At first glance, it doesn't seem that Daniel Riley's Fly Me and Gin Phillips's Fierce Kingdom have much in common. The former is the story of a newly minted Vassar graduate who drifts into a career as a stewardess, set against the louche backdrop of 1972 Los Angeles; the latter is a tense, real-time thriller, a story about the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her child and the difficult, consequential decisions she makes to do it. But maybe there's more to it. Here Riley and Phillips discuss their approaches to their books, their characters, and the dilemmas they face.
Fly Me is currently available. Fierce Kingdom will be published July 25.
Gin Phillips: In your acknowledgements you mention growing up around a sorority of former stewardesses. So I take it when you created Suzy’s world, you had a personal connection to your research?
Dan Riley: The book sort of starts for me with those women. The South Bay of Los Angeles, where I grew up, is close to the airport, and for decades these beach towns were useful hubs for the stewardesses and pilots based out of LAX. Among them was my grandma’s cousin, Ethel, who was functionally like a “third grandma” to me. She flew for just fifteen months in the ‘50s, but it was this defining period of her life. When she got married, she had to “clip her wings” (as was required back then), but she stayed heavily involved with the airport, becoming the unofficial LAX historian, and founded the Flight Path Museum there. Those former stewardesses used to all be around parties at Ethel’s house down at the beach and then, later, when she opened the museum, there was a whole new set of women working as volunteers there. It never occurred to me that all these former stewardesses at the edges of my life might be something to think a little bit more deeply about—at least not until I left home, came back for a minute after college, and started seeing those lives with fresh eyes.
Gin: I loved every single scene set inside an airplane. I get the feeling you enjoyed writing them. What did you like about setting a story largely in the sky?
Dan: So much. Airplanes are one of the most dangerous places we voluntarily stash ourselves. They used to be among the most luxurious, too. They’re astoundingly magnificent and the collective feat of their engineering is basically unmatched. They’re spaces that are the ultimate in-between. The consummate neither-here-nor-there. It’s a great psychological space to play around in. It’s also a place with great views. And pilots and flights attendants—who have (I’m obviously biased) some of the most fascinating jobs out there.
Gin: So would you like to fly?
Dan: I’m endlessly interested in flying. I’m endlessly interested in what it takes to fly and what happens when the fate of a flight is under threat. Which leads to the element that was without question the most essential to me about setting so much of this book on airplanes in 1972: the skyjacking epidemic. So much then is the same as now—the same kinds of planes, the same number of seats, the same configuration of controls. But add to that a knife. Or a gun. Or a bomb. And you have this wildly uncanny and highly charged setting. A 737 that looks just like the one you maybe flew the other day, but with a switchblade tucked in the pocket of the guy sitting next to you. By 1973, the government caves and sets up metal detectors and security screenings to put an end to the hijackings. But for that last year, when one hijacking per week was striking American skies, airplanes above this country had this terrifying charge that I think would entice any writer looking for some great stakes.
Speaking of highly-charged spaces—seemingly safe spaces to which you add a weapon, and everything changes—the zoo in which your novel unfolds has this incredible quality of being both open-air and highly claustrophobic. There’s all this space, and yet it feels that at any moment Joan and Lincoln may turn around and face their worst fear. How much were you thinking about the spaces they’re moving through—and how to create that sensation of claustrophobia?
Gin: The idea for my book started when my son and I were sitting in the zoo one afternoon—you have a lot of time to think when you’re staring at the flamingos for the three-hundredth time—and at first it seemed like just a dark daydream. What would I do if a gunman burst into the zoo? Where would we go? In those early days, I thought about the zoo as a place with interesting logistics for a potentially intense story about motherhood. But before long I started thinking of the zoo as almost another character in itself. It’s both domestic and wild. It’s a common shared experience for many parents—it embodies the routines of parenting, the day-to-day. And yet there are wild things trapped in boxes. Predators caged and on display. Zoos are beautiful and disturbing at the same time, and that feeds into Joan’s experience. It was important to me that she find moments of real beauty—surreal beauty—even in the middle of the terror. That the reader feel both trapped and a little hypnotized. That, as a place, the zoo was all sorts of things at once.
Dan: There’s this “What would I do?” quality to Fierce Kingdom that I felt palpably and recurringly while reading. Though this harrowing incident is horrific, it’s actually not hard at all to imagine oneself in Joan’s shoes. She serves as a the perfect proxy for a reader who might find oneself at the edges of a mass shooting, left to one’s own devices for survival. Without giving away any particular incidents, how did you think through Joan’s decisions on the page? Was it the sort of thing you wanted to linger on to really force the reader to bore down and confront what he or she might do in a similar situation?
Gin: I think what helps anchor me to Joan and her struggles—and hopefully what anchors the reader—is that in some ways this unimaginable scenario is not so different from any day with a small child. He gets hungry, He has trouble being still. He cannot stop making noises. He asks a lot of questions. And so I think that Lincoln and his sort of immutability help make each decision of Joan’s a little more relatable.
