had wanted to sit down with all the records, journals, interviews, letters and photos I had and draft an account of what happened when. I figured seeing the history of my family’s life and my own would be helpful—therapeutic even—in the ongoing process of figuring out who I was. And indeed it has been!
There were also questions of a moral sort that I wanted to think about in writing—questions about what my father did in war and about my own relationship with my parents. Writing the book helped tremendously with this. I learned tons of things about my father, my mother, and myself just by going back into memory, studying the letters and military records, and narrating the story of our shifting, complicated life.
In addition, my students in courses on lit & film of the Cold War were influential. They urged me to write my story, and I was hugely inspired by their encouragement.
Are you a member of a critique group? If no, who provides feedback on your work?
I’m not a member of a critique group. I have a few close friends who I rely on to read my work and give me feedback.
Who is your favorite author?
At the moment, my favorite author is probably David Mitchell (author of The Bone Clocks, Cloud Atlas, Slade House, and several other novels). But I’m a big reader, and my favorite author changes often.
Do you have an agent or are you looking for one?
My agent for Fighter Pilot’s Daughter was Neil Salkind of Salkind Literary/Studio B. He was great and helped me place the book quickly with Rowman and Littlefield.
Do you have a website and/or blog where readers can find out more?
My website is www.marylawlor.net. There’s a lot more information there about Fighter Pilot’s Daughter, including radio interviews, and there are photos, a longer bio, and many photos.
What is the best investment you have made in promoting your book?
The best investment I made for promoting the original hardback edition of Fighter Pilot’s Daughter was to sign up for a virtual book tour with Dorothy Thompson and Pump Up Your Book. The Amazon ratings went up quickly, and the first printing of the book sold out.
What is up next for you?
I’m writing a novel now titled The Time Keeper’s Room. It’s set in southern Spain and features a young woman just starting university who gets very interested in her own family’s deep past. She has visions of figures out of medieval Spain, and these figures enter into her own life in ways that aren’t science-fictional. Her boyfriend comes from a different kind of family from her own, and he too becomes interested in the distant past. The two of them learn a great deal about themselves, their families, and their country’s history by a combination of love in the present and sympathy with the past.