Saturday, April 30, 2011

John J. Nance on Fears of Flying

John J. Nance is the author of many aviation related novels and non-fiction books. He is an aviation consultant for ABC, and an airline correspondent for Good Morning America.  I met him once at the Audie Awards in L.A., and also talked to him via phone at his home in Tacoma, Washington.

JONATHAN LOWE: What is your background, and how did you get into writing about aviation?

JOHN NANCE: I have a varied background. In fact, the joke around my place was I couldn’t decide what I wanted to be when I grew up. I have a legal, a journalistic, and an aviation background. As a kid I was fascinated by books, by radio and television, and by planes, and so it’s amazing that all of those have areas have come together the way they have.

LOWE: What within aviation specifically is your background?

NANCE: I’ve been a pilot for many years. Got my original pilot’s license in 1965 in Honolulu, and returned to the mainland to go to Southern Methodist University, where I got my undergraduate and law degrees. Was an Air Force pilot from ‘70 to ‘75 on active duty, and basically flew the C-141, the Lockheed Airlifter, for about 23 years, serving in Vietnam and Desert Storm. When I got out of active duty, I flew with Braniff International as an airline pilot until the company’s demise in ‘82, then I began my writing career, and also joined Alaska Airlines in ‘85 until my more recent retirement.

LOWE: What made you want to write fiction about things going wrong on airline flights, and with terrorism?

NANCE: My transition from non-fiction to fiction was the realization that you can do more with fiction. I had four non-fiction books in the ’80s, all of them successful, but the reality was that anytime you write a non-fiction book, you have a very specific audience, and that audience doesn’t build as well as with fiction. The opportunity in fiction is that you can say what you want to say in multi-dimensional layers, as well as to give everybody a rip-snorting good story, and they don’t have to be interested in all the background, which just makes colorful wallpaper.

LOWE: Dale Brown and some others focus on military jets, but yours may generate more empathy from readers in that they focus on commercial airline flights. Let’s hope this never happens, but I love the one where the pilot locks himself in the cabin and flips the plane to prevent people from breaking into the cabin, while the authorities on the ground think there’s a bomb on board.

NANCE: One of the things I’ve had fun with is the Mr. and Mrs. Anybody could be here. Any of us could climb on board one of those airliners. But I am branching out to show other elements of aviation, too. Things that are not only fascinating, but also serve humanity.

LOWE: Which you incorporate into your fiction.

NANCE: Absolutely. Grisham writes on the stage of southern law. Robin Cook writes on the stage of medicine. I write on the stage of aviation.

LOWE: You've written a lot of books, too. What has your schedule looked like?

NANCE: It’s usually somewhat chaotic, but the more I can get uninterrupted time to concentrate on all the little details that make up a story, the faster it goes for me. I usually reserve about two months per book for the actual writing, once the research and plotting is done.

LOWE: Did you ask to narrate your own books, and what was that experience like for you?

NANCE: Since I was a radio broadcaster, and trained in voice, and had done a little acting in the past, I really didn’t want anyone else narrating my books, if I could cut it. The first one I did was “Pandora’s Clock,” but I remember the experience was great, and a director named Dan really helped me find the subtle nuances, and learn how to do the voices without overdoing them.

LOWE: I think you do a great job, while some authors don’t. I was thinking they should have an audiobooks channel on airline flights, since they have so many music and talk channels. Although I’m not sure how your books would play with skittish or paranoid first time fliers.

NANCE: I know, that’s been a little consternating to me in the past, this idea that you wouldn’t want to read a John Nance book on an airplane. Before 9/11, I was seriously considering a campaign at the airports which would have said, “Are you brave enough to read a John Nance book?” When I’m not using an airliner as the foundation for the story, then it’s not a personal threat, and I think it’ll be more acceptable to people on flights. 

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