Imagining what I would do if faced by gunmen would have been much more difficult than imagining how my child would act—and how I would react to HIM reacting. I don’t know that I had a conscious thought of making a reader wonder “What would I do?” But that’s what you hope for, isn’t it, with every character you create? That a reader will slip inside the skin of the character and live each moment with them? Maybe the intensity of Joan’s time in the zoo makes that sense a bit stronger.
So what about Suzy and how you first connected with her? Was this always going to be her story? Did you consider writing from any other perspectives?
Dan: It always started with Suzy. Not just because I think a young woman leading us through the world of this book—this California town, the airline industry at that moment, and the social dynamics of 1972 more generally—is the most interesting way to do it. But I had a sense of this highly specific consciousness of Suzy’s that’s not, I think, like that of your “typical” 22-year-old woman. She’s consumed, to maybe an unhelpful degree, with the constraints and conditions of her timing in the world—that she was born in 1950, and not a couple years earlier or, especially, a couple years later. She’s sort of between generations, right in the cracks of a few different groups of women. At one point she says something to the effect of she wasn’t so much interested in living as a liberated woman as in skipping the line and living as a man. And yet she ends up in this highly feminized profession that sorta clashes with the things she’s trying to do on the side—race cars, fly planes. Through Suzy, you have someone who’s navigating this minefield with what I think is some real confidence and skill, but also a false sense of control. She’s trying to wrest her own life away from others, trying to seize whatever it is she’s after for herself. But, the conditions of the time period and the book being what they are, more is being imparted on this young woman by outside forces than she fully realizes.
Gin: One of my least favorite questions to be asked at dinner parties is “What’s your book about?” Because it’s hard to sum up a book in a few sentences. And yet I realize that sometimes the way you view your story as the writer may not exactly match the blurb on the back. So… what do you think your book’s about?
Dan: That’s a great question. The marketing will have you believe this is a book about the early seventies, Southern California, stewardesses, drug running, and skyjacking. And it is! And I hope that readers interested in even a few of those topics will dig in. But my hope is also that when they get in there they’ll find a lot more than just those top notes. I think the book is in part about what a place can do to you psychologically. The way it can take you, particularly in vulnerable moments, and draw you into action or inaction that you might not otherwise find to be consistent with your character. I think Southern California beach towns, for all their representation in film and TV, aren’t terribly well represented in books. And that’s a bummer, because anyone who’s ever spent time at the beach in California knows that the place can scramble your brain a bit. To lull you into a sort of comfort and satisfaction, maybe. To bleach your judgment a little. So it’s a book about a place and the way that place works over the four main characters. It’s a book about timing and fate. It’s a book about taking off and landing. It’s a book about speed. It’s a book about sisters. It’s a book about what happens when we squeeze each other, when we force each other to the edge, and push. There’s a lot of stuff I love that’s packed in there—seventies set pieces that I hope satisfy anyone with an outsize love of that era—but that’s really there to get you in the door so that you can go on this ride with this young woman.
Gin: That’s an underappreciated part of writing, I think—working in small details that make you, as the writer, very happy. For me in Fierce Kingdom, I got to work in some of my favorite quotes from my son. Some of his strange and wonderful quirks. Plus there’s the 1980s show Scarecrow and Mrs. King. And George Clooney. What were some of your ’70s bits that you love?
Dan: So many details of life at the beach from that time, when my mom and her sisters were growing up there—details I’d heard all my life. Small things, like the gas can by the front door used to wash tar off your feet after a day in the sand, for example. And then bigger stuff, like the set piece at one of the Madison Square Garden concerts from the Rolling Stones’ 1972 North America tour. The book’s pretty musical and has a funny relationship to the news—sometimes the outside world penetrates the beach, but other times it bounces off. The rule I kind of had was: You can have fun squeezing this stuff in—but each of these things can’t be in there simply to be cute about the time period; those historical moments or scenes have to be driving some essential interaction between the characters who are onhand for the event. So instead of having some critical conversation take place in a living room or a car, maybe it’s happening out in the world with a little history let in.
I want to go back to you and your son for a second, and what books are “about.” You have this great line about the “pale threads” of communication between a mother and a son. There are several moments when Joan is willing this silent transfer of directives to Lincoln. With a book like this one, how much of it is conveying the specifics that you know to be true for yourself as a mother, versus someone else’s expectation of a universal truth, or whatever, about motherhood? I have to imagine that’s tricky in so many ways.
Gin: I suspect this is true of all novels: you can only hope that by capturing something specific, you manage to tap into something universal. Maybe you get lucky, and maybe you don’t. I started out wanting to focus tightly on the relationship between this one mother and one son—and I tried to keep that focus. There are plenty of my own realizations and thoughts about motherhood in there, and I hope that other women—and men—might read it and say, yes, I’ve felt exactly like that with my own child. That’s a wonderful thing, when it happens. But most of all, I want to feel like I’ve done Joan well and I’ve done Lincoln well, and I’ve conveyed the connection between them in a way that feels real.
