The Millions Interview

California Wrapped in Gauze: The Millions Interviews Daniel Riley

By posted at 12:00 pm on June 12, 2017 0

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I was hooked on Daniel Riley’s debut novel from the moment I heard the premise: Suzy Whitman graduates from Vassar in 1972 and heads to the beach town of Sela del Mar, California, to follow her married older sister, Grace, into life as a stewardess for Grand Pacific Airlines.

My mother grew up in the South Bay, the part of California that Riley has lightly fictionalized in Sela del Mar, and I knew I would eat up every detail of a beachside, Watergate-era coming-of-age. But Fly Me, for all its period trappings, tells a much darker story than its sun-soaked setting would lead you to expect. Suzy soon finds that Grace’s new marriage to Mike, an unemployed journalist desperate to found the next great American magazine, is already rocky. Meanwhile, her parents are facing challenges of their own back in upstate New York. Determined to help the people she loves, Suzy finds herself drawn into a life of running drugs between the coasts — just as the nation-wide epidemic of skyjackings reaches its peak.

Riley met me at a bar in Williamsburg that obliged us by playing a steady stream of seventies rock, including many songs referenced in the pages of his novel. We talked about southern California, USC football, and subtle sexism in our parents’ generation (and also, spoiler alert, in our own).

AB: I wanted to ask you about the original seed for this book, because there are so many different things I could imagine as your entry point. Did you begin with the place, or the era of skyjackings, or the character of Suzy?

DR: My grandmother’s cousin, basically my “third grandma,” was a stewardess in the late fifties. She grew up in Los Feliz, went to USC, flew for United, and then worked in PR for LAX for decades. She helped establish the Flight Path Museum in Los Angeles. It’s a cool museum; all the volunteers are former flight attendants. I went for the first time right after I graduated from college, and I got to screw around with all these great books and resources they had there. That was sort of the very, very start of the book. Looking back at some of the notes and ideas I had back then almost feels like looking at cave paintings.

AB: So it felt like that trip to the Flight Path Museum was your way in?

DR: It was really a confluence of things. There were all these women who had flown around when I was growing up. I would always play in the annual Clipped Wings Classic golf tournament with former stewardesses. Those were mostly women who were one generation older than the characters in the book, but that younger generation was around, too. They were the moms of kids I went to school with. And my mom and her two sisters were not stewardesses, but they all worked as travel agents for long stretches. Everybody around was involved in the airport and flight and travel, in some way.

AB: One of my favorite images of Suzy from the novel’s opening is the image of her planting her skateboard in the sand and watching the airplanes.

DR: In a way the book really started for me because I used to be that person plunked down in the sand, watching the planes take off over the bay, seeing if I could guess the destination for each one. My mom always knew the flights by their numbers because she would book the tickets, and you could tell by the color of the tail.

When you grow up in California, especially in these places by the beach, the late sixties and early seventies are not far, at any moment. That stuff is in the trees, it’s in the air. Everything is an Instagram filter already. Also, certain parts of a southern California beach town look exactly like they did then. The beach doesn’t change.

So you start stacking all of that up, and you think, okay, I can build a story out of this. You start with what is familiar. It also came from feeling that nobody writes great books about the beach communities in southern California! It’s under-served by literature, this place that’s perfectly served by television and film.

And then, I had the fact that 1972 was the heaviest year of all for skyjackings.

AB: I’m surprised that isn’t talked about more. Maybe it is, and I’m just ignorant, but especially given the fact that airline security has been a huge issue for most of my adult life.

DR: Oh, yeah. It was that specific moment, when 1972 became 1973, when they basically said, we have to start instituting some sort of security. And guess what: all the skyjackings stopped! Because people couldn’t just walk onto a plane anymore with guns, bombs, and knives.

coverIt was sort of sporadic and then all at once, because of the copycat effect. I read some excerpts from a sociological study by David G. Hubbard called The Skyjacker: His Flights of Fancy that discussed the psychological profile of the people that did this. In all cases, it’s people who feel that all of their options and lanes and lines have been severed.

AB: You have Suzy reading a quote from Renata Adler’s story in the 1972 fiction issue of The New Yorker: “I think when you are truly stuck, when you have stood still in the same spot for too long, you throw a grenade in exactly the spot you were standing in, and jump, and pray. It is the momentum of last resort.”

