Learning to Fly
by April Henry
Published by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Minotaur
308 pages, 2002
Buy it online
In September 1999, an eastern Oregon farmer was plowing his field when a sudden wind blew up. The resulting dust storm swept across Interstate 84, blinding drivers and triggering massive pile-ups on both sides of the freeway, leaving six people dead and dozens injured.
Amid this loss off life and property, Oregon native and mystery writer April Henry saw a possibility for birth and rebirth. Almost three years later, her novel Learning to Fly was published. It's an unlikely thriller about pregnant 19-year-old Free Meeker, an undereducated, underemployed daughter of hippies, who's involved in a similar highway catastrophe. Free emerges from the wreckage of her car only moments before it explodes, incinerating the mysterious woman hitchhiker who had been her passenger. Taking that hitchhiker's identity as well as a briefcase full of cash, given to her by one of the dying crash victims, Free sees the possibility of creating a brave new life for herself -- but only if she can elude the abusive husband and merciless drug dealers who come attached to her newly acquired assets.
Henry set about writing Learning to Fly, her first thriller, after establishing herself with a three-book mystery series that features amateur sleuth Claire Montrose (Circles of Confusion, Square in the Face and Heart-Shaped Box). Cozy but provocative, the Montrose stories have earned Henry national and regional recognition. Her readers identify with Claire's self-effacing "who, me?" responses to the mysteries that drop into her lap -- and her feisty approach to solving them. "She could be my best friend," one enthusiastic Amazon.com customer wrote in a reader review.
Learning to Fly, released this last summer, has further expanded Henry's audience. She calls the book a chilling cat-and-mouse game that pits violence and greed against innocence and ambition, "a thriller on a smaller scale."
Henry, who still works full-time as a writer for the Kaiser Permanente health care system in Portland, Oregon, seems as astonished as Claire Montrose by her authorial success. She attributes much of it to having found a superb editor at St. Martin's Press. A high-energy type, yet disarmingly informal, Henry already has a fourth Montrose installment, Buried Diamonds, due out next May and is hard at work on a fifth novel. But she found time recently to talk with January Magazine about the development of Learning to Fly, the differences between writing a series and standalones, and how she's finally found a way to use her knowledge of health care in her fiction.
Karen G. Anderson: Those freeway pile-ups near Pendleton, Oregon, must have been quite dramatic to have inspired you to write Learning to Fly.
April Henry: It was incredible ... there were two chain-reaction accidents, one was 15 and one was 37 cars. And around the same time there was a London train fire. It burned so hot they couldn't even recover DNA evidence from it. They were reduced to going to train stations and seeing if there were any cars that were left parked there and tracing back the people who were in those cars.
I thought, what if I combined the Pendleton accident and the train fire, and what if someone had picked up a hitchhiker, and the hitcher was killed and [was] then identified as the driver? I started playing around with it. I was in the middle of writing a book -- Heart-Shaped Box. When I finished Heart-Shaped Box, I knew this was what I wanted to write next, and I worked on it.
Did you ever think about using your established character, Claire Montrose, in the story based on this accident, and making it part of that series?
No. I knew I wanted to do a standalone, something R-rated, something that was different. That's the whole point, I think -- to be able to play around a little bit.
Learning to Fly has been called a thriller, and unlike your mystery series, there's no central sleuth. Given those differences, do you think this book attracts the same audience that reads the Claire Montrose series?
I heard from one bookseller in Boston that a person who bought Learning to Fly came back and said, "This is not a cozy." But the bookseller couldn't even tell if they were complaining or not. In mystery, there are a lot of authors who overlap a lot, and readers expect it.
Washington, Oregon and the northern California coast used to be referred to as "Ecotopia," because they shared a rather hippieish lifestyle, and Oregon is still known for some of that. Learning to Fly draws even more deeply than your previous books on the Left Coast setting. Were there elements of your own upbringing in Medford, Oregon, that helped you to develop Free's hippie parents and other stuck-in-the-1960s characters who inhabit Learning to Fly?
I used to work in a natural foods store in Portland, and I have worked with a lot of people like Free's parents, so I just sort of stole some stuff from those people. I must have done it successfully, because another writer who read the book e-mailed me and said, "We've got to get together, it sounds like we've got a lot in common -- I've got old groovy parents, too." I had to say, "Well, no, my parents are children of the Depression."
How did you chose the title Learning to Fly?
I liked the Tom Petty song "Learning to Fly" -- "I'm learning to fly, but I ain't got wings/Coming down is the hardest thing." I wanted to write the story of somebody who is going to stretch her wings and learn to fly on her own. That's where that came from.
It's sort of a problem when you quote from a song. In my first book, I had someone singing "Layla" in the shower and had to pay like $1,000 for the rights. So for this one my agent called the lawyer for Tom Petty and he's like, "Stop, we cannot continue this conversation on the phone. We must communicate only by fax." They're like that because they don't want you to write [about] a serial killer or someone like that and have them singing their music.
I noticed that you paraphrased a Beatles song in Learning to Fly, rather than use the lyrics.
Yes. I paraphrased everything else. I did not want to quote.
Learning to Fly has an unlikely theme for a thriller. It's about pregnancy and becoming a parent. Had you just had your baby when you were writing this?
No. But we wanted to have another child and had decided not to. My siblings' children have had various problems, and it seemed like too much of a roll of the dice. So I gave the baby to my character. You know, if you can't be pregnant, or you can't be thin, you give the experience to your character. For instance, you'll notice that a lot of writers have heroines who are redheads. And the redhead writer I know, her heroine is a brunette.
