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Sherri L. Smith on Flygirl

February 9, 2009

cover of Flygirl by Sherri L. SmithSherri L. Smith’s new book, Flygirl, was published last month. You can read Gayle’s thoughts about it here, and I found it a wonderful historical novel that immerses the reader in the period, with a sympathetic narrator readers can easily root for.

Ida Mae Jones dreams of flight. Her daddy was a pilot and being black didn’t stop him from fulfilling his dreams. But her daddy’s gone now, and being a woman, and being black, are two strikes against her.

When America enters the war with Germany and Japan, the Army creates the WASP, the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots—and Ida suddenly sees a way to fly as well as do something signifi cant to help her brother stationed in the Pacific. But even the WASP won’t accept her as a black woman, forcing Ida Mae to make a difficult choice of “passing,” of pretending to be white to be accepted into the program. Hiding one’s racial heritage, denying one’s family, denying one’s self is a heavy burden. And while Ida Mae chases her dream, she must also decide who it is she really wants to be.

This month, Sherri is visiting several blogs to talk about the book, and we were lucky enough to interview her.

Ida Mae is eighteen years old and working when Flygirl begins, and over a year passes before she leaves for Texas to join the WASP. Between her age and Ida Mae’s quest to become a pilot, to name just two things, Flygirl differs from other YA historical novels I’ve read. It seems more, well, adult. Do you consider Flygirl a YA novel? What makes it a YA novel?
That’s an interesting question. Publishing convention has it that the age of the protagonist is what dictates whether or not the book is YA. (Although, obviously, this is not always true. For instance, THE LOVELY BONES is a very adult story told by a teen-aged girl). By this description, one could argue that FLYGIRL isn’t a young adult novel, since she’s legally an adult at 18. Personally, I think YA is defined by the handling of the subject matter. In that respect, I do feel that FLYGIRL is at least a YA-friendly book. There are certainly some heavy themes in the book that could be delved into in a more adult way, although adult may not be the right word. More cynical or darker, perhaps. For instance, while the book explores interracial romance, it does not go into sex and the added dangers that might exist for Ida Mae if sex, and the threat of sexual violence if she was discovered, were part of the story. It’s possible an adult publisher would have required more along these lines to appeal to a more experienced audience. For my purposes, the issues Ida faces in the book are more than enough. My intent was to speak to people of any age who might not have considered some of the questions raised by Ida Mae’s story, and to illuminate a part of history that most of us, teen or older, know next to nothing about. Let’s not forget that the other definition for YA tends to be “12 and up.” That “up” goes a very long way!

Your author bio for Flygirl says that you “began writing FLYGIRL as a master’s thesis project after hearing about the WASP program on public radio.” Was this before or after writing your three contemporary novels? Had you planned on writing historical fiction prior to this?
Actually, I had the ideas for FLYGIRL and HOT, SOUR, SALTY, SWEET at the same time, so I had two contemporary novels under my belt beforehand. I wrote early drafts of FLYGIRL during my master’s program, but sold HOT, SOUR with a pitch. So I got to work on the one book, while my manager shopped FLYGIRL around. I’ve toyed around with historical fiction before and never really thought about not doing it at some point. In fact, I’m a bit more surprised so much of my work has been contemporary, as I’m a big Fantasy/SF/Horror nerd, and historical fits right into those genres quite often. FLYGIRL was a lot of fun to write. In the end, I plan on writing whatever I find interesting, regardless of the time period.

What was it about the NPR story that captured your imagination?
The piece I heard was a Radio Diaries story that included some of the WASP marching songs, interviews and tons of facts, but the thing that really grabbed me was a description of the women who joined the program, the idea that farm girls and heiresses stood side by side.  It seemed incredible to me and so iconic of the way we see that “Greatest Generation” breaking down societal conventions in the service of a greater cause.  It felt like there was room in that environment for something really interesting to happen.

What about other subjects that were integral to the novel, like Jim Crow laws and passing?
I liked the idea of expanding on the break down of societal conventions.  Everyone is familiar with the icon of Rosie the Riveter and how women’s roles changed because of the war.  Addressing race seemed like a natural progression, as women and African Americans were the two primary minorities in 1940s America.  If women were no longer relegated to the kitchen, why should blacks be stuck behind the “colored” line?  Of course, passing was the quickest way to break that convention.  For a time I thought I had bitten off more than I could chew.  After all, a story about the WASP would be interesting regardless of a racial element.  But I liked the symmetry and the questions it raised.  I also liked the challenge.

And what exactly was the challenge for you?
Tackling an historical novel has its own set of challenges—especially the need (or at least the desire) to be accurate with the subject and faithful to the period.  Creative license can cross paths with laziness if you aren’t careful.  For me, accuracy was important in order to pay proper tribute to the legacy of the WASP.   The decision to add a storyline as complex as racial passing is what I found daunting.  I was afraid of giving the WASP plot short shrift in favor of the racial plot, or vice versa.  For a time I thought maybe they were two different books and I shouldn’t overload the page.  After all, either storyline could fill a lot of pages.  But that’s the thing I love about novels—there’s room for more than one theme.

