January 10, 2012

Charting the right course for an aviator’s life story

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I am terrible at arts and crafts. Seriously. When my daughter needed a toga for Roman Week, I outsourced it to a tailor. (She said, “But Michaela, I’m just sewing some armholes in a sheet.” I was too mesmerized by her skill to speak.) I lived in fear of my kids’ class projects. Dioramas—I’d rather die. Posters? Pose too many challenges for me. So when my third grader told me that she had to choose a famous person for “Living Biography Day,” my antenna went up. What exactly was required? Some research. No problem. A short paper, check. Oh and I have to dress up like that person—KLANG KLANG Warning Bells. I hate costumes (don’t even ask about Halloween).

“Hmm,” I said, “what about Amelia Earhart?” I knew I could manage a leather jacket, a long white scarf and goggles. “OK,” my daughter shrugged. But things are never that easy. She came home that night, looking very sad. “What happened?” I asked. “Five other kids wanted Amelia Earhart!” Ah, I thought, I am not alone! “So who did you get?” I asked. “Louis Braille,” she said in a wail. (I ended up dressing her in a white button-up shirt, sunglasses and a purple beret—she looked like Tom Cruise in Risky Business—but by that point I was past caring!)

A few weeks later I was visiting my mom. I told her the story, hoping for sympathy. She laughed and said, “You should have suggested she do Beryl Markham.”

“Who?” I asked.

“Don’t you remember?” She went unerringly to the spot on the bookcase where West With the Night was. (My mother is irritating that way—I could never put my hand on a specific book without a 20-minute fruitless search.) It looked familiar. I opened to the cover page and saw an inscription from me to Mom, “To the next famous aviator.”

I had given Mom the book in 1987 when she got her pilot’s license. My mom did stuff like that. When I was in high school she applied to NASA to be an astronaut. When she decided to fly, she got her license within a year and enrolled my little brother in the Civil Air Patrol (she’s a lieutenant colonel now). Beryl Markham’s exciting memoir was the perfect gift to celebrate her accomplishment.

I started reading it for the first time and was absolutely blown away. Beryl was amazing. I loved her matter-of-fact approach to risking her life and the wonderful language she used to describe it.

“You know,” Mom said, “Beryl would make a good book. Maybe a biography.”

I agreed, especially since I discovered that there were only two old biographies of Beryl for kids and both felt very dated. In my naïveté, I said, “How hard can it be to write a biography?”

As it turns out, biography is not easy at all. I thought with my research skills, it would be a snap. I thought I would tell her story in a nonfiction way but intersperse the narrative with stories from her life. Well, to my surprise, the nonfiction was a total dud. The only part I liked (and the only part that was any good at all!) was the stories. My writing teacher, Patricia Reilly Giff (a lady who knows more than a little about storytelling!), finally suggested I stop fighting the fiction. “Write the story you love,” she said.

It was good advice. And several years later Promise the Night is about to hit the shelves. I wrote the parts of Beryl’s life that were the most exciting: the lion hunts, the sadistic governess, sneaking out into the African night looking for adventure, not to mention the mean girls at boarding school. I started with a girl who was brave but vulnerable. I explored how she grew into herself and into the woman who would set records in a flimsy flying machine.

And it all happened because I don’t know how to sew a costume.

Michaela MacColl

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Promise the Night

Promise the Night

By Michaela MacColl
ISBN 9780811876254

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