Debut Author Snapshot: Benjamin Johncock

Posted by Goodreads on July 7, 2015

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Up in the sky over the Mojave Desert, a daredevil test pilot attempts to break the sound barrier in the opening chapters of Benjamin Johncock's debut novel, The Last Pilot. Opening in 1947, the story follows fictional Air Force member Jim Harrison through two decades of the Space Race, from flying X-1s alongside Chuck Yeager to joining Neil Armstrong and Jim Lovell in the New Nine group of astronauts who would fly manned missions into space. Amid the tensions of the Cold War, Harrison faces immense pressure in the cockpit while also struggling at home, as he and his wife grieve after a personal tragedy.

First-time novelist Johncock, who also contributes to The Guardian, immersed himself in Space Race lore for six years to write The Last Pilot. He shares some of the incredible source material he discovered.

"This is a stunning photo of the X-1 rocket plane in flight, taken from one of the chase planes. I think everyone was pretty surprised at how well it turned out. It's a fantastic shot. This is the airplane that broke the sound barrier and was the first stepping-stone into space."
Goodreads: Are you a pilot yourself? How did you get inside the mind of a man willing to take such extreme risks?

Benjamin Johncock: I'm not a pilot, no, although I did spend a good deal of my childhood pretending to be Han Solo and flying the Millennium Falcon (Jim Harrison is named for a reason, y'know)—and that has to count for something, right? A year ago I did ask my wife for flying lessons for my birthday. After six years spent writing The Last Pilot, I was completely enthralled with flying. Sensing my imminent death, she wisely got me something from the Apple Store instead. I'm pretty risk averse, to be honest with you. The closest I get to extreme sport is antiquing. To get inside the mind of someone who is willing to take such extreme risks, and on a daily basis, took a lot of research—not into the technicalities of flight (although I had a lot to understand) but into the nature of these men, their characters. I spent a great deal of time hunting down and reading out-of-print autobiographies and biographies of test pilots like Chuck Yeager and Scott Crossfield, and astronauts like Jim Lovell, Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, Jim Irwin, Frank Borman, and reading accounts of Mel Apt, Joe Walker, Bob White. Documentaries, archival footage, old interviews—all these helped, too. I immersed myself in their world. I even tracked down some Beemans gum! In many ways, getting in Jim's head was the easy part. At the heart of the book is a marriage in crisis, and getting into that was far more challenging.

"The X-2 on the lake bed with a collapsed nosewheel. You can see how much room the dry lakes afforded for error."
GR: What first attracted you to the Space Race as a backdrop for a novel?

BJ: It wasn't so much the Space Race per se that led me here but the men themselves. My dad had this old book on the Apollo missions called Moon Flight Atlas that he used to read to me when I was about four years old. Not your usual bedtime story—it was primarily the story of Apollo 13, years before the movie—but I was utterly captivated. It wasn't the machines, though, it was the men. Here were men in peril, stranded in deep space, so close to death, yet they were so calm, so focused, so cool under pressure. That stayed with me a long time. Those early astronauts were my childhood heroes. Then, many years later, when I was 26, I developed a debilitating anxiety disorder with obsessive and intrusive thoughts. It was a hellish few years. As I started to get better—and started to write again, because I couldn't even write a shopping list (literally) during that time—I found myself, perhaps unsurprisingly, returning to those men—men who could control their emotions (unlike me!), so calm and collected under pressure (unlike me!), and writing about them.

"Probably my favorite shot of the entire space program: Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott in their Gemini capsule after splashdown, following their aborted near-fatal Gemini VIII mission."
GR: Tell us about the challenges (and advantages!) of inserting a fictional character into the true history of this time period. Who was your favorite historical figure to write about?

