Did you build models as a child?
H.B. Lewis: I did some scratch building, which is when you set about trying to build something from pieces of balsa wood or plastic without instructions. I can’t say I was entirely successful at it, but I loved the idea. And I built a lot of model kits in general during my modeling period.
As in the story, did you have a favorite hobby shop where you spent a lot of time as a child?
HBL: Actually, that aspect of the story was constructed. I don’t recall a specific shop that generated that type of imagery; it was more like a mythical shop, one that I might have wished for as a little kid that didn’t actually exist for me. When I was researching the book, I did come upon several hobby shops that inspired some of the visuals for it. They were pretty amazing places.
And what was that like going into them as an adult? What were those stores like for you?
HBL: It was really inspiring. The sensation of stepping down into the hobby shop in the summertime and it still being cool inside. I got all of that from visiting a specific place that was in a small town, and it really does have the feeling of being a kind of a special place. You see all these toys and models and everything and you can feel the invitation to come play. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there were a few of these places around. I thought that they didn’t exist anymore, but they do, at least a few of them.
It’s nice, though, that in capturing something like that in a book it can live on. As a child what was it like to fly with your father, and what was it like to finally fly solo?
HBL: It was really a wonderful gift for my father to share with me as a child, especially at so young an age. I didn’t have any of the fear that you might associate with flying as an adult. It was just having fun, and I totally trust my father. He’s my father, but he’s also been a respected Air Force pilot and, at that time, an airline pilot. He has since retired from TWA, but this has not slowed down his flying activity much at all. He still spends a good part of every month in the air, flying 747s for an air cargo company, testing them for air-worthiness before they get re-assigned to line duty, and he also flies small corporate jets, taking executives back and forth to their important meetings and vacation spots. Back then he was just my dad, the incredibly capable pilot with the patience of a saint. He helped make flying really fun, because he was so unflappable and trusting of his students’ potential. We had access to a very rural area and that’s where we would fly. Predominantly, my flying consisted of small airports with grass runways, pretty much with no radios, just seat-of-the-pants flying, very casual. And it was just perfect for a boy growing up. I think the inspiration for some of the passages in the book come directly from my experience of flying, especially out over farmland and small towns and stuff. It’s just about the best description of flying I could have written.
It probably gave you a very different perspective. It’s so beautiful to be on the ground, but then also to look down at it as well. That’s not something everybody gets to do, I think especially by the age of eight.
HBL: Yes, I think it helped inspire me artistically because I was responding at the time to colors and the different palettes that you would see at different times of the year. Flying over the country in the fall, for instance, as opposed to twilight in the summertime, is very different. Everything about it, the way you prepare the airplane, the smells and the colors, everything is so different. I think as a child maybe I had a heightened sensitivity to that.
And so what was it like when you were finally able to fly by yourself?
HBL: It was a very natural transition. It was the ultimate solo experience. You couldn’t ask for anything better. It was at the end of a summer day, on my birthday, and it was just perfect for flying. No wind, and the sun was going down — a perfect twilight. We were flying at one of our favorite airports, Coatsville Airport in Pennsylvania, and at the time they had a grass runway adjoining the paved runway. We used it for what’s called “touch-and-go’s.” My father and I would be flying, oftentimes with him saying he was just “along for the ride.” I would be doing approaches and landings, and as soon as we would touch down, without bringing the airplane to a stop, I’d add power and take off. We would do these, maybe five to ten of these at a time. After that, as we touched down, he said, “Why don’t you taxi over?” And as he unfastened his seatbelt and climbed out of the airplane, he said, “Well, why don’t you take it around?” And that was that.
It certainly sounds like a wonderful rite of passage, just like driving the car, but so much more.
HBL: I didn’t realize that at the time. I knew it was a very special gift, but I didn’t realize at the time how unusual it was. All of my father’s friends and everybody that was in my immediate circle was associated with flying. Only in retrospect can I see how very special and unusual it was.
In doing some research for this interview, I noticed that there was a book published recently about the life of Wiley Post called From Oklahoma to Eternity. Could you tell us a little bit more about him, considering that he and the plane are obviously the basis for your book.
