Interview with Mary Lawlor, author of 'Fighter Pilot's Daughter: Growing Up in the Sixties and the Cold War'

Mary Lawlor grew up in an Army family during the Cold War.  Her father was a decorated fighter pilot who fought in the Pacific during World War II, flew missions in Korea, and did two combat tours in Vietnam. His family followed him from base to base and country to country during his years of service. Every two or three years, Mary, her three sisters, and her mother packed up their household and moved. By the time she graduated from high school, she had attended fourteen different schools. These displacements, plus her father?s frequent absences and brief, dramatic returns, were part of the fabric of her childhood, as were the rituals of base life and the adventures of life abroad.

As Mary came of age, tensions between the patriotic, Catholic culture of her upbringing and the values of the sixties counterculture set family life on fire.  While attending the American College in Paris, she became involved in the famous student uprisings of May 1968.  Facing her father, then posted in Vietnam, across a deep political divide, she fought as he had taught her to for a way of life completely different from his and her mother's.
Years of turbulence followed.  After working in Germany, Spain and Japan, Mary went on to graduate school at NYU, earned a Ph.D. and became a professor of literature and American Studies at Muhlenberg College.  She has published three books, Recalling the Wild (Rutgers UP, 2000), Public Native America (Rutgers UP, 2006), and most recently Fighter Pilot's Daughter: Growing Up in the Sixties and the Cold War (Rowman and Littlefield, September 2013). 

She and her husband spend part of each year on a small farm in the mountains of southern Spain.

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About the Book:

FIGHTER PILOT’S DAUGHTER: GROWING UP IN THE SIXTIES AND THE COLD WAR tells the story of the author as a young woman coming of age in an Irish Catholic, military family during the Cold War.  Her father, an aviator in the Marines and later the Army, was transferred more than a dozen times to posts from Miami to California and Germany as the government's Cold War policies demanded.  For the pilot’s wife and daughters, each move meant a complete upheaval of ordinary life.  The car was sold, bank accounts closed, and of course one school after another was left behind.  Friends and later boyfriends lined up in memory as a series of temporary attachments.  The book describes the dramas of this traveling household during the middle years of the Cold War.  In the process, FIGHTER PILOT’S DAUGHTER shows how the larger turmoil of American foreign policy and the effects of Cold War politics permeated the domestic universe. The climactic moment of the story takes place in the spring of 1968, when the author’s father was stationed in Vietnam and she was attending college in Paris.  Having left the family’s quarters in Heidelberg, Germany the previous fall, she was still an ingénue; but her strict upbringing had not gone deep enough to keep her anchored to her parents’ world.  When the May riots broke out in the Latin quarter, she attached myself to the student leftists and American draft resisters who were throwing cobblestones at the French police. Getting word of her activities via a Red Cross telegram delivered on the airfield in Da Nang, Vietnam, her father came to Paris to find her. The book narrates their dramatically contentious meeting and return to the American military community of Heidelberg.  The book concludes many years later, as the Cold War came to a close.  After decades of tension that made communication all but impossible, the author and her father reunited.  As the chill subsided in the world at large, so it did in the relationship between the pilot and his daughter. When he died a few years later, the hard edge between them, like the Cold War stand-off, had become a distant memory.  

For More Information

  • Fighter Pilot’s Daughter: Growing Up in the Sixties and the Cold War is available at Amazon.
  • Pick up your copy at Barnes & Noble.
  • Discuss this book at PUYB Virtual Book Club at Goodreads.

Q: Welcome to The Writer's Life!  Now that your book has been published, we’d love to find out more about the process.  Can we begin by having you take us to the beginning?  Where did you come up with the idea to write your book?

In one way or another, those of us who write memoirs are writing for our lives. Like many memoir writers, I’ve been haunted for decades by traumatic childhood and adolescence experiences. They were intensely personal, of course, but they were also connected to larger events and institutions: to my dad’s role as a fighter pilot in the Cold War; to the culture of military bases across America and Europe; to the disciplines of Catholic schools; and to the radical counterculture and the anti-Vietnam War movement, which I joined in Paris in 1968.

My dad was a decorated war hero; we lived—my mother, my sisters and I—in the glow and the shadow of his dangerous, turbulent life. Through all our many moves—I went to 14 schools before I turned eighteen—I remained a good Catholic, a good patriot, and a good student.  But when I came of age in the late sixties, I turned away from much of what I’d been taught. Suddenly, the way of life I’d learned at Catholic schools and in uncounted patriotic sermons appeared distant and wrong. And all that my father had done in the Korean War and was still doing in Vietnam appeared in a different, darker light.