What kind of research did you do for Flygirl? Did you pilot any planes?
Ha! Me, pilot a plane! I wish. I’m not that daring. The closest I’ve come to piloting a plane is sitting in the back of a tiny little Cessna in Southeast Alaska. No, I stuck my nose into quite a few books and websites, and I did drag my husband to the Palm Springs Air Museum to climb around a few of the old World War II birds there, but I never actually went up in one. We’ve got a friend who’s a helicopter pilot in the Navy, and another friend of mine who did go up in a bomber for his birthday, so I tapped them for firsthand experience on the thrills of flying. Happily, there are a few WASP websites with scans of original documents, and now—a bit too late for my research—there’s a National WASP Museum. I also used maps and anecdotal stories my mother and her parents told me to round out the New Orleans sections, as she was born and raised there.

The tension and the psychological strain it placed on Ida Mae to pass during a time and place where Jim Crow laws were prevalent comes across clearly. How much research cover of One Drop by Bliss Broyarddid you do about these topics?
Actually, this was the hardest part to research.  There are frustratingly few books about passing.  With the exception of a couple of novels and movies, it’s hard to find it discussed in much detail.   Most of Ida’s experiences with light-skinned/dark-skinned bias were based on anecdotes my mother used to tell me about growing up in New Orleans.  I also spoke to people in Louisiana, and read books like One Drop, Bliss Broyard’s memoir about her father and the journey she went on after finding out that he had been black, passing for white.  Then I thought about the other sorts of passing people have done—religious, sexual, financial—and used my imagination.

After three contemporary novels, what were some of the challenges Flygirl posed in terms of writing?
Writing contemporary stories is definitely easier in that, when it comes to building the world, it’s more like reporting than creative writing. You don’t have to imagine or research what it’s like to go to the movies, because you do it yourself, as do your readers. With FLYGIRL, the biggest challenge was veracity. For instance, in the first chapter, Ida Mae is cleaning house on a Sunday, and she walks by Krauss’ department store. Stores are open on a Sunday now in 2009, but in 1941, would they have been? Would she have been working? It’s easy enough to explain her working on a Sunday, but the store question was another story. I actually had a librarian down in New Orleans helping me comb through old microfilms of the local Times-Picayune paper to see if there were any ads listing the store’s hours. That sort of detail work was a pain in the neck. There were times when I wanted to just fudge it and my editor, Tim Travaglini, would press me to get it as accurate as possible. In the end, I’m glad we did, but those are not the sort of hurdles I expected when I first started the book! I anticipated doing a lot of research on the WASP, on the airplanes, even on the slang of the period, and I did. But store hours and whether or not there is an evening edition of the newspaper? If only the internet existed back in 1941, then it would all be archived somewhere!

yankee-doodle-galsAre any of your WASP based on actual pilots?
None of the girls Ida flies with are based on actual pilots, but some of the historical figures did exist.  Patsy and Lily are my creations, but Jackie Cochran and Deedie Deaton are real, as are some of the experiences Ida Mae has.  WASP were tasked with flying the Maurader to prove it was safe for men to fly, and they did occasionally come under friendly fire while towing targets.  So I guess “inspired by” is the best description of the women in the book.

What is the most interesting you learned while working on Flygirl, either in terms of your research or about yourself as a writer?
Hmm.  That’s a good question.  The most interesting thing I learned in my research was the parallel to the WASP in the space age—the Mercury 13.  This was a group of women who trained to be astronauts and, like the WASP, had to be better than the men in the space program in order to qualify.  Unlike the WASP, however, the Mercury 13 never went into space.  And they were never really recognized.  Fortunately, for the WASP at least, that’s begun to change.  As a writer, I found that I enjoy writing historical fiction.  It’s like being a tourist to the past—the closest I’ll get to having my own time machine.  Lots of fun without the danger of paradoxes!

Thanks, Sherri, for your thoughtful responses!

To find out more about Sherri, and Flygirl, visit her website or the other stops on her blog tour. Read about her plans for the year at Bildungsroman, a discussion about race and passing at Finding Wonderland, and, coming soon, a visit with Shelf Elf, she of the adorably cute custom banner.

You can also read her guest blog for us last year, written in conjunction with the release of Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 9, 2009 3:34 am

    The amount of research in the wee, teensy details is reflected in the overall cohesion of the book. It’s very tightly written, and the level of tension is constant. I had to keep putting it down, thinking, “Oh, man, I can’t do this. They’re going to catch her, and then they’re going to kill her.” And five minutes later I’d have the book up again. I read it all in one sitting, and really enjoyed the depth and richness. It leaves one a lot to think about. I have my fingers crossed for Ida and Walt, somewhere in an alternate universe…

  2. February 9, 2009 8:32 am

    I had heard of the Mercury 13 but not the WASP, so I’m excited to check this one out!

  3. February 9, 2009 11:48 am

    For anyone who is interested, GoodReads is giving away 5 copies of FLYGIRL. Here’s the link:

    I believe it’s a random drawing for anyone who signs up. Good luck!

  4. February 11, 2009 3:18 am

    Wonderful interview! Sherri is so cool and her book is a fantastic read. (And thanks for linking to my “adorably cute custom banner!) You made me smile. I’m looking forward to Sherri visiting my blog on Friday.


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