Nelson’s multigenre nonfiction work Wally Funk’s Race for Space (Chicago Review, Mar.) introduces readers to a pioneering woman aviator.
How did you and Wally begin working together?
I’d met Wally in 1997 when I made a BBC radio documentary on the Mercury 13 [women pilots who underwent astronaut training in a short-lived 1960 NASA program], and we started working together again around 2016. Our professional relationship began with me being quite anxious, because I was working with a woman who had never presented a radio program before, and I was also sort of struggling to cope with her completely unrestrained nature, the fact that she was so free-spirited—like a free-range hen, she would wander off everywhere. I felt I had to sort of keep her under control.
How did your relationship grow over the course of writing this book?
Over the two years that the book primarily covers, our relationship became friendlier and warmer. And when you really get to know and like a person—a bit like your siblings or your closest friends—they become the ones that you’re most open and honest with, as well, so I found I was being more rude to her, telling her “Be quiet!”, “Don’t do this!”, “Oh, no you never said that!” It went from respect and professionalism, through irritation when she wouldn’t put her seat belt on, to in the end me sort of still feeling like her protector but also being aware that this woman could look after herself, thank you very much, and that I was actually with quite an extraordinary human being.
You describe the book as part travelogue, part biography, and part history of women in space. How do you see all these pieces coming together?
I felt that if we just wrote it as a conventional biography, you would miss all the really funny things that Wally does that make her such a character. Our trips together, our flights together, our Thelma and Louise–style drives across these parts of America, our squabbles, our disagreements, our complete sort of lovefest at the same time—I felt you would get more of an insight into Wally with those episodes included than not. And the American Mercury 13 history should be known; it should be in textbooks around the world, because the look on people’s faces when they hear about it—they’re shocked that they don’t know it. So it’s about truth, and it’s about feminism; it’s about life, really. It’s that old saying—history is dictated by whoever narrates it. So we’ve got to give a more accurate view of what went on. And doing so doesn’t undermine what’s already happened; it just adds to it in a sort of wonderful way. It turns something into a kaleidoscope of colors instead of a landscape.