As a novelist, I’ve come to realize that the stories I feel compelled to write, the ones that tug at me hardest, have resonated from my childhood. Childhood experience echoes through adult life. The experiences, ideas, themes from my formative years resonate into my adult consciousness and I try to make sense of them through fiction. You see, you don’t choose the story, it chooses you.
When I was about 3 years old, my father would read to me from a book he had about the Apollo missions. It was called Moon Flight Atlas, and it was by Patrick Moore. It was published in 1970 and only went up to the Apollo 13 mission. That mission, dramatized in the Tom Hanks/Ron Howard film of the same name, was the focus of this book. I don’t know why my father read this book to me—it wasn’t exactly Goodnight Moon—but he did. He told the story of the oxygen tank exploding on the way to the moon, and explained how little air they had remaining, and what that meant, and about how they had to slingshot round the dark side of the moon to get home, about how there was only a 10 percent chance of them making it back to Earth.
I was utterly captivated, but it wasn’t space per se that fascinated me so—it wasn’t the rockets and spaceships and stars—it was the men. Those men! Lovell, Swigert, Haise! Laconic, focused and utterly cool under pressure. I remember poring over diagrams and little illustrations of Jim Lovell crawling from the Command Module into the Lunar Module (which was used as a lifeboat of sorts) in grave danger, hundreds of thousands of miles from home, staying calm, working the problem. I was a sensitive child, prone to anxiety, and it hooked my young imagination.
In my mid-20s, I developed a severe and debilitating anxiety disorder, with obsessive and intrusive thoughts. It was a hellish few years. I couldn’t even write a shopping list (really: I tried). I could barely function as a human being. But as I started to get better, with help and support and therapy, I started to write again. And I found myself, perhaps unsurprisingly, returning to those men, those childhood heroes of mine—men who could control their emotions (unlike me!), so calm and collected under pressure (unlike me!) and pushing them into fiction—a story which became The Last Pilot.
From the blackest period of my life, I sailed around the dark side of the moon, and I, too, returned home.
British author Benjamin Johncock's debut novel, The Last Pilot, blends fact and fiction in the story of an Air Force test pilot who suffers a devastating loss and throws himself into NASA's fledgling space program at the expense of his marriage. Johncock lives with his family in Norwich, England.