Dan: This book has a more complicated calculation at its core than your typical story of survival: This isn’t about Joan living; it’s about Joan making sure Lincoln lives. Is that survivalist instinct the sort of thing that crystallized for you when you became a mother yourself? Do you think it’s possible to write through some of the choices Joan has to make if you don’t know yourself what it’s like to be the protector of a child?
Gin: That’s a really interesting question. One thing that was interesting about motherhood was how it sort of broadsided me with a kind of emotion that I hadn’t felt before. I distinctly remember saying to my husband while I was pregnant, “I hope I love this baby as much as I love the dog.” And then they put the baby in my arms, and, whoa, there it was—all this uncontainable love. And unlike all the other forms of love in my life, it was instantaneous: all consuming and not the least bit based on experience or time. Just an uncontrollable affection for this little blob tucked against me. And then time passed, and that love and fascination only grew as he became less of a blob and an actual person with his own mind spinning away in such unpredictable ways.
So I suppose, for me, I don’t think I could have written this story before becoming a mother.
Dan: How does the story shift if Lincoln is a couple years younger or a couple years older? He struck me as just the right age for the novel—filled with the perfect balance of agency and helplessness. Did you consider him as, say, a baby, or a slightly older boy?
Gin: The short answer is that I wrote him as a four-year-old because my son was four at the time and that’s what I knew best. It was important to me that Lincoln not just be A CHILD but that he be a specific child, every bit as distinct and three-dimensional as the adults in the book. And I had this four-year-old in front of me, so, well…. But I do like the age because of the same things you mention. He is not a blob. He is his own person, an individual. But he is still able to be carried, still nowhere close to self-sufficient. And, in terms of plot, he is right at that age where he can understand what Joan is telling him, and he might do exactly as she asks—that is possible. But it’s equally possible that he will choose not to. So he adds this other element of utter unpredictability to the story.
And now back to you and Suzy. Because I think her age might be important, too. Again and again she struggles to interpret what she feels and what she wants. Finding some sort of truth is tough for her, even though she desperately wants one. Things get blurry. She reads a page until its “devoid of information.” A string of short flights “smothers the novelty of flying.” Is that just Suzy or is it a broader statement about that time period? Or women in that time period?
Dan: With those instances of sort of scrambled meaning and purpose, I was thinking less of women of the period than of 22-year-olds of both genders then and now. She, like so many people, finds herself gaining purpose as she moves through college—through racing cars, writing papers, finding someone she might follow to a new city after school. Then all that comes crashing down and she unexpectedly and half-heartedly finds herself living at the beach working as a stewardess, like her sister, whom she never intended to join in the skies. Every day, practically, is a search for the thing that might lead her on a path that feels more right than the one she’s on. She grazes pretty widely, looking for something, anything, to smack her in the face and say: This is where you’re meant to be, what you’re meant to do, who you’re meant to do it with. I know I said earlier that I wasn’t trying to reach for universal statements so much as try to make Suzy’s experience as specific as possible, but I think that’s something a lot of young people feel that first year out of college. Just after you’ve gotten a handle on something for the first time, maybe, making your brain a little bigger in college, you’re spit out and you’re maybe starting from a dead stop. As the book moves, she starts to find new things to grab onto, pathways that might contribute to her experiences being a little cleaner and clearer (as opposed to the dull monotony of those LAX-SFO legs). The trick for Suzy, though, is whether those new pathways—like learning to fly airplanes—is leading her to the place she’s meant to go or papering over the fact that she may not have as much control over her fate as she would like to believe.
I noticed that Joan has those moments of blurry thought, as well. Less for the longer arc of her life than with split second decisions she needs to make to help her and her child survive. I think lots of people know those moments—when you do, or don’t do, something and only realize what you’ve done after you’ve done it. Joan and Suzy have that in common—these leaps to action. And I’m curious about how you thought through conveying some of those most desperate acts.
Gin: I feel like you’re leading me towards spoilers here. But I think what you’re saying about timing is crucial—that some of Joan’s toughest decisions are made in a matter of a handful of seconds. A reader might judge her for them—she judges herself plenty harshly for one or two of them. But at the root of almost every tough choice she makes is the push and pull between these two questions: What do I owe my child? What do I owe someone else’s child?
I think we have this automatic, primal desire to protect and help those we love—a gut reaction. That certainly kicks in with Joan. But we also have a moral, more intellectual sense that we owe something to complete strangers, too. You could make the argument that the second impulse is, if anything, more selfless than our love for our children. So Joan is always struggling with how to do the right thing and yet protect Lincoln. That leads to some rough moments.
Dan: I love the structure of this book – one basically reads the story in real-time, with time stamps marking the way. But there are also interstitials that grant us some time with other characters. Talk about the decision to take the camera off Joan and Lincoln at times–and how that complicates and enhances the narrative.
Gin: I originally thought of this as a book about motherhood, but I liked the idea of expanding that. The other characters in the zoo are, like Joan, asking themselves what they owe each other. How much they should risk for each other. And so the web of connections isn’t just about mothers and sons. It’s about the ways we are all linked, and how the smallest moments—a kind word or a piece of an orange—might ripple out in ways that no one can predict.