If the many billions of homo sapiens to have walked this planet throughout history shared one captivating dream it would surely be to escape the earthbound stench and barbarity to fly into the heavens like a bird.
Amazing to realize that miracle came true one December day just one hundred and eighteen years ago when Wilbur and Orville Wright fired up their gasoline-powered machine at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and made four controlled flights. We can only imagine what a sense of awe that must have inspired worldwide.
This week, we’re joined by Layne Maheu, who looked across the Atlantic to the adventurous aviators competing with the Wright brothers to write Man of the World, surely one of our favorite books of the year. In her review for Foreword, Michelle Anne Schingler calls the book “spellbinding”—exactly the cue we needed to bring author and reviewer together for a conversation.
Did you realize Michelle also did a fantastic new Petit Foreword video interview with New York Times columnist Margaret Renkl, author of the recently released Graceland, At Last? Check out the ten minute YouTube video here.
I loved that you made Auguste your hero, rather than Latham. Yes, the world’s attention is on Latham—but Auguste, an apple farmer who’s pulled into the sensationalism of early aeronautics by happenstance, is who we see most. Why did you preference his humble vantage over Latham’s more glitzy one?
I relied on Auguste as a comedic counterbalance to the excesses and foibles of what we might now consider “the 1 percent.” Auguste’s hopeful, guileless nature allows us to see the characters as they wish to be seen, and, without his knowing, he creates their struggle. But there are so many other reasons why the reader might favor Auguste. His absolute belief in technology would be difficult for even a middle schooler of today to sustain. Yet he remains grounded. His new aeronaut friends call him Potato (French translation: apple of the earth). I found his relationship to his time intriguing, a kind of boundless wonder.
Your descriptions of the view from inside Latham’s balloon are gorgeous, from the regal towers of clouds to the minatured world below. Are these flights of fancy, or have you been ballooning? If the latter, can you talk a bit about your experiences?
The balloon ride most likely comes from living in Seattle. When your plane takes off from the city, the jet has to climb through multi-layers of thick brooding clouds. I find it gloomy and ecstatic. So I wrote about a balloon trip, without ever having ridden in one. A few years later, I did manage to take a balloon trip, during a clear summer sunset.
History talks about the Wright brothers first when it comes to flight; you chose to focus your attention on the French pursuit of those innovations. What did you learn in the process of your research that most people miss when they preference the Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, shorthand version of early flight history?
In flight’s pop history, we go from the Wright Brothers straight to the Red Baron. But in Europe during the experiments of the Wrights—and particularly in France—a robust industry to master mechanical flight was on the verge of discovery.
Where the Wrights excelled was figuring out what to do once the aircraft was airborne. In comparison, most other aeroplane technology tried to turn by employing a single rudder, as with a boat, and shakily trying not to over turn as they negotiated a clumsy circle on a non-existent surface. But the Wrights built a wind tunnel, where they could test their flight controls; they also tested their controls on gliders—kite-like, from ropes. Ever the bicycle makers, the notion of banking into turn (roll), came not only from the centrifugal force of a turning bicycle, it came from twisting an inner-tube box in demonstration, and the wings would mimic this twisting, turning the aeroplane in the air, corkscrew fashion.
When the Europeans saw how efficiently Wilbur Wright could bank and turn, they were stunned and humbled. “We are beaten,” said the French aviator Delagrange, “We just don’t exist.” Within a year, though, a good number of other aeroplane designs would surpass the Wrights in all flying measurables.
Latham seems like someone who’s always going to chase the next record: it’s not enough to be an aeronaut—he has to be the first to fly across the English Channel; and even while he’s prepping for that feat, he’s already thinking about the sky beyond his airplane’s reach. Indeed, you show him and Antoinette having a Jules Verne From the Earth to the Moon moment before the record is broken. What are the benefits, and the dangers, of being such an insatiable dreamer?
Don’t we all struggle with our desires for Life’s Feast? In their own ways, both Latham and Auguste are dreamers. Latham’s ambition, though, is so self-absorbed he cannot see the world before him, and rather seems to miss the mark. Whereas, with Auguste, I’ll refer back to question #1: if he can be viewed as a hero—he turns the very world around him into a dream, imbued with desire.
Those whom Latham competes against prove perfectly happy to crash land in order to make their records—a dangerous and expensive write off! Do you think such near madness is a necessary component of innovation, or is something else going on in these adventurers’ minds?
At the risk of catching rabies, Louis Pasteur offered himself up to be the first human to receive his vaccine. Early radiologists bore their odd lesions, cancerous boils, and amputated limbs as testimony to the new secular religion, science. To see these early birdmen fly around in strange contraptions made the risks all the more epic. It’s believed that aeronauts were the most famous living people of their day, revered much like our era’s technological giants, such as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.
Some of our legends—Bezos, Musk, and Branson—have all turned their pursuit of business to “the final frontier.” The concept of these private industrialists also colonizing space is an enterprise we should all keep an eye on. Especially since governmental legislation cannot keep up the speed of technology. Here, I believe such ambitions are “near madness.” But compare the risks of flying an early aircraft made of muslin, motor, and wood across the sea, with that of an eleven-minute rocket trip of today’s new CEO astronauts, complete with a photo op atop horses, wearing cowboy hats and puffy vests. Still, innovation at the highest levels by these private companies also imposes the greatest of risks, and yet also, I believe that there “is something else going on in these adventurers’ minds.”
When do you suppose Auguste—who’s definitely swept up in Latham’s world, but who also manages to remain grounded throughout the book—would call “enough” on his apprenticeship, and why? What do you envision for his future?
Originally I ended the story with a kind of fast forward (deleted, of course). In it, the historical figure Latham continues to fly aeroplanes at international meets. In the faraway land of California, he wrecks his two aeroplanes, and decides to board a steamer for Japan, continuing his penchant for travel. In 1911, during a hunt in the French Congo, he is fatally gored by a buffalo, ending his much storied life at the age of 29.
Three years hence, the Great War begins, and Auguste, who couldn’t keep up with Latham’s desultory flying career, is conscripted into the service. As a mechanic in the new arm of the French military, the flying Escadrille, he observes first hand how this invention of progress and dreams (early French and German observers would wave at each other from their respective unarmed planes) is turned into a formidable killing machine. Of course, Auguste’s struggle to return home to his now wife, Simone, and child, will factor into it. I haven’t started the story yet. But it’s waiting for me, if I can ever get to it.
What’s next in your book queue (either reading or writing)?
There’s a book I’ve been working on—surprisingly (to me anyway)—for about eight years now. And it’s short. Only about 120 pages.
It’s called Self-Help in the Lucrative Field of Dreaming, or Beer Nite, in the tradition of the Platonic dialogue. It’s about eight or so poets, writers, teachers, wannabes, hangers-on who get together every Tuesday night, summoned by an email. There, they talk the talk, and walk the walk of the life of the mind, in a warm, lively public setting.
It’s interesting how now the decision to go out and actually talk to someone can be seen as such a towering, controversial event. How time changes the way we view things!
Michelle Anne Schingler