Then the confrontation between my father and me as a result of my involvement in the Paris demonstrations shattered my ties to the family and marked my psyche in ways I have tried for years to understand. I was deeply conflicted about my parents, especially about my Dad. And I didn’t know how I felt or should feel about myself as the daughter of the man who flew the missions he did. I wrote the book both to produce a fuller and more nuanced picture of those difficult times and to find a way beyond my own fierce anger at parents I also loved, respected, and missed. Writing Fighter Pilot’s Daughter made it possible for me to understand their choices with more understanding than I’d been able to muster in the past.

Q: How hard was it to write a book like this and do you have any tips that you could pass on which would make the journey easier for other writers?

Some parts of it were very difficult to write because they sent me back into hard memories.  Drafting, for example, the chapter in Fighter Pilot’s Daughter about our move to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina when my Dad was still in the Marines brought up scenes of my mother unpacking our china, silverware, the books and paintings. Then we’re settled in and the new life begins.  Only nothing really happens.  Dad goes to the work and flies around the Caribbean, but my Mom stays home with us.  And she’s miserable.  It was like this for her in several places where we lived, but for some reason, Camp Lejeune stands in memory as a palpable instance.  Life on a military base could be very dull for her.  She was a woman with imagination and a lively sense of humor.  She had exuberant social energy and loved getting dressed up for parties at the Officers’ Club and the Marine Corps Birthday Ball.  But on most days she had no company apart from my sisters and me.  She would be moody for long stretches and angry with my father.  The moving was hard on her.  She always wanted to have an elegant, stable home with old friends coming and going, but she didn’t get one until we were all grown up and making our own lives.

It was also difficult to write about the times when my Dad was away at war.  Once, and it’s hard to believe this now, we didn’t hear from him for several months; his paychecks stopped; mom had to get a job.  But his absence in a war zone always shadowed our daily lives.  I had nightmares and am still edgy about whether my loved ones are secure when I’m not looking at them. 

When my father would come home from war, he could be very frightening.  A tall man with an intense gaze, he would fill the space of our doorway.  His movements and expressions were like those of a caged creature, jumpy and nervous. Eventually he’d settle in again, and we’d have  wonderful times with him.  We didn’t talk about these things, though, so it felt like our household would swing back and forth between thick tension and almost hysterical euphoria.    

The most difficult part of writing Fighter Pilot’s Daughter was dealing with my feelings about the work my father did, as I mentioned earlier, and the terrible fight we had, back in 1968. At that point we were on diametrically opposite sides of the political divide.  We were both home in Heidelberg, Germany after the Paris demonstrations—he’d come back from Saigon on emergency leave—and we had to live in close quarters for almost a month.  The animosity between us was thick, and it finally exploded.  For a year we didn’t speak.

Much later, by the way, we got to be very close, and I’m deeply grateful for that.  Being retired from military life, Dad had changed dramatically.  He’d been a heavy drinker in his flying days.  This stayed with him into retirement until he sought the help of Alcoholics Anonymous.  AA and the peaceful life by the sea affected him and my mother in interesting ways.  Dad became more reflective. I like to think my mother left aside some of her anger for having had to follow him around the world without a house or career of her own. Getting close to my father and mother again eased a lot of the old pain that came with my Paris days.  And thinking about our reconnecting while I wrote Fighter Pilot’s Daughter helped ease the difficulties of going back into all those edgy memories.

I’d say to anyone who’s contemplating a memoir that it’s good to spend time with any materials you have to work with—the letters, photos, and so forth—for as long as you can to let the memories get stimulated.  And then remember when you start drafting that writing has an almost magical way of bringing up more memories as you go.  You need to stay with the hard ones especially.  Making real contact with old wounds is as crucial (maybe more so) to an effective narrative as recounting joy and pleasure—for yourself as well as your book.

Q: Who is your publisher and how did you find them or did you self-publish?

My publisher is Rowman and Littlefield. My agent, Neil Salkind, placed the book with them.  

Q: Is there anything that surprised you about getting your first book published?

