The Writer’s Hot Seat: Keith O’Brien

22 February 2019 on Blog, The Writer's Hot Seat   Tags:

Keith O’Brien’s bestselling 2018 release, Fly Girls, received rave reviews from the likes of The Wall Street Journal, Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly, among many others, and was listed as one of the New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year. O’Brien, a former staff writer for the Boston Globe and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, brought both his investigative and narrative skills to the forefront in sharing the untold story of several female pioneers in the aviation industry. The paperback edition and the Fly Girls young reader (for ages 8-12) are both out March 5. O'Brien writes from his home in Seacoast New Hampshire, and more information about Fly Girls can be found on his website.

O'Brien also taught a course on research for creative writers in the MFA program at UNH (where Barnstorm has its home) in the fall of 2017.

One of our nonfiction readers, Christina Keim, recently had the chance to catch up with O’Brien to learn more about how Fly Girls came together, where he finds inspiration, and what we can expect from him next.

Barnstorm: Before writing Fly Girls, you didn't have a significant background in aviation. Where did you first get the inspiration for this book? As a reporter, why did it draw your attention as being a subject which would develop into a book rather than a long form journalism article?

O’Brien: As a journalist, I’m always looking for good story ideas. In this case, I stumbled upon the idea by accident. I was on an airplane, of all places, in June 2016, when I read a stray line, in a different book, about all an all-female airplane race in 1929 that had featured Amelia Earhart. The line caught my attention because I

had never heard of Earhart racing airplanes—or any all-female airplane race. So I started poking around on it. I was doing what journalists do: pulling the string and following it where it led.

Pretty soon, I was in a library, living in old microfilm from the late 1920s. And when you do that, when you live in the news coverage of the time, a lost world emerges—the world of the air races. In the 1920s and ‘30s, air racing was a real sport with winners and losers and massive crowds. And it wasn’t just Earhart who wanted in. There were other women flying with her. Each of them was brave. Each of them was bold. Together, they were on an epic quest—fighting the men for the right to fly and race planes. And in the end, one of them would beat the men in one of the most celebrated air races of the time. That wasn’t just a forgotten story; it was an important story. This was clearly a book that was just sitting there, waiting to be written.

Barnstorm: One of the major challenges you had in telling this story is that all of your principal characters have long since passed, and in several cases, much of their story was nearly lost to history – buried in archives, newspaper articles and letters. What were some of the specific obstacles you had to overcome in doing the research for this book? How did you know that you had learned enough to be confident that your portrayal of a character's behavior, mannerisms, attitude or motivations was as accurate as possible?

O’Brien: My goal from the outset was to render these characters in three dimensions—to make them come alive again on the pages of the book. To do that, you need to know how the character was feeling, thinking. Her hopes, her fears. And so, I needed more than just newspaper coverage. I needed primary sources that would put me inside their minds—diaries, journals, letters, and memoirs, published and unpublished.

For Earhart, this was fairly easy to find. Her archives are well known and voluminous. My biggest challenge was finding these sort of records for the other characters. And initially, I struggled to locate what I needed. But I approached the task like a journalist, refusing to give up. I called ancestors, small historical societies, anyone that might potentially know anything. And in the end, I found documents that had never been utilized before – diaries, unpublished memoirs, exactly what I needed. At that point, you need to just start writing. It’s in writing – in starting to write – that you realize what you don’t know. You can think about it all day and keep digging forever. But at some point, you just have to start writing.

Barnstorm: In your book, you profiled five of the principal female pioneers in aviation, but there were clearly many others involved in the field at that time, some of whom are included in Fly Girls as supporting characters. How did you narrow your focus to rest on these five women in particular – was it practical, because the most information existed about them; was it story driven, because they were among the most critical movers/shakers, or some other factors?

O’Brien: I’ve always believed that you need to be able to say what your story is about in two lines or less. If you can’t say what your story is about in two lines or less, then you don’t actually know what you’re writing.

That’s true for books, too – especially when you’re writing about a topic where there are so many interesting characters, as there was in aviation in the 1920s and ‘30s. So early on, I identified what I was doing. I wrote my two lines. My book was about women fighting for the right to fly and race planes in the 1920s and ‘30s, and ultimately beating the men at their own game. That’s one line, actually. Once I knew that, it was easy to identify the most important characters and begin my research.

Barnstorm: Fly Girls has enjoyed tremendous success as well as comparisons to books like Hidden Figures, which also delivers the untold stories of women in history. To you as a writer, why is it so important that the stories of minority groups are preserved? What obligation do nonfiction writers have to these underrepresented groups in our story telling? What do we have to learn from these stories today? Also, when should we be expecting Fly Girls – The Movie?

O’Brien: It’s always important to tell the untold stories of the underrepresented. And given the state of our world today, that may be more important now than ever before. That’s not what drew me to this story, initially – I was just blown away by all the things I did not know. But once I got into it – once I started learning about these women – I realized just how wrong it was that we had forgotten them and I felt compelled to change that. That’s been the most gratifying part about the book’s success – knowing that these forgotten women, Earhart’s friends and rivals, are once again written back into the picture. As for the movie… we’ll see. There are no takers yet.

Barnstorm: It seems clear that the opportunity to tell the story of women in the early days of aviation has been impactful to you as a writer and reporter. What lessons will you carry forward from this experience? How do you expect the opportunity to tell this story will influence your future work?

O’Brien: As a reporter, I’ve always felt it was important not to follow klieg lights. Chase stories into the dark corners instead. If everyone is looking left, look right. Think about what you – and everyone else – might be missing. This project helped remind me of the importance of all of these lessons. And it also taught me something else, too: History is always more interesting than the simplified narrative that gets handed down.

Barnstorm: Your books have taken us from snow sports to basketball to female aviators. It is hard to guess what you might write about next! What draws you to a story or topic idea? And what are you starting to work on next?

O’Brien: I’ve got nothing to announce just yet. I’m still researching a few topics, trying to figure out what might work – or work best. Not every idea is a book. And not every idea is created equal. But I do know what I’m looking for at least. It’s three things, really. Characters whom people can root for – or root against. An interesting world. And a compelling arc – a real narrative. Once you have these elements, you’ve got a story and, maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ve got a book.


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