BJ: I wanted Jim's story and the history to dovetail together seamlessly, with no visible joints. What I didn't want to do was to rewrite history. It was challenging, to say the least, especially as I knew I wanted certain things to happen at certain times. And I was pretty obsessed about getting the details right, too—or as much as I could—even background stuff that nobody in their right mind would think needed to be factually, or period, accurate. There were a few times where I'd be despairing over some trivial detail, then remember, Hey, idiot, this is fiction—you can make this stuff up! But of course, me being me, I didn't want to, and with the story itself being so grounded in reality, it felt like I should try to be as accurate in the detail as possible. And guess what? Truth is stranger than fiction sometimes, too: A couple of times my editor flagged an incident or dialogue that she wanted to check the plausibility of, and I'd have to say, No, this really is, what Pancho said! And inevitably it would be Pancho. She was by far my favorite historical figure to write. Pancho was an incredible woman who lived an extraordinary life. That first time I came across her... it was a leap-to-your-feet moment. It felt like I'd stumbled upon a hidden cache of gold bullion. It was as though I'd been handed the gift of Pancho Barnes. All I had to do was start digging... And the more I read, the more excited I became. I had a lot of fun writing Pancho. As for advantages, there's inherent drama in the events of the time. And I was fortunate enough that the period has been so well documented by some of the very greatest writers, thinkers, and filmmakers of the day. That's an extraordinary privilege for me. To be able to pull a book from my shelf that has a chapter on the psychology of astronauts written by Mailer. That's a pretty rare and special thing.

"'Boy, that was a ride' - Bob White, X-15 pilot, on the cover of Life."
GR: The emotional lives of Jim and Grace are at the heart of the novel. How did you develop these two characters and their relationship?

BJ: I think the real answer is that both characters developed over the period of the six or so years of writing and rewriting and rewriting their scenes and their dialogue. And in that process, my subconscious—made up of a gazillion-or-so influences, experiences, ideas, thoughts, and so on—slowly shaped and formed and molded them both. It's not a sexy answer, but process is rarely sexy. Jim and Grace's relationship itself developed from the two characters and the dynamic of a married couple (such a complex thing) as well as how they each respond to, and are affected by, external events—both personal and global.

GR: Since you've asked so many other writers for The Guardian, we must ask you! What's on your desktop? (computer desktop or otherwise)

BJ: My desktop image is a black-and-white shot of one of the Mojave's dry lakes. I like my desktop image to be simple and uncluttered, with some perspective. I change the image from time to time to keep things fresh. I use my desktop as a place for current work, grouped roughly together in small batches according to task. At the moment there's a folder of stuff for my next book, a bunch of publicity docs for cool stuff like this Goodreads Q&A, a book review I've just filed for The Guardian (Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg: It's amazing), a photo of a present I'm getting for my incredible editor at Picador, Elizabeth Bruce, without whom I would not be talking to you now, and a JPEG of the Barnes & Noble 'Discover Great New Writers' logo, as The Last Pilot has just been picked for their list! That's it: I run a tight ship. Everything else gets filed away in my home folder, which now lives in Dropbox. I don't have a real-life desktop because I write in the public library and various cafés. My shoulder bag is my study. MacBook Air, HB pencils, lined A4 paper (I draft and redraft by hand), date stamp (so as to keep track of drafts), juice pack (I tether off my iPhone, which is great, as I always have my own hot spot, but it kinda nukes the battery), and books—lots of books.

"I love this photo: Pete Conrad and Gordon Cooper on the carrier after their successful Gemini V mission in 1965: 'Eight days in a garbage can,' Conrad said. 'Wish I'd taken a book.' It was a long-endurance record at the time."

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by P.J. (new)

P.J. Byer This is a fascinating interview. The topic about space and astronauts is not one I'd be drawn to per se, but Benjamin Johncock's personal story drew me in. His hero worship of these astronauts helping him years later as he dealt with anxiety issues is fascinating. And then I realise this period in history is fascinating. Ben's research is laudable - wow, six years.
Congrats Ben on being included in Barnes and Noble " Discover Great New Writers" list.
Title The Last Pilot.

message 2: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca Benjamin Johncock's portrayal of the Mercury and Gemini astronauts was spot on. His research really paid off. I could see each of them as they appear in the novel. It could not have been better.

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