I had published two academic books (both with Rutgers University Press) before writing Fighter Pilot’s Daughter and didn’t have great expectations that my first venture into non-fiction creative writing would be quickly taken up by any publishing house.  Neil did a fantastic job shopping the book around, though.  I was surprised and thrilled out of my mind cut  when Rowan and Littlefield gave me a contract only a few months after Neil had the manuscript. 

Q: What other books (if any) are you working on and when will they be published?

I’ve written a novel about an American woman who’s trying to make a life for herself in a small Spanish village. She’s quite a loner but doesn’t want to be.  Her story is paralleled by that of a younger Spanish real estate developer.  Both feel like outsiders in the village, but while she wants to heal old wounds by enclosing herself in the mountain landscape, he wants to transform the place. It’s a story at once of expatriate life and of the huge waves of development, corruption, and then economic catastrophe that have washed over Spain in the last decade, leaving lives and landscapes transformed forever. I don’t want to give away the plot, but they both end up subtly changed for the better.

At the moment I’m working on a new novel, this one also set in Spain.  (My husband and I have a small house there where we spend a lot of time, thus the interest in that setting.) It’s about a young Spanish woman, just setting off for university, who discovers her family’s roots in medieval Al-Andalus during the time when Spain was Arabic speaking and Islamic.  She goes back in time—in her imagination or perhaps through actual time travel—to visit a medieval astronomer who works with an astrolabe.  He keeps track of the hours so people know when to pray.  There’s a parallel in the girl’s own life, as she recovers her family’s lost history and her own daily struggles with time’s power to carry things away.   

Q: What’s your favorite place to hang out online?

I spend a fair amount of time in exchanges with people on Facebook, and I have a number of followers on a Facebook page for Fighter Pilot’s Daughter.  I find I’m entertained by Twitter lately, especially tweets from literary journals and small presses. They’re smart and often funny; and they tell me about books I might not otherwise know exist.

Q: Finally, what message (if any) are you trying to get across with your book?

I want readers of Fighter Pilot’s Daughter to come away with a deeper   understanding of what military kids and spouses experience.  I hope the book will make vivid how complicated it is for these dependents (a fraught word, but it’s the term used in military circles) of service people to maintain relatively healthy and happy family lives when they have to move all the time and when they spend long months separated from the father or mother who’s deployed to war.  Military brats make up a significant  population, but I think it’s still a widely misunderstood group.

Often when I tell people I grew up in an Army family, they ask if it was like life in The Great Santini?  Really, a lot of people ask this question. The answer is no.  Santini is an abusive father.  Of course, many military Dads work with violence on a regular basis, but they don’t always bring it home.  Pat Conroy is a great story teller, and as he says himself about his novel and memoir about his father, it’s his family’s story, not a representative one of military family life in general.  Nevertheless, his is one of the few narratives in circulation that tells a story about military dependents and their soldier fathers.  So I think it often gets taken as a model of all service families.  I hope readers of Fighter Pilot’s Daughter see this isn’t the case

If the book is about life as a military dependent it’s also about life in Cold War America more generally: about our patriotic secular and religious culture, our many wars, and the perhaps inevitable reaction of a whole generation of young Americans. I’m thrilled when readers write to say that the book has helped them remember and clarify the events and movements of the time, and to realize how powerfully these shaped our individual lives.

I also have to admit that I’d like my mother and father to be remembered.  They were complicated, fascinating, larger than life people. There are far more stories about them than than I was able to recount in Fighter Pilot’s Daughter; but it makes me happy to hear from readers that they feel they know Jack and Frannie; and that they have an idea of what my early life was like.  It makes me feel somewhat less of a stranger everywhere I go.
Q: Thank you again for this interview!  Do you have any final words?

Thanks for inviting me to talk about Fighter Pilot’s Daughter.  I hope it’s not too bombastic to say that I actually like the book myself quite a lot.  It’s done fairly well so far, and the first printing is just about depleted.  I’ve had lots of wonderful responses from readers, particularly from people who grew up in military families.  I’ve also had a number of letters from people of my generation who don’t know military life but have powerful memories of growing up in the Cold War.  It means the world to me that these readers are moved by the book to think about their own pasts and write me about their experiences.
 I’m also glad to know the book isn’t circulating only as a memoir for children of the sixties.  At the moment, a couple of writers are thinking of drafting screenplays of Fighter Pilot’s Daughter for TV or film.  It’s impossible to say whether these ideas will go anywhere, but I’m grateful they see a vivid story here that might work well on screen and interest people of other generations as well.

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