In Imagine a City (Knopf, July), commercial pilot Vanhoenacker takes readers on a high-flying tour through cities around the world while recounting his own life on the ground.
You wrote at length about the intricacies and wonders of flying in your last book, Skyfaring. In this new work, you revisit the world of flying, but through a much more personal lens. What was the motivation behind that?
At the start of Skyfaring, I wrote that the journey isn’t quite the destination—not even for pilots. Imagine a City began as a story about what happens after we land the plane, park it, and make our way into a place we’ve crossed thousands of miles to reach. So, my plan for Imagine a City was to write a geographically wide-ranging but otherwise straightforward urban travelogue from the unique perspective of a pilot. As I wrote, however, I found I also wanted to explain the personal meaning of cities to me in my childhood in Pittsfield, Mass. And like many gay kids, I’d constructed an external self that was different from who I knew I was. I absolutely loved airplanes, maps, and everything about cities, and so it was natural to look to distant metropolises when I dreamed of someday, somewhere, being at ease in myself. But now, in a reasonably content middle age, I’m glad to have Pittsfield with me. If it’s my lens on every other city, it’s also a steady companion.
In the book you often categorize cities not just according to their geographical characteristics but also with respect to other features, such as rivers or walls, that are appealing or meaningful to you. Can you speak more to that approach?
The structure of Imagine a City—chapters like City of Gates, City of Snow, etc.—came to me quite naturally: it’s one of many debts I owe to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and above all to my father, who lived in many cities and who titled the chapters of his autobiography in a similar manner. In Skyfaring, I relied on such elements as “night” and “water” to organize my experiences as an airline pilot. The greater challenge in Imagine a City was one of scale: there were so many cities I’ve come to know as a pilot, and so many qualities or features to explore in each of them.
What lessons do you hope readers take away from the book?
Imagine a City is first of all a travelogue, and as the pandemic enters a new phase and our planet’s urbanization continues, I hope we’ll all have opportunities to reconnect with cities, whether from our armchairs or as travelers and residents. As the reader and I move together from city to city and continent to continent, I’m trying my best to reconcile my love for my hometown with the imperative I once felt to leave it. Even as a pilot I could never really fly away from where I started. Whenever I reached a new city, I found my first one waiting.