HBL: The decision to base my book on that particular airplane came from trying to let my intuition guide me as to what would be appropriate. I loved the name, and also I was looking for an airplane from that era, something that would speak to me, something that could somehow represent the overall idea of exploring potential. And I felt that this particular airplane was really inspiring. And Wiley Post, the pilot? I guess I just was intrigued by him because he was such an unusual fellow. As a young boy, I had never seen a person with an eye patch, except maybe Errol Flynn, and I certainly had never considered that you could fly an airplane with the sight of only one eye. Having flown myself, I realize how much of a challenge that would be. I was just totally fascinated with that. He didn’t make a big deal out of it; you only realize it when you see photographs of him. And then to realize that this is the same man who flew this airplane around the world solo for the first time — that’s amazing to me. One of his sponsors on the solo flight was a fledgling company, they made a prototype version of a navigation device, an autopilot. Although this was intended to help make piloting the plane solo easier, it was far from a sure thing, a totally untested device, and extremely crude by today’s standards. A lot of courage and trust in his own intuition was necessary for his achievement. I don’t know why exactly, but I was really aware of the Winnie Mae as a child. It may have been the name or the way the airplane looked, or it might have been the mystique of the pilot. It was definitely a name that readily popped to mind when I was thinking of what airplane I could use for this book. And I was surprised to find that Wiley Post and the Winnie Mae were not really current in terms of historically-available information. Of course you can find out about them, but it’s not like the featured airplane at the Air and Space Museum. It took me a while to hunt it down.
Did Post name the Winnie Mae?
HBL: This is something I’m not clear about. As far as I can tell, the airplane was named by Standard Oil. The president of Standard Oil’s daughter was named Winnie Mae. I think Standard Oil was a sponsor of Wiley Post’s around-the-world flight, supplying the airplane and the name. I think that’s how it originated.
I agree with you that it is a wonderful name. It seems to evoke some sort of magic; it almost personifies the plane.
HBL: The particulars of Wiley Post’s life and this airplane’s beginnings are all that exist, but now it’s almost like they have another life in the American mythology. They’re a story, and they exist in that respect as something that inspired me. I like the idea that it was an airplane that really existed, but I also like the idea that my book is a story about a model. It’s sort of one step removed from the airplane. And then from there, the boy’s view and his impression of what that airplane means to him are where I wanted to put the focus of the story.
What about the influence of the fishermen in the town? They struck me as an important influence on the boy’s life. How did they come to be part of this book? Are they based on anyone that you know or was it just something that you thought was necessary for the story?
HBL: To answer that in retrospect, because at the time of writing it resulted from a desire to create a challenge. I wanted to present a challenge that a child might feel, some experience or something happening on an intuitive level that runs in conflict with their cultural milieu, whatever that might be. And so the fishermen offered an opportunity for there to be a dialogue about that. I also love the idea of presenting older people as having a connection with wisdom. That’s something I wanted to have as a reminder for children — that older people sometimes (not always) have opened themselves in such a way that they are incredibly wise.
I thought the contrast between the parents and the fishermen was interesting, not that the parents, too, couldn’t have been wise, and not that parents are bad people, just different.
HBL: There is a duality: parents who love you but who, somehow, are not on your wavelength. I think it’s all too common a device for writers to make parents dismissive. For example, you’re in conflict with your parents and so then you run away, as in the fairy tale motif where you’re escaping from an oppressive stepmother or something. I just didn’t feel that was an appropriate message. It’s more satisfying for me to talk about the duality of it, when someone loves you but they can’t quite connect with you for some reason.
What about the duality of the story and the artwork? Some writers create both the story and the illustrations, as you did in this story. Which comes first, or do they work hand in hand?
HBL: They seem to develop hand in hand. The way this story started, for instance, wasn’t just as an image, but the image had sort of a narrative context to it. It was a night-flying sequence that’s not even in the book. (I guess you would call it a thumbnail or an outline, but it was really just this one scene.) As I was writing I started to draw the image as well. Usually they start at the same time, and that was the case here. And what was it like? This was probably the most satisfying project I’ve done in my entire life. I stepped into the writing in a way that I’ve held myself back from for a long time. I’m usually trying to support someone else’s vision or story, and this was the first time I had ever chosen to do something of my own. I don’t think you can know in advance how personal that is until you do it. I found it immensely satisfying and incredibly challenging. The book is stylistically different for me; I’m typically known for doing humorous work. I realized after writing it that this is not a humorous story at all. This story required the antithesis of that, almost. The challenge was to try to tell the story through atmosphere and composition and palette. It was like I had a whole new set of rules and I had just changed everything for myself.
If there were some sort of message you would like kids to get from this book, what would that be?
HBL: Well, I guess I’m a little uncomfortable with it as conveying a specific message. I love the idea of it conveying a question. I love the idea of inviting children to explore their potential and to explore whatever it is that they have, that they take for granted. I would love to be a part of them beginning to question that.
Perhaps this book will somehow help them do just that.