Treat Williams, an accomplished actor who has clinched Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for his work in the theater, television, and film over three decades, steps into a new spotlight with his first book, Air Show! (Disney-Hyperion). In this large-format volume, illustrated by Robert Neubecker, two siblings fly with their pilot father to an air show, where they view planes of various design and vintage. It’s a setting very familiar to the author.
You’ve been a pilot for many years and are certified as a flight instructor, so it seems that you followed the oft-advised adage of writing about what you know.
I guess I did. I’ve been flying for about 35 years, give or take. It has really been a huge part of my life.
Was it a childhood dream of yours to become a pilot?
Yes—literally. I used to have dreams about flying when I was a boy. And I would salivate over toy airplanes. My favorite toy was a faux airplane panel that my father made for my sister and me, with all sorts of bells and whistles. I played with that for years. I also remember thinking that if I could pedal my tricycle fast enough on the sidewalk I could achieve liftoff. I was convinced!
So when was it that you actually did first achieve liftoff?
It was 1969, when I was at the Kent School in Connecticut. I played varsity football, and one day I showed up for a game and realized I’d forgotten to take off my school ring. So I asked my coach to hold it for me. When I asked for it back at the next practice, he told me he’d sawed it in half to see if it was made of real gold or not. And I said, “Coach, that ring cost me 35 dollars—you owe me 35 dollars!” And he said, “I teach school—I don’t have 35 dollars!” He had been a Navy SEAL and had a small airplane, and he said instead he’d give me two free flying lessons on a nearby airstrip. He did, and I loved it. And after nine hours flying with him, I soloed.
Did you get your pilot’s license soon after that?
Not then. It all got stashed in my pocket when I went to college, since I had no money for flying. As I began to get odd jobs—I sang at parties, did some performing, drove a cab, sold clothing—I was able to afford my license, which I finally got in 1973.
And what led you to parlay your love of flying into a children’s book?
Well, I’ve known Robert [Neubecker] for some time. He lives near me in Utah, and his children and mine went to the same school. Our families had spent time together and I’d seen some of his beautiful children’s books. When he showed me Wow! Airplane!, I realized that we shared a mutual love of airplanes. We started talking about going to an air show and building a book around it.
Did you attend an air show together?
We did. Three years ago, Robert and I, my son Gill, who is now 18, and two other pilots and their sons all went to a big annual air show in Oshkosh that’s now called EAA AirVenture. Air shows are huge in the aviation culture. We spent three days there enjoying the show, and Robert took pictures and lots of notes. So that planted the seeds of the book, and we then tossed around ideas about the best way to accommodate his wonderful art work into a story.
In Air Show!, a pilot takes his son and daughter—who happen to have the same names as your own children—to an air show. It appears you didn’t stray too far from home with that story line.
It’s true. In a way, my daughter Ellie, who is 11, is much more interested in the nuts and bolts of flying than Gill, who is more the computer genius. When we fly, Ellie is apt to come up front with me, and she notices everything. In the book, Ellie’s character is the more knowledgeable of the two children, with a real desire to fly. When I was a kid, books about airplanes were considered “boy” books. I thought it would be wonderful to empower a little girl with this love of flight.
Once you devised the book’s plot, how did your collaboration with the illustrator work?
The whole process was really quite organic. Robert and I imbued the book with our love of things that fly. Basically, once we had the story idea in mind, we pretty much laid out the book to work like a storyboard. Given my cinematic background, that helped me to understand the book visually.
Did you find that making this book involved a very different creative process than you’d experienced before?
It wasn’t a process that was unnatural to me, since what I do as an actor involves working with a director and many other people. You put yourself out there, and then you’re told that maybe it would be better if you did this, or didn’t do that. I’m used to that. With the book, at first I was a little surprised at the degree of backing and forthing there was with our editor, Donna Bray. She kept coming out with things I hadn’t thought of—like pointing out that maybe there were too many words on a certain page. I came to realize that this was like an ensemble, a group effort, with input from a lot of people. I realized that everyone’s ideas and suggestions were making the book better and better. It was a fun process and very exciting. I’m looking forward to doing it all over again.
What’s next on your writing agenda?
I would love to do more books with Robert—and I do have some ideas. I’d love eventually to move into chapter books. And I think some day I’d like to write about my flying experiences, but I’m not sure what age audience I’d write it for. I guess most writers write for themselves, and hope someone will be interested!
Clearly your publisher has high hopes for Air Show!, which you’ll be promoting this summer at air shows.
Yes, and that will be great. Ellie has decided that she is the star of the book, so she thinks she should come and do signings with me. I really am so excited about the reaction to the book so far—to be perfectly honest, maybe even astonished! Disney has really gotten behind the book, which is very gratifying.
So it sounds as though you’re satisfied with your new role as author?
Yes. It’s been fun. When you’re young in the acting business, the idea of getting a part is so exciting. But as you get older and reach my age, in a perfect world you’d only say yes to roles that really excite you. But this not being a perfect world, that isn’t always the case. There are things like having to put kids through college. So to be able to have writing as an alternate form of income—and of expression—is exciting to me. And I loved being able to turn my love of flying into a book.
Air Show! by Treat Williams, illus. by Robert Neubecker. Disney-Hyperion, $16.99 June ISBN 978-1-4231-1185-6