DR: Exactly — it drives these people to whatever they’re looking for, whether that’s to go to Havana to be with Castro, or needing some sort of retribution for something that happened in Vietnam. There were a lot of vets who did this, actually. It’s that idea of the push to the edge. And in that sense, then — of course this time period is populated with dozens of people like this.

AB: Did you chart the book’s plot in advance, while you were writing? 

DR: I find it completely mystifying, writers who say that they write without sort of a destination in mind. That would be a total disaster for me. It has to be driving to something so that you can thread in whatever you need to do to earn the end, hopefully. So that if you go back and start from the top again, it hopefully feels completely surprising and also entirely inevitable.

The other challenge while I was writing was that I was changing so much as a writer. I mean, in your twenties you’re probably changing more than you do at any point, I think. I feel like six or seven different Dans wrote this book.

coverAB: There’s a quote from Keith Gessen about watching Chad Harbach re-write The Art of Fielding over a period of years: “With a long novel…it might take six months or a year to go through and re-write the whole thing to your satisfaction. By then you’d have changed again and want to start re-writing the beginning. The book could begin to swallow itself.”

DR: It’s like the guy who paints the Golden Gate Bridge. When he’s done with it he just starts over again, because it’s already corroded. As recently as September, in my last pass before the galley, I was rewriting. There was just stuff written across nine years, and I wanted it all to fit together, to bring it all to a uniform place.

AB: The book is full of period detail, but I’m curious what research you did into the daily professional routines of a stewardess in 1972.

DR: That really goes back to my visit to the Flight Path Museum. They had diaries there, and even the super cheesy ones that were really vague — “it was the best of times” kind of stuff — even those were useful. Every once in a while, you get a great detail.

covercoverThere was a book that was a bestseller in 1967 called Coffee, Tea, or Me. It was allegedly written by two stewardesses, but it later turned out they were fictional and it was written by a man. It was a lot of cliched, exaggerated stuff, but you can at least get a feel for what was in the air.

There was also a great book called Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants, by Kathleen Barry, that was more about the legal history. After the time period of the book, during the mid-seventies, all of the things that are the most egregious and haranguing in terms of equal rights in the workplace are brought to the Supreme Court. All the things that they can be fired for: height, weight, makeup. The stewardesses not being allowed to get married.

AB: There are a lot of period set-pieces in the book, especially the 1973 USC Rose Bowl game. Were those in there from the very beginning?

DR: Well, for me to write a truly authentic story about southern California beach towns, even though it’s seemingly irrelevant, I couldn’t write about that without writing about USC. It’s just the most pervasive thing there is.

My parents didn’t go to USC, but everyone we know did. So, you can pick at things you actually know about. But no one’s going to mistake my life for this life. I didn’t set out deliberately to not write a book about Dan in the nineties in the South Bay. But I’m really relieved, in a way, to just let the book be another thing. No one’s saying, you know, oh, you must be Suzy.

AB: Are you getting questions from people who assume that Suzy is based on your mother?

DR: A little bit, but I explain how little they have in common biographically. Suzy’s a combination of a few things. I had never explicitly thought of it before this, but while I had a great dad — the opposite of an absentee father — I was really raised by a lot of women. My mom had two sisters, and their mother was a single mom. She was divorced in 1960. I was surrounded by all these independent women, and I think a lot of that stuff fed into Suzy’s character. She’s going to work on cars, she’s going to build things, make things. She’s going to take control of something.

I didn’t realize how unique that sort of collective of women was until I started thinking through this character. So Suzy doesn’t feel exceptional to me, but she does clash with your more traditional type.

I was interested by what happens when you manipulate a character who has never at any point in her life had complete control of something. And then you tease her with that control, until you slowly have all the men in her life take that away, prod her, push her over that edge.

AB: I was wondering how you saw that interplay between Suzy and men. In the book, she’s often being circled in a somewhat predatory way.