One similarity I noticed between Claire Montrose and Free Meeker is they are both insecure and questioning. Do you envision yourself ever writing about a very self-confident, intense female -- a Kinsey Millhone?
Probably not. There's a mystery I read recently where the character can hack into computers with one hand behind her back and switches from French to English and back. But I guess I like people who have uncertainties. I want people to be able to identify with them.
They apparently do. Did you see the reader review [of Heart-Shaped Box] on Amazon.com, in which the woman wrote of Claire, "She could be my best friend"?
No. But I had a guy come up at a reading who had something about Claire. It was at a time when a serial killer was at work in Portland and he was dumping women's bodies in Forest Park [the city's largest park]. This guy comes up and asks me, "Does Claire like to run in Forest Park?" I said, "Well, she's fictional," and he says, "Yeah, but does she like to run there?" I said, "Well, yeah, I'm sure if she were real." Finally the bookstore owner took him away!
Were you getting a real good description of this guy?
Actually, when they arrested the serial killer, it was somebody else. But that encounter was nerve-wracking, because he was so fixated about the idea of her running there.
What is it like, after making a solid name for yourself as a mystery author, to shift gears and write a thriller?
It was fun to have a character swear and do bad things. And it was good to be switching gears. When I write my series books, I know who my point-of-view characters are going to be, I know basically the tone of the book, I know what the sentence structure is going to be like. In this one, I played around with ... different viewpoint characters. Two of them were guys, and it was fun to get inside their heads.
When you embarked on writing a thriller, were there books or writers you particularly admired, and you thought, I'd like to write a thriller like that, do something in that vein?
I knew I was writing a thriller on a smaller scale. It's not like a someone's-going-to-blow-up-the-Super Bowl kind of thriller. I wanted to write a drama. Around that time I read [Dennis Lehane's] Mystic River. I liked how it was on a smaller scale, was really about the relationships between people and about their motivation for doing things. The characters, even the bad characters, aren't bad. That's the way I wanted to write.
Has writing a thriller changed your profile as a novelist?
One difference that has been very noticeable is the amount of movie interest Learning to Fly has generated. There's a pretty good chance a deal might be made soon. With my mystery series, I only had inquiries with the first book, Circles of Confusion, and then to a much lesser degree.
Have you always known you were going to be a writer?
No, I think up until I was 30 I figured writers were much better people than I was. I went to Oregon State [University] and I worked my way through school, like 24 to 30 hours a week. I majored in Business with a minor in Personnel. I thought I wanted to work for the National Labor Relations Board! At one point I thought I was going to be a medical researcher.
You write every day in your [corporate communications] job at Kaiser Permanente. Has that proved to be good experience for a fiction-writing career?
Oh, yes. And at work you have to write about a topic whether you're interested or not. You can't wait until the muse strikes. You have to write every day. The good thing about working in health care is that you don't have to go very far before it's a human-interest story. I was doing a story about a new lab. It wasn't very exciting in and of itself, so I went looking for a person who had had a dramatic result from lab test. I found this woman who had contracted bacterial meningitis, that disease with a purple rash, only it hadn't presented with a purple rash. If it hadn't been for the lab test, they never would have known what was wrong with her. It made a nice entry into the story, putting a human face on health care.
Working full time, what is your fiction-writing schedule like? Do you take a couple weeks off at a time and write?
I take every other Monday off, out of my vacation, so I never have any time to go on vacation. But I have a 6-year-old at home and I can't tell you how many times I've written with "Mommy, mommy, mommy watch this" going on.
You're a mother and a wife, and you write a lot about people and their relationships with their families. Do people in your own family think they see themselves in your books? In the first Claire Montrose book, for instance, she goes to her aunt's funeral, and it's a big family gathering and pretty colorful.
My immediate family is very supportive. But yes, there was one scene in Circles of Confusion where Claire is watching her family in the park, and they're all getting drunk. I had named her cousin the same name as a real cousin [of mine], and my mother suggested I change it. But Claire's grandmother was like my grandmother, a smoker, someone who liked her liquor. And there was a funeral where there was a fistfight over the belongings. But that side of the family is not a big reading side. They'll probably never read the book and recognize themselves.
You've worked for many years in health care, but you haven't used a health care setting in your books. Is it true that you're now writing a book that has a genetic health component?
I'm just starting to write a book about Huntington's disease. It's about man whose father had Huntington's, so he has always thought that he would get it. Then in his late 30s, he has the genetic test and finds out that he's not going to get it, and his whole life goes into a tailspin. It's the opposite of what you might think, but it's actually very common. There are people who realize they've lived their lives like grasshoppers, who haven't saved any money, don't have a retirement plan let alone a career path, and they've screwed up every relationship they've ever been in.
Is this going to be another standalone thriller? And does Free, or anyone else from Learning to Fly, come back in it?
It's a "novel-novel," working title of Satellite. ... There's no one from Learning to Fly in it. Most of the people [from that book] ended up dead, anyway, so that would be difficult.
I've got to say that at the end of Learning to Fly, I was sorry to see Free Meeker go. I wanted to know what happened to her.
I wanted people to wonder. I think a book stays with you longer that way than when the author ties everything up with a bow.
Finally, can you tell something about your next Claire Montrose novel, Buried Diamonds?
Claire finds an engagement ring that has been missing for 50 years. Its original owner broke her engagement and committed suicide -- or did she? | October 2002
Karen G. Anderson is a contributing editor of January Magazine.