Amelia Earhart and Lockheed L-10E Electra
On July 2, 1937, Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan took off in an airplane named Electra with the bold dream of flying around the world. Today, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of their disappearance off the coast of New Guinea, weâ€™re joined by Jane Mendelsohn, author of the critically acclaimed bestselling 1997 novel â€śI Was Amelia Earhart."
In this imagined autobiography that â€śunfolds with the surreal precision of a dream [Publishers Weekly],â€ť written as aÂ message in a bottle from the desert island on which Earhart the spent final days of her thirty-nine years,Â Mendelsohn explores intimate territory. Here she explains her draw to go beyond the mystery and legend surrounding the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic by imagining a way into her inner life.
Biographile:Â How did you arrive at this subject?
Jane Mendelsohn:Â In 1992, I saw a picture of Amelia Earhart in the newspaper.Â The accompanying article said that a search party thought that they had found a piece of her plane, and possibly a piece of her shoe, on an atoll in the Pacific.Â The article also mentioned that she had had a navigator with her on her last flight, something that I had not known, and the idea of two people lost together sparked my imagination.
B: How did you settle on this approach -- writing an imagined novel about a real person?
JM: I started thinking about how she might have survived, and if she had been alone or not.Â I began to imagine her experiences and thoughts and feelings and I could tell immediately that this would be a work of fiction, not nonfiction.Â I had been writing mainly poetry until this point, and never thought of myself as a historian or nonfiction writer.Â The book was always a work of fiction.
B: What primary sources did you consult?
JM: I read many of the biographies that had been published up to that time.Â Also I listened to recordings of her voice.Â She had a very distinctive way of speaking -- warm but also patrician.Â The sound of her voice gave me a sense of her and of the times.Â And I watched her in old newsreels on microfilm.
B: How did you find them?
JM: The old-fashioned way.Â This was back in the days before the Internet. I went to libraries.
B: Did you encounter guides to your research along the way?
JM: Not really.Â I had to make my own way on that front.Â I suppose my guides were more other works of fiction that approached history, and some autobiographies.Â I remember thinking about Gabriel Garcia Marquezâ€™s novelsÂ and their treatment of imagined histories, such as â€śOne Hundred Years of Solitude.â€ťÂ And I was also thinking about Marguerite Durasâ€™s memoir "The Lover."
B:Â Can you pinpoint a detail from the book that might capture Earhart's era?
JM:Â One detail that many people have commented on came from a photograph I saw of Amelia in front of a radio station.Â I wrote about the shadow of the stationâ€™s call letters passing over her face as she walked through the glass door, and a number of people mentioned they felt that had captured the era the book takes place in.
B: Earhart has been covered extensively. How did you shine a new light on the subject?
JM: The first draft of the book was written in the third person and had a working title of "The Afterlife." Then, after many months of rewriting and rewriting, I realized that to write the book I wanted to write -- direct, urgent, moving --Â I had to do it in Ameliaâ€™s voice, which required â€śgetting into character.â€ťÂ Once I figured that out, I rewrote the book from scratch.Â It ended up alternating between the first person and the third person, to give a ghostly and also fictional/nonfictional feeling at the same time.
B:Â What do you find to be the difference between storytelling and history-telling?
JM:Â I donâ€™t consider the book history, or myself an historian.Â Â Itâ€™s absolutely a work of fiction, inspired by a real person and real events.Â But storytelling and history-telling both share an interest in myth: whether thatâ€™s creating a myth or dismantling it, examining myths or rejecting them.Â One of the reasons the book is called â€śI Was Amelia Earhartâ€ť is because I imagined Earhart on this desert island, looking back on her life, finally able to shed all the myths of being â€śAmelia Earhartâ€ť an icon, to become fully human, just herself.Â Another reason for the title is because, as I said above, I â€śgot into characterâ€ť to portray her and so I, the writer, took on her persona for a little while.Â Which is what happens, really, in any book.
B: What was most helpful in entering Earhart's mindset and evoking her attitude?
JM: I was inspired by her courage in facing the unknown, the empty sky.Â This was my first novel and I didnâ€™t know if anyone was going to read it and I think I identified with her bravery and recklessness and her searching for land amidst an ocean -- I was in my mid twenties and was searching for some stability myself.Â So I imagined myself in her position, with the blank page as the empty sky.Â I entered the realm of empathy and fiction that way, by making a connection between flying and writing.