Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Interview with Mary Lawlor, Author of Fighter Pilot's Daughter

Mary Lawlor is author of Fighter Pilot’s Daughter: Growing Up in the Sixties and the Cold War (Rowman & Littlefield paperback 2015); Public Native America: Tribal Self-Representation in Casinos, Museums and Powwows (Rutgers UP, 2006); and Recalling the Wild: Naturalism and the Closing of the American West (Rutgers UP, 2000). She lives in Allentown, PA and Gaucin, Spain.

Thank you so much for this interview, Mary. Can we begin by having you tell us why you wrote your book, Fighter Pilot’s Daughter?

I thought about writing a memoir during the last several years I was teaching at Muhlenberg College. I’d long since gotten used to the fact that I had no place to call home and to not knowing where in the world I belonged, but I felt that writing the story of all the moves my family made would help me better understand my roving girlhood. Therapy, talking to other military kids, and finally settling down in one place helped, but not quite enough. I needed an account, a narrative, of what had happened to me and my sisters during all that shifting around. Our father was away for long periods of time, in very dangerous situations. Our mother was always worried. These weren’t easy things to live with. I felt if I could write out the sequence of moves and try to get back inside the feelings that came with them I might be able to make better sense of what being an Army kid did to and for me.
During my last few semesters at Muhlenberg I taught a course on the literature and film of the Cold War which brought the idea to the foreground. Partly this came from the questions students asked and my efforts to get back inside memory to answer them as clearly as I could. But it was also driven by all those questions I’d lived with for so long. So I sat down one summer and wrote the first sentence. The story kept going, and I didn’t want to stop. Even when it was finished I kept going back into that past. It was a very good experience for me to write the book.

What was it like being a military brat?

Almost every day we saw soldiers doing drills and marching along the roads that ran through the posts where we lived. You could hear ordinance explosions in the distance.

Dark green army school buses picked up my sisters and me and a lot of other kids every day to take us to the Catholic school we attended off post. They would bring us back home and leave us in the housing areas where we all lived. All of us went to the same movie theater, bowling alley, teen center, swimming pool and so forth because there was only one of each.

But the sense of class difference was very strong: enlisted and officer corps families lived in separate housing areas, belonged to different clubs, and tended to socialize separately.

Children were expected to behave very well, and parents were expected to discipline them. So my sisters and I and all the other kids acted and spoke and probably thought as we were supposed to. If you were out of line, your father had to answer for it and could be demoted. Kids knew that. You felt like you had a responsibility to not let your father look bad.
So there was a lot of following the line that was drawn for you, and then knowing who you were in the pecking order.

My sisters and I were close and liked being with each other. That was a good thing because all the moving meant we didn’t have any other friends. At new places we’d meet new people, but soon enough they or we would move and we’d never see each other again. Sometimes we’d write letters but that didn’t usually last very long.

It was in many ways a lonely experience, but it was also very, very interesting. You never knew where you were going next or what the new assignment would be like. New places meant new landscapes, sometimes new languages and totally new things to do. We moved from Alabama to California to Germany and many other places. Although we were strangers, life was always exciting.
Of all the places you lived out of the U.S., what your most memorable and why? What was it like?
Mary: I loved living in Paris during my first year of college. It was my first time away from home; my first chance to make myself someone apart from my intensely close family. And the city was so unbelievably beautiful. It was incredible to be eighteen and have that at my doorstep. I met wonderful young people that winter and spring and the following year. Hemingway called Paris “a moveable feast,” and he was right. To get to live there when you’re young is a great gift that stays with you ever after.

You call yourself a warrior child. Why is that?

Growing up as a dutiful, devout daughter in an Irish Catholic, military family I had my life mapped out in detail for me by my parents, the Church, and the patriotic military culture. When I got to college and met people who had other perspectives and different ideas for the future, I was very amazed and fascinated–by what they said, the books they were reading, and the politics they were involved in. Soon I joined them and had to face the resistance of my family to the changes I was going through. I had to “fight” my parents’ will to bring me back home, so to speak, and think again like they did. It wasn’t easy. The tension between us lasted a long time. I had to fight with myself too, because my parents’ vision and ideology were deeply ingrained in me: just because I was attracted to other peoples’ politics and philosophies I couldn’t simply chuck all the ideals I’d been nurtured by. Those battles and the ambiguities that fueled them raged throughout my late teens and through my twenties. I made peace with my parents before they passed away. I like to think I’ve made a few treaties with myself by now, but new fights do turn up to take the place of the old ones. I struggled for a long time to give up academic writing and start producing the fiction I wanted to write since I was very young. I’ve finally done that but new challenges come with the new kind of writing. I have to keep soldiering on.