DR: In many ways, if I put myself in my mom’s or my aunt’s shoes, or in the shoes of any woman who’s told a story from that time, it’s obvious that major, terrible things can happen. But it’s the more subtle things that I feel personally most distanced from. It’s still that way today. The part that’s most obvious to see is when someone is profoundly sexist. It’s a different thing when there are just other, really subtle things going on. Even something like her father trying to protect Suzy from the news — things that are little, more subtle digs.

AB: You repeat one image twice – the idea of being able to taste someone else’s blood in your mouth. When you use it for Mike, he’s discovered that Thomas Pynchon lives nearby and it has to do with thwarted ambition, jealousy. But with Suzy, you use it during a moment when she might be in actual mortal danger. It’s a really economical way to show us that, you know, Mike being backed into a corner is a very different thing from Suzy being backed into a corner.

DR: Yes. With the character of Mike, it was fun to think about what happens when you dial him to the worst type of that guy. When you have somebody who feels like he was on the right career path, but it’s beginning to slip away.

coverAnd then you put Thomas Pynchon writing Gravity’s Rainbow in Manhattan Beach in 1969 — he was living in what was then El Porto. It’s part of Manhattan Beach now, and it’s the most still-untouched part. They actually filmed part of the movie for Inherent Vice there because you can find houses that look exactly the way they did then. Nobody knew he was a writer. He was just a former Navy guy, living there, buying his meat at the meat market.

But for Mike, that’s just the ultimate thing that guts him. I am suffering here, telling everybody that the reason I’m failing is this place where nobody could possibly get anything serious done. And then this doorstop novel comes out, and it was written right there.

AB: I was reading this book the week that James Comey was fired, which was a bizarre experience since the book unfolds in the year before the Saturday Night Massacre. I wondered about the shadow of Richard Nixon that looms over the novel. How did you strike that balance, making sure that the political turmoil of that year was brought to bear on the characters but also kept in the background?

DR: I tried to create this condition where Sela del Mar sort of had this bubble built around it — where only news that affected one personally might seep in. The beach towns in southern California can still feel that way — a little separate, a little apart. A town like Sela del Mar can yank you away from the news a little bit — draw you into a warm bath, drain the tension out of your shoulders, and recalibrate your priorities.

I’ve noticed that this year, even, when I go home to visit. The way in which folks I know in my “regular” life pay attention, minute-by-minute, to breaking news — that watchdogging and hyperventilating just seems a little less present at the beach. People go outside, they put their phones down. It’s possible to disappear into some different rhythms. It’s not complete indifference; everything political just feels a little distant. I think Suzy’s father says it in the book when he visits California — the news feels wrapped in gauze.

I think part of it, too, is just an overwhelming confidence in the protections provided by the state — the size and strength of California then and now allows one to feel not so caught up in the national narrative. I wrote a piece about the California secession movement this winter, and though there was obviously plenty of anxiety in that deep blue state about the Trump Administration, there was also this feeling among secessionists and non-secessionists alike that what was happening in Washington was just further proof of something many Californians had believed for a long time: that what happens way over there has nothing to do with what’s happening here.

I recognize only in retrospect how removed I was from the news at times growing up. We were three hours behind, way out at the farthest edge.

AB: I loved that they get free beers at the bar on Election Day, if they can prove they didn’t vote.

DR: That detail was not something I’d ever heard, but it made perfect sense. It fit perfectly within the logic of all this. It is interesting though, because I feel like a lot of this stuff still rang true when I was growing up, but I don’t know if it does anymore. It feels like it would be impossible, now, for it to feel quite so disconnected out there.

AB: Well, Manhattan Beach is also so much ritzier, now.

DR: Oh, it’s way ritzier. Hollywood is now down there, all the athletes live down there. It just doesn’t feel like it’s at that same sort of remove. But growing up, I didn’t know anything about the rest of LA. We would go to museums or to Dodger games once in a while, but I had no idea what the map looked like. But you don’t feel isolated in the way that you might if you were in a prairie town, or somewhere like that.

When I would hear that people had family in Virginia, as an elementary schooler, I was like…What? Why? And if anybody left, it was so strange. It was so cordoned off.

There’s a reason that most of the books written about beach towns that are really good are often crime or murder mysteries. Because it’s so easy to shatter that thing that anybody feels, when they’re just hypnotically looking out at the water.

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