The former Easyriders magazine writer, avid Harley fan, and commercial pilot/flight instructor talks about the inspirations for his new book, First Cabin, from Hunter S. Thompson to Buster Keaton to his own acute respect for gravity.
You’re a pilot. How does that influence your new book?
I’ve been flying airplanes since 1986, coming up on about 30 years. I’m a flight-instructor, got about 9,000 hours worth. A lot of that time has been teaching folks how to fly over the skies of Los Angeles, which is, in a word, intense.
Teaching people how to fly small planes over Los Angeles, do you have weekly “Oh my god I’m gonna die!” moments?
I never know how my day’s gonna go. I show up, I go up with people I work with regularly, sometimes I go up with complete strangers, but the one thing that’s always the same is this: I expect everything to fall apart completely, utterly, and I’m basically spring-loaded from the time I get into the plane to the time I got into my car. It takes about two hours to decompress…
I can have a student who’s starting from scratch and who’s terrified, they’ve got white-knuckles, as we take off. I’ve got other people who don’t say a word, I have no idea what’s going through their head and then they just freeze up out of nowhere. I have people who give up on the controls just as we’re about to land and say, “Your plane!!” and I just take the controls and I save it. I have people who put me in some potentially dangerous situations, even though they don’t mean to, and I correct it. Then when I get down to the ground I say, “Let’s not do that again and here’s why: because gravity always works, but I always win.”
What happens when you take someone up for their first lesson?
For people on their first lesson I like to establish a relationship with them. I’m like, “Hi, how you doing? You like cheeseburgers?” And I put them at ease, because I can read people pretty fast, you kind of have to with this job, and I size up whether they’re gonna get scared up there or whether they’ve got a pretty good poker face. I walk them through what we’re gonna do, and then we do it. That way there’s not a whole lot of surprises.
But I also tell them that if there are surprises, we’ll deal with it, and I always try to impart a sense of whatever happens, we’re gonna run the show, and that’s how I fly. And that’s how I want my students to think, because you never want to give up on what you’re doing. That’s not an option in my book of life. Never give up. You find a way to solve it.
That’s probably the thing I love the most about teaching — bringing out the strength in people they had no idea they had. I watch them transform and it is really awesome. It’s like watching Clark Kent peel his shirt open and you see the “S.” That’s my job, to get them to discover the “S” on their chest, ditch the glasses, and learn how to fly.
Prior to getting into flying you had a completely different life as a writer for Easyriders and you’ve ridden a motorcycle across country more times than most. What was the draw of Easyriders, and of the open road?
My introduction to the motorcycle world proceeded me becoming a pilot. I was living in Maryland and my landlord offered us a deal. He said, “I’ll trade you a 1982 Sportster to break the lease on the house so that I can sell it.” My girlfriend was a hardcore biker, I was making flight manuals for the government and I just said, “Hey what do you think?” She said, “Do it.”
So we did. Took the motorcycle safety-riding course, rode to California without any real experience, and then in 1992 I wrote a short story and sent it into Easyriders magazine. They bought it on the spot and that’s how I fell into it, writing under the penname Captain Trash (which was my late father’s drinking nickname, and that’s a whole ‘nother story).
What I brought to the table was being one of the lucky individuals to have ridden a motorcycle across the United States, camping out everywhere we could. Not Motel 6-ing it, either. We really got to see what the road was like. We got to see what the people were like. We got to see what the bike world was really, really like. Got to see what the bike brotherhood was really like. When you broke down, people would stop for you. They’d come over and say, “You alright?” Complete strangers. You got to see that there really was a lifestyle to it. When I sold my first piece to Easyriders, that was what I brought in and they liked that, and the phone didn’t stop ringing for eight years.
It was an awesome ride.
Are there similarities between bikers and pilots?
The readership of Easyriders was pretty wide. They had people who were behind bars, people who were on the road. They all shared the same thing, the love of the V-Twin motorcycle and lifestyle. The Fellowship of Bikers is very much real, and so is the Fellowship of Pilots. The Fellowship of Pilots is even a little more serious because we all have to know what each other is doing and we have to constantly be thinking about it.
