Pilot, Co-Pilot, Writer
by Manuel Gonzales
Issue #66 • November 30, 2005•Sold Out!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
We have been circling the city now at an altitude of between seven thousand and ten thousand feet for, according to our best estimates, around twenty years.
I once asked the Pilot—this was early into the hijacking, maybe a week—how we were in terms of gasoline and how he planned to refuel, but he did not tell me. He laughed and patted me on the shoulder as if we were good friends together on a road-trip, and I had just asked him how we were going to get there without a map. Back in the cabin I asked a man who was an engineer if he knew how we had managed to stay aloft for so long, and he gave me a complex explanation, most of which I did not understand, centered around a rumored “perpetual oil.”
“Is there such a thing?” I asked him. “Perpetual oil?”
“Well,” he said. “I’m not sure that there isn’t.”
Manuel Gonzales lives and writes in Houston, Texas. He holds an MFA from Columbia University and has been recently published in The Believer, Fence, and The L Magazine. His work has also appeared in McSweeney’s, The Mississippi Review, and The American Journal of Print.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
MG: About a year ago, I was flying, not a lot but more than I normally fly and over a short span of time, and I began to feel as if I were stuck on these planes and that I’d spend the rest of my life there. I thought it was a funny idea, and I began to write a story based on this farfetched premise, but with a tone that was not ridiculous, that made it common, believable, tangible. And then, having gotten a hold of this absurd world, I was able to tackle ideas and emotions within it, bring humor and sadness into it, and still protect it from melodrama, cheap laughs, sentimentality, all of those things against which I think many writers struggle.
Also, plane travel itself is subtly tragic and full of tension and contradiction - you’re not on the ground but don’t feel like you’re in the air, you’re excited if you’re going on vacation but exhausted because plane travel is exhausting. No matter how many ginger ales I drink, I’m always dehydrated, and no matter how tired I am, I can’t ever sleep comfortably on a plane. While flying, there is this uncanny sense of not really existing anywhere but on that plane. Everything else feels at a remove, and this state of mind also lends itself to a certain kind of meditation and reminiscence that might otherwise feel sentimental or false.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
MG: In a story like this, I’m most aware of walking that line between real and unreal, gauging when I’ve brought too much reality into the story, which sheds unflattering light on the fantastic elements of the world, or when I’ve brought in too much unreality, tipping the story into fable or allegory or magical realism, none of which I’m interested in exploring. I want to inject into a story enough fantastic elements to put a person’s defenses off guard, to create a disconnect between this world and the world I’ve created, but enough reality into a story to make what happens in the story and the emotions—anger, sadness, relief—mean something.
HT: Were you influenced at all by the new restrictions, paranoia and tension in flying since September 11th?
MG: Not really, no, because I never felt too tense or paranoid while flying, even after September 11th, and I decided a few years back that however long it takes to get onto a plane is how long it takes and so I don’t really get frustrated by the security lines.
I do remember, though, that on one of those trips I made to New York last December, I was supposed to also compete in an ad hoc pie competition (baking, not eating) and I had my rolling pin and measuring cups and pie pans in my carry-on bag because I knew the person I was staying with wouldn’t have any of these things, and I had brought a small whisk with me as well, and suddenly, as I was walking up to the security line, I became paranoid that for some reason they would consider my whisk some kind of weird and possibly dangerous contraband and that they would take it from me, which I didn’t want to happen because I liked that whisk a lot, and so before stepping properly into the line, I pulled it out of my bag, and I waved it around while asking one of the check-point people if I was okay bringing it with me on the plane. The guy couldn’t see it very well, probably because I was waving it around like some idiot, and he asked me what it was and I told him it was a whisk and he just shook his head at me in disgust and waved me through.
HT: How did you come up with the voice of the Writer? And why did you choose to tell the story from his point of view?
MG: This story could become maudlin or farcical, I think, if told, say, by the Pregnant Woman or the Pilot. The Pregnant Woman would be too reliable a narrator and would have to work too little to gain a reader’s sympathy, while just the opposite could be said of the Pilot. The Writer strikes a nice balance between distant observer and manic internalizer. There is nothing more extraordinarily at stake for him than for any of the other passengers, and as a writer, it’s his nature to want to tell a story. There is a desire to trust him because he is the narrator and a writer, but he proves himself frequently untrustworthy: He questions his own ignorance, lies to his mother, steals someone else’s story, and he never writes. Yet at this point in his life, having been stuck on this plane for so many years, he’s also reached this confessional state of mind, and so he can say things like, I felt a keen disappointment, and you believe him and not just because he’s been stuck on a plane for twenty years.
When it comes right down to it, his voice is an extension of my own.
HT: Why does the plane travel only in a circle? It is interesting when the Writer thinks he will continue circling Dallas, even if they land. Is this out of habit, or fear, or a desperate bid for infinity?
MG: The circling itself has to do with my fascination with routine, reverting to routines and habits. In my head, after a year or two years, the plane and everyone on it are remarked upon only by tourists or visiting relatives, never by natives, who have grown as used to it and as bored with it as they are with Reunion Tower or Six Flags. There is a tragedy to this idea of reverting to form, to routine, and the speed with which the world manages to do so in light of all manner of tragedy or splendor, and it fascinates me. There is inertia at play, as well, though more with the Co-Pilot than the Pilot; and there are fears of never leaving home, or of never becoming someone other than that person you were as a kid, and I think these ideas fuel the Writer’s speculation of his life after an imagined landing. As for a desperate bid for infinity, I had forgotten almost entirely about it, but 30 miles or so south of Dallas, in Waxahachie, is an incomplete and now empty supercollider, which seems, especially as it is incomplete, a more fitting and desperate bid for infinity than Belt Line Road. Although, exits for Belt Line Road pop up on just about every highway, freeway, and expressway in and around Dallas.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
MG: My wife began me on this exercise of writing—I don’t know if it’s for three pages or three minutes—but writing out all the crap that is in your head first thing in the morning, the most banal, tedious kind of writing that serves no purpose but to get the banal, tedious ideas out of your head. She found it in a book. The deeper I delve into the business of novel writing, the more difficult it becomes for me to begin writing cold, and I will often use this exercise to get rid of dull thoughts and to warm myself back up, in that way sneaking up on the material most recently finished.
HT: What are you working on now?
MG: I’m currently polishing up a story collection and working on my first novel.