In his debut novel, The Last Pilot, Johncock tells the story of Jim Harrison, a test pilot during the early days of the U.S. space program, who suffers a personal loss just as his career is set to take off.
How much research went into writing the book?
The novel took six years to write, and the research was kind of concurrent. It’s such a rich area; there’s no shortage of historical and technical material, although I loved character research the most—hunting down out-of-print autobiographies and biographies of test pilots like Chuck Yeager and astronauts like Jim Lovell, Neil Armstrong, and John Glenn. I immersed myself in that world. It didn’t feel like research, because I love this stuff so much—the novel is like a love letter to these people, although at the heart of the book is a marriage, what Jim and Grace go through, and that was far more challenging.
What drew you to basing a novel around the early days of the U.S. space program?
When I was about four, my dad would read to me from an old book he had about the Apollo missions, Moon Flight Atlas—not, I guess, a traditional bedtime story—but he would read the story of Apollo 13, and I was utterly captivated. But it wasn’t the machines—the rockets, the spacecraft—it was the men. These men were in peril, yet stayed so calm, so focused, so utterly cool under pressure. And that stayed with me a long time. The men became childhood heroes.
In 2004, I developed a debilitating anxiety disorder with obsessive, intrusive thoughts. It was pretty hellish. A few years later, when I felt better, I found myself (perhaps unsurprisingly) turning back to those men—those heroes of my childhood, men who could control their emotions, so calm and collected under pressure—and writing about them. They had this great phrase: you had to be afraid to panic. I was interested in how someone trained to be in tight control of their emotions deals with the kind of personal tragedy that Jim experiences. And I drew, in part, from my own experience of anxiety and obsessive thinking.
How did you approach incorporating real events into the novel?
I wanted to dovetail fact and fiction seamlessly, slotting Jim’s story into history without visible joints. What I didn’t want to do was rewrite history. For a first novel, I sometimes despaired that I set myself a ridiculously tough task. Historical fact inspired the fiction, too: Neil Armstrong also lost his little girl, Karen, when she was only two years old. It devastated him. But Armstrong was such a closed guy, colleagues didn’t know he even had a daughter. When Armstrong died in 2012, none of his obituaries mentioned her, or that he’d suffered this loss. As a novelist, I found that very interesting. It was tough to write, because I wanted to be extremely respectful of Armstrong’s family. It is, in some small way, a tribute to her memory.