We never know where somebody might be; they could pop up out of nowhere. We have to constantly anticipate and look. We have each other’s backs very much so. Pilots are typically very strong individual-streaked people who don’t agree on everything but they do agree that safety is absolutely paramount, number one priority and I like that. I like the brotherhood, and I like the order of it, the rules and regimentation that brings order to chaos. It can be pretty intense but part of that brotherhood is watching out for each other. You really do feel it up there.
Well, you just really nailed the theme of your book. Chaos and order and the struggle to find it and sort of the unlikely places where it rears its ugly head. Talk to us about your book First Cabin.
First Cabin, my first novella, the idea came to me. I can tell you exactly where it occurred. I was on Ventura Blvd at a bookstore. I think it used to be a movie theater, got turned into a bookstore. I was just walking around one day and I walk out and from the corner of my eye I see a picture of Buster Keaton on the cover of a book. The title was Comedy is a Man in Trouble, and it just hit me like a thunderbolt. I immediately had this idea of this guy named Dan Street in a situation there was no way he could get out of. I went home that night, fired up the laptop, and I thought, “He’s on a plane, he gets there through some unfortunate circumstances in his business life, he wakes up, he doesn’t know how he got where he got and there’s no way to get off and the outcome is not gonna be very good…”
And instead of making it serious, I wanted to make it fun. What would Buster Keaton be like on a plane where he couldn’t get off it and it’s gonna make a landing that’s not necessarily really smooth? So that was what triggered the whole thinking. The character’s arc is that he’s a very hyperactive, motor-mouthed, constantly sweaty salesman who can close a deal. You don’t really necessarily like Dan at first because he’s kinda obnoxious and pushy, but he’s got a good heart, he means well.
Dan meets a woman on the plane who he ends up developing a very intense relationship with, and it’s the evolution of their relationship that drives the whole story because he refuses to give up. He’s a closer salesman, he does not know the word “quit,” because it ain’t gonna happen. He will do anything to get off that plane before it lands where it’s gonna land.
And Dan’s a really smart guy. He sees what he wants to get and he figures out a way to make it happen. He’s just dogged. I draw from a combination of several people who just refuse to accept no as an answer who also find themselves in such absurd situations but who manage to come out unscathed.
Can you talk about your literary influences?
My four literary influences in no particular order and this is dating back to 1992, I really got into Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson. An interesting combination of guys, but that’s who formed my core and then I got my own quirky sense. I like to use alliteration. I like to paint absurd believable fiction and borrow from all of those guys. There’s no particular place, one location or another in the book where one is more than the other, although I can tell you the thing I liked about Hunter S. Thompson was that he wrote about things that he actually did. Wolfe could write about things as if he had been there but hadn’t. Bukowski calls it like he sees it, and Henry Miller was striving to write the book that had never been written and would never be written again.
When you wrote the book you kind of saw it as complete fiction, but then the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 happened.
I would say that I didn’t think it was unexpected and there’s all kinds of theories. I understand theories I’ve heard and read about so far, but yeah, I’d say the timing was pretty weird. There’s never been anything quite like it before. My story’s just a fun story. What happened with Malaysia of course is very serious, but the mechanics with what could have happened are definitely real.
It’s a little bit of Lost and reality interfering with fiction.
When you talk about mixing reality with fiction in the Malaysia flight, many of the events that occur in my story are actually possible. The eventual outcome of the objective of the flight, I’m not so sure that that would ever be desirable, but many odd and plausible theories that you would not have thought possible fifteen years ago could actually occur now which does add to kinda the weird timing of it.
Are you a fan of conspiracy theories at all?
I think about conspiracy theories every once in a while. I don’t dwell on them, but I don’t discount the likelihood of quiet people in the background making lots of things possible through a series of networks that they orchestrate very deliberately.