FLR: You have mentioned that you most like to write a really good story. What helps you write (and curb your enthusiasm to spin a tale) nonfiction? Do you need to alter the system you describe to schoolchildren for writing fiction when reporting on real people or events?
CF: Some of the best stories are true ones – tales of heroism and villainy made even more incredible by the fact that they really happened, so when I'm tackling a piece of nonfiction, I certainly don't need to curb my storyteller's enthusiasm. I simply have to approach the project differently. I liken it to baking a cake. In fiction, I'm pretty much allowed to whip up whatever I want. I can choose any ingredients, put together any combination of flavors to create a delicious dessert. But with nonfiction, I'm expected to make a cake out of ingredients that have all ready been chosen for me. It's my job to examine those ingredients, consider them in fresh combinations, add some unusual spice, bake them in some surprising way. And when I'm done, my nonfiction cake better be just as yummy as my fiction one.
When I talk with children in schools, I outline the basic elements found in a fictional story – character, location, action, problem, solution, (acrostically CLAPS). But nonfiction stories – at least the ones worth reading – use these elements, too. After all, I'm not writing a report, but a true story about real people in real times. And while I want to write something that doesn't violate fact, I also want it to be structured and presented in a way that makes it interesting to read. Basically, I'm using CLAPS.
FLR: Is there an age group for whom you best like to write?
CF: Not really. Each age group has its own joys. For example, I adore writing for preschoolers because they're so generous and enthusiastic, and they really respond to the musicality of words. But I also love writing for those curious, eager to learn 1st through 4th graders. They have such wonderfully wacky senses of humor, don't they? I even love writing for middle schooler and up because… well… they're a challenge – smart, discerning, serious about the books they chose to read. It's such a cornucopia of blessings, all those different readers. I'm lucky to be allowed to write for them.
FLR: How long has Amelia Lost been in the works?
CF: I began work on the book back in 2007, but Amelia Earhart has been on my radar (no pun intended) for much longer. Years ago, my mother told me a story about how she felt after learning of Amelia's 1937 disappearance. Mom was ten years old at the time, and couldn't believe the news. It was impossible. Amelia Earhart was the woman who could do anything. She couldn't be lost at sea. So my mother, who lived in a small town on Lake Michigan, stood on the beach and gazed up into the sky. She was convinced that if she stood there long enough, she'd eventually spot the aviatrix, winging her way through the clouds to safety. Isn't that wonderful? Can't you just see her there? That's how connected my mother felt to Earhart, how vividly the pilot's life had captured her imagination. And through my mother's retelling decades later, Amelia captured mine. I knew I would someday have to write about her.
FLR: What made you choose to write a biography of Earhart over that of other notable women in history? Did you think previous works were incomplete? Were there things about Earhart that surprised you?
CF: Who wouldn't want to research and write about Amelia Earhart? She is, after all, America's favorite missing person. And while I longed to delve into her personal life, I was also eager to tell about the 17-day search for her downed plane – what the press called “the greatest rescue expedition in flying history.” It's a dramatic, suspenseful tale. And believe it or not, it's never before been told in a book for young readers. Sure, some of the pieces of the search are well-known, and have been used selectively in the past to support various theories about her disappearance, but the entire picture, scattered and dispersed among dozens of archival files and private collections has been hard to decipher. Luckily, Ric Gillespie and the smart people at TIGHAR helped guide me through the historical record, providing me with a day-to-day, in some cases minute-by-minute, view of what really happened. That view can be found in the book.
As for Amelia herself, the most surprising part of my research was the discovery that she was… well… sort of a fibber. Time and again, I unearthed a telling detail, or charming anecdote only to learn that it wasn't true; that Amelia had made it up to maintain her public image. Take, for example, the often-repeated story of the flier's first glimpse of an airplane. According to Earhart, this happened at the Iowa State Fair in 1908 when she was just 11 years old. “It was a thing of wire and wood,” she wrote in her memoir, The Fun Of It. “I was much more interested in an absurd hat made of an inverted peach basket which I purchased for fifteen cents.” It's a sweet story, but placed in the context of aviation history it can't possibly true. Or, take that popular anecdote about Fred Noonan and the around-the-world trip. According to Amelia, Fred was confined to the navigator's station in the rear cabin and could communicate with her only in notes passed forward over the fuel tanks by means of a bamboo fishing pole. True? Absolutely not. In fact, Fred spent much of his time in the cockpit with Amelia, clambering over the fuel tanks in the rear cabin only when he needed room to spread out a chart. At first, I was frustrated by these (and so many more) fabrications. I started to think I should retitle the book, Flyer, Flyer Pants On Fire. But then I began to see her fibs as a challenge – a challenge to finding the real Amelia behind the public persona, and discovering the events that led to her disappearance.