Demonstrating during the Viet Nam War was a given being as most of America were enraged we were involved in a war that was killing our young men and women in the military, plus it became something that left a bad taste in our mouths. What was the part you played in the demonstrations? How did your family feel about that?

Yes, fifty-eight thousand Americans died in the Vietnam War, but in 1995 Vietnam released the totals of Vietnamese dead: two million civilians, 1.1 million soldiers of North Vietnam, and (the US estimate) between 200,000 and 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers. It was a huge nightmare for the Vietnamese people and fueled a raging civil struggle in the US. I was fairly oblivious to the horrors of the war although I should not have been. My father was fighting in it. There was no good reason for me to have been as ignorant as I was of what the war meant, even though much of what my Dad was doing was officially secret. I could have had a better picture of what was going on if I’d taken the trouble to read the newspapers and pay closer attention to the nightly TV news. But I wasn’t interested; and in our family we didn’t talk about these things.

This all changed very soon after I arrived in Paris. New roommates and new friends my age were all talking about the war. Everybody was against it. They were reading political theory and philosophy and spiritual books that helped shape their arguments. I was impressed and influenced by them. In the winter of that year, we met a group of young men who had just come to Paris from Madison, Wisconsin. They were nineteen and twenty years old and had fled the country to avoid the draft. At that time Charles de Gaulle, President of France, was granting political asylum to US resistors. France had its own history in Vietnam, and de Gaulle had reason to sympathiz with the young Americans who did not want to go there to fight and possibly lose their lives. The Madison guys formed a union and got a lot of support from political figures and intellectuals in Paris. I was very moved one night when Jean Paul Sartre, the great philosopher of existentialism, came to one of their meetings and claimed they were all vraiment existenialistes. Their bravery—for all they knew they were never going to be able to go home—was quite startling, and I found myself immensely impressed. I joined them along with other friends in the demonstrations that spring that became know in history as “May ’68.”

After writing your book on your experiences, what was going through your head?

Lots of things were on my mind at that moment. The process of writing it was like an experience in self-therapy. When Fighter Pilot’s Daughter was finished I felt like I knew a lot more about myself and my family than I had before writing it. I worried about whether my sisters would be offended by anything I had written in the book. I sent them the manuscript and told them I’d be interested in their thoughts, but they objected to nothing and in fact were terrifically supportive. I also worried about whether the book would have any appeal to people outside my own family and perhaps some of the military kids I knew. As it turned out the book did rather well and came out in paperback two years later. I’ve had lots of good feedback from people of my generation who told me they recognized themselves and the world in which they grew up in Fighter Pilot’s Daughter.

As soon as I finished writing the book there were business matters I had to think about. I needed to find an agent—that was very much on my mind. It took several months, but I was very happy to sign with Neil Salkind. He placed the book quickly with Rowman and Littlefield, a great publisher to work with. My editors there and the vice president, Jon Sisk, were very helpful.

What’s next for you?

Since Fighter Pilot’s Daughter I’ve been writing fiction. My first novel, The Time Keeper’s Room, is in the hands of an agent in London right now. It’s set in Spain (where I live half the year) and focuses on a young woman who’s half-American, half-Spanish. She’s trying to find her identity and stumbles into a kind of visionary history in interesting, dramatic ways that help her come through many challenges she faces.

At the moment I’m working on another novel, as yet untitled, set in the 12th century, about a monk who walks to Spain from England to learn Arabic so he can read Arab star lore and the wisdom of ancient Greece. He has to dodge the Church, which watches his moves with suspicion and jealousy. I won’t say more, but it’s a combination of literary fiction and thriller.

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