The allure of space is timeless; it as ingrained in humanity’s dreams as flight. In Benjamin Johncock’s mesmerizing debut, The Last Pilot, he takes us back to the heady days of Apollo. Flush from his book’s publication, Benjamin wrote to us about how his childhood fascination had morphed into something new and beautiful.
How strange it is that a man can be born on a farm during the Great Depression and live to walk on the moon? From our present, those strange, intense years of Apollo have begun to take on a dreamlike quality. Did they really happen? What an extraordinary thing it must be, to be of an age, a generation, that witnessed humans leaving planet Earth for the first time. And how strange that this same generation looks set to be the last to ever witness such an undertaking.
In his book Moondust, the writer Andrew Smith speaks with a man who concludes that the sixties were like “a decade from the 21st century transported to the 20th”.
Consider this: the 20th century started with horses and ended with spacecraft. I sometimes think that novelists are trying to make sense of the 21st century before they’ve made sense of the one preceding it.
The 20th century was a rolling stone that couldn’t stop: the Great War, the Great Depression, the Second World War, nuclear power, the space race, the Cold War, globalization, an exponential explosion in technological progress.
I knew the book had to be emotionally intimate though, in spite of the global canvas. The balance between the personal and the political, and how they sat together, had to be handled very carefully. And a frontier isn’t a frontier without people standing on it—it’s just a line in the sand or stars.
I realized, early on into The Last Pilot, as ideas for the story were beginning to coalesce in my mind, that I’d been unconsciously recreating its milieu for most of my life.
When I was about three or four, my dad would read to me from a book he had about the Apollo missions. It was Moon Flight Atlas by Patrick Moore, published in 1970, just after the near-fatal Apollo 13 mission. I loved it. I was hooked. But not on the rockets and spacecraft—on the men. Men who could stay so cool under such pressure, in such extreme peril. I was an over-sensitive child prone to anxiety and panic—the complete opposite of these men.
In 2004, in my mid-twenties, I developed a full-blown anxiety disorder, complete with obsessive, intrusive thoughts. A few years later, when I started to get better, and starting writing again, I found myself returning to these men, those heroes of my childhood, and writing about them. The test pilots had a phrase I loved: you had to be afraid to panic. Here were men who were able to control their emotions (unlike me), who kept calm under pressure (unlike me). How could I not?
Over the years, I’d unwittingly collected a library of books on the period, on the people. It was all there, on my shelves, under my bed, in boxes, waiting for me. I immersed myself in old astronaut autobiographies, documentaries, interviews, footage, transcripts, history—everything I had, and could get my hands on—and, when the time was right, I started writing.
It was the strangest—and most wonderful—thing.
Benjamin Johncock was born in England in 1978. His short stories have been published by The Fiction Desk and The Junket. He is the recipient of an Arts Council England grant and the American Literary Merit Award, and is a winner of Comma Press’s National Short Story Day competition. He also writes for the Guardian. He lives in Norwich, England, with his wife, his daughter, and his son. The Last Pilot is his first novel.
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