FLR: Do you think it is the mystery of her disappearance that still creates interest in her life, or do you think readers are interested because she was a groundbreaker for women?
CF: For young readers who may only know Amelia casually, her enduring legacy is her mysterious disappearance, so it seemed like a wise choice to begin her story there. Besides, it's inherently juicy material; a national hero goes missing; the US government launches a massive search costing more than four million dollars; people all across the Pacific and even in the United States claim to hear her calling for help; not a trace of her is ever found. Can you make up a better story than that?
FLR: Do you think that Amelia Earhart formed the times in which she lived or was a product of her times? Could she have been as fascinating in another era?
CF: I think the times – those early days of aviation – really formed Amelia Earhart. Charles Lindbergh's 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic touched off a cult of popular heroism never before seen in American history. People were suddenly obsessed with aviation, and their adulation for those “heroes of the air” approached deification. It was a series of lucky breaks that landed Amelia onboard the Friendship just a little more than a year after Lindbergh's flight. And even though she was merely a passenger, because she became the first woman to cross the Atlantic by plane, she was catapulted into the same kind of celebrity that Lindbergh had received. She instantly became “the goddess of flight,” an “idol of individual achievement.” But what had she really done? Not much. No yet. Her fame – at least her early fame -- really was a result of the times. Would she have been as fascinating in another era? Probably not. By 1937, her popularity was already waning as the public tired of flying stunts. The novelty had simply worn off. And honestly, until she disappeared on the last leg of her flight, Americans hadn't exactly been following her world flight with eager anticipation. Less than half of the country's newspapers bothered to cover her exploits in any detail. The others ran only small wire service blurbs, usually buried in the middle of the paper. She was already becoming yesterday's news.
FLR: Can you tell us a bit more about your research for Amelia Lost? Where do you conduct the majority of your research?
CF: With the exception of the two weeks I spent at the Purdue University Library shifting through the vast holdings of the George Putnam Palmer Collection of Amelia Earhart Papers, I conducted most of my research for Amelia Lost at home. Not only did I gather digitized files for the collection of the National Air and Space Museum, but from the Schlesinger Library, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the USCG National Maritime Center, and the Seaver Center for Western History Research. Ric Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), generous shared his organization's miles of documents, including those marvelous pages from Betty Klenck's notebook.
FLR: In conducting your research, what was your reaction to learning that some well-accepted “facts” about Amelia Earhart and her voyage were actually myths? In using your rule of three to verify facts and myths, did you find a reason why the Itasca didn't know Fred Noon accompanied Earhart?
CF: There was a simple reason that personnel aboard Itasca didn't know about Fred Noonan -- no one had told them. None of the messages Amelia sent to Itasca prior to the flight had mentioned Noonan, and only she made all the transmissions Itasca radio operators received during the flight. Additionally, when Amelia and her husband, George Putnam, publicized the flight, they downplayed Noonan's presence. The spotlight was so entirely on Amelia that most people thought she was flying solo.
FLR: Amelia Lost begins with the story of her disappearance at the beginning of the book, and is continued on intermittent gray pages. How difficult was it to write the narrative of her disappearance simultaneously with the narrative of her life? How did this affect your writing process?
CF: It wasn't too difficult to write, at least structurally, because the two pieces felt like separate stories – one with Amelia as the main character, the other with the searchers as the main characters. The tricky part was knitting those two pieces together, finding a suspenseful or natural break in one, creating a graceful lead into the next.
FLR: So many of the pages regarding Earhart's disappearance deal with radio transmissions and contacts. Do you have a connection to radio?
CF: I built a crystal radio as a kid, does that count? Actually, while writing this book, I kept thinking back to those times when I would listen to my little radio late at night. It would pick up stations as far away as Canada, sometimes even Europe. And it was so exhilarating! Imagine, a twelve-year old girl from the cornfields of Illinois could actually tune into a radio program in Moscow – and all before the advent of computers! Snuggled under my blankets, the world suddenly felt small and cozy. I drew on those feelings. Did Betty Klenck feel like that when she listened to her shortwave radio, I wondered. Did Leo Bellarts as he hunched over his radio waiting for Amelia to call?
FLR: Are you willing to share with us a personal opinion about what really may have happened and whether the various radio communications overheard by Betty Klenk and Dana Randolph were authentic?
CF: Even though aviation expert Ric Gillespie and his tireless team scientists at TIGHAR generously shared their documents, I remained skeptical about the possibility that Amelia landed on a reef off Nikumaroro Island. But day-by-day, the evidence is becoming more compelling. Just this spring TIGHAR conducted another expedition to the island, uncovering make-up, parts of a pocketknife, even what may be human bone fragments. Their findings definitely give me pause. After all, I'm well aware that history is on ongoing process, one in which new facts are uncovered and old facts are reconsidered. But am I one hundred percent convinced that's where she ended up? Hardly. I'm waiting for DNA evidence, or a piece of her plane to turn up. I will admit, though, that the thought of her living as a castaway – all the suffering she would have endured – brings tears to my eyes.
As for those radio transmissions heard by Betty Klenck, Dana Randolph and others, they certainly believed they were authentic. And in Dana's case, Coast Guard officials agreed since they forward word of the incident to Itasca.
FLR: How do you feel about Amelia Earhart now?
CF: I came to admire Amelia, not because she was a great pilot (she wasn't), but because she an ardent feminist. She allowed women to live vicariously through her accomplishments. Her message --that woman can do it themselves, that they are equals to men, that they should have equal opportunities -- still resonates today. And she didn't just talk the talk. She lived what she preached. She pushed women's boundries, and I thank her for that.
FLR: Could you recount for us, as you've mentioned elsewhere, the influence of Eliza Dresang and the choice of page layouts used for your biographies?
CF: Dr. Dresang… I really should send her flowers, or something. Years ago, I was struggling with a biography of Benjamin Franklin, trying to find a way into his life that young readers would find relevant and interesting, when I attended Dr. Dresang's lecture on her “theory of radical change.” And everything just clicked. It was as if Dr. Dreseng had given me permission to abandon the traditional, narrative form and try something new. Lots of pictures. Plenty of sidebars. Big, meaty captions. Because I don't have to fit my material into a traditional structure, I'm free to include lots of seemingly disparate elements -- timelines, newspaper articles, family trees, cartoons of the day, diary entries, favorite jokes, recipes, recollections of friends, gossip of enemies, photographs, snippets of letters, even present-day debates between scholars. I bring all these pieces together -- I put them into boxes on the page -- then allow my readers to do their own discovering. They can start anywhere, open any box. The more they read, the more they discover. And as each box is opened, each entry is read, they begin to create their own version of Ben Franklin, or the Lincolns, or even Amelia Earhart. They begin to make their own connections. And when they do -- Eureka! They connect to the heart of it. They understand the truth of it. They discover it for themselves.
FLR: As a child, did you enjoy reading biographies? Who were some of your favorite biographical subjects?
CF: I can't recall any specific titles I read as a kid, although I remember reading devouring a biography of Nellie Bly when I was in the fourth grade and afterward longing to be a journalist just like her. I even began carrying around a notebook because Nellie did. I also read started a book about Florence Nightingale, but tossed it aside after the first couple of chapters. Florence was too goody-goody for me. Too dull. As an adult I realize it was probably the presentation, not the life that was dull, but back then (the same as now) I wasn't especially interested in biographies that presented a person as flawless. I also fell in love with Benjamin Franklin after reading Ben and Me. Okay, I know that's historical fiction, but it catapulted me into reading more about him. I remember being disappointed that he didn't really have a mouse.
FLR: What setting is most conducive for your writing or helps get the "juices flowing"?
CF: While I have a really lovely office that overlooks my backyard flower garden, I've always preferred the kitchen table. It's cheerful, there's plenty of room to spread out, and… it's close to the refrigerator.
FLR: What's next for you, and what's on your list of consideration for future topics?
CF: My next project is a biography of the First Amendment – from its birth, through its stages of growth and into it's future. It's really is an exciting story filled with heroes and political passions and real-life kids who risked it all to change things. Oooh, it gives me goose pimples just thinking about it! I'd also like to do a book about the history of labor in the United States. Oh, and maybe someday Anastasia. I'm utterly intrigued by Anastasia.
Browse our list of titles written by Candace Fleming.