Interview with Mary Lawlor, author of ‘Fighter Pilot’s Daughter: Growing Up in the Sixties and the Cold War’

Mary LawlorMary Lawlor grew up in an Army family during the Cold War.  Her father was a decorated fighter pilot who fought in the Pacific during World War II, flew missions in Korea, and did two combat tours in Vietnam. His family followed him from base to base and country to country during his years of service. Every two or three years, Mary, her three sisters, and her mother packed up their household and moved. By the time she graduated from high school, she had attended fourteen different schools. These displacements, plus her father?s frequent absences and brief, dramatic returns, were part of the fabric of her childhood, as were the rituals of base life and the adventures of life abroad.

As Mary came of age, tensions between the patriotic, Catholic culture of her upbringing and the values of the sixties counterculture set family life on fire.  While attending the American College in Paris, she became involved in the famous student uprisings of May 1968.  Facing her father, then posted in Vietnam, across a deep political divide, she fought as he had taught her to for a way of life completely different from his and her mother’s.

Years of turbulence followed.  After working in Germany, Spain and Japan, Mary went on to graduate school at NYU, earned a Ph.D. and became a professor of literature and American Studies at Muhlenberg College.  She has published three books, Recalling the Wild (Rutgers UP, 2000), Public Native America (Rutgers UP, 2006), and most recently Fighter Pilot’s Daughter: Growing Up in the Sixties and the Cold War (Rowman and Littlefield, September 2013).

She and her husband spend part of each year on a small farm in the mountains of southern Spain.

Her latest book is the memoir, Fighter Pilot’s Daughter: Growing Up in the Sixties and the Cold War.

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About the Book:

FIGHTER PILOT’S DAUGHTER: GROWING UP IN THE SIXTIES AND THE COLD WAR tells the story of the author as a young woman coming of age in an Irish Catholic, military family during the Cold War.  Her father, an aviator in the Marines and later the Army, was transferred more than a dozen times to posts from Miami to California and Germany as the government’s Cold War Fighter Pilot's Daughterpolicies demanded.  For the pilot’s wife and daughters, each move meant a complete upheaval of ordinary life.  The car was sold, bank accounts closed, and of course one school after another was left behind.  Friends and later boyfriends lined up in memory as a series of temporary attachments.  The book describes the dramas of this traveling household during the middle years of the Cold War.  In the process, FIGHTER PILOT’S DAUGHTER shows how the larger turmoil of American foreign policy and the effects of Cold War politics permeated the domestic universe. The climactic moment of the story takes place in the spring of 1968, when the author’s father was stationed in Vietnam and she was attending college in Paris.  Having left the family’s quarters in Heidelberg, Germany the previous fall, she was still an ingénue; but her strict upbringing had not gone deep enough to keep her anchored to her parents’ world.  When the May riots broke out in the Latin quarter, she attached myself to the student leftists and American draft resisters who were throwing cobblestones at the French police. Getting word of her activities via a Red Cross telegram delivered on the airfield in Da Nang, Vietnam, her father came to Paris to find her. The book narrates their dramatically contentious meeting and return to the American military community of Heidelberg.  The book concludes many years later, as the Cold War came to a close.  After decades of tension that made communication all but impossible, the author and her father reunited.  As the chill subsided in the world at large, so it did in the relationship between the pilot and his daughter. When he died a few years later, the hard edge between them, like the Cold War stand-off, had become a distant memory.

For More Information

  • Fighter Pilot’s Daughter: Growing Up in the Sixties and the Cold War is available at Amazon.
  • Pick up your copy at Barnes & Noble.
  • Discuss this book at PUYB Virtual Book Club at Goodreads.

Would you consider your latest book to be a one of a kind? How so?

Fighter Pilot’s Daughter is one of very few books that give an account of ordinary, everyday life during the Cold War. Perhaps even fewer tell that story from the point of view of a military kid. It’s surprising to me how many readers—whether they grew up in the service or not—have contacted me to say they were thrilled to find a narrative that captured what the years of the Cold War felt like—all the fear we were brought up with and the strange things we were trained to do to protect ourselves in case of a nuclear bomb (duck under your school desk and cover your head; find the nearest bomb shelter). There are plenty of histories and film documentaries of the time, and much fiction is set in the Cold War. But there really aren’t many books that relate what it was like to actually live through those times.

Where is your writing sanctuary?

I write on a stationary bicycle situated in a large, sunny room on the second floor of my house in Pennsylvania. My husband arranged a ledge on the handle bars of the bike, so I can set my laptop there. I peddle and write at the same time. The peddling goes very slowly, but I feel that my brain’s moving a little bit more as my legs move. As an added benefit my metabolism is charging more than it would if I were sitting still at a desk. This, at least, is what I tell myself is happening! I also listen to music through ear buds while I’m writing, which stimulates my energy and imagination.

In Spain, I often take my computer up to the top of the mountain where my house is located. I bring a cushion along and settle myself beside an old ruined house or at the foot of a big cork oak. I can write for hours up there. The views are wonderful and inspiring.

What do you believe a writer should not do as far as getting his or her book published?

You shouldn’t approach a publisher directly (unless it’s an academic book), because publishers generally expect writers to come to them through an agent. When approaching an agent in the hopes that they will take you on as a client, you shouldn’t be vague, overly modest, or overly grandiose about your project (i.e. brag about it too much). Be as clear, honest, and concise as possible so the potential agent can get a sense of what the work is really like and who you are as a write.

What inspires you?

Lots of things inspire me. Listening to people talk—not always for the content or logic of what they’re saying but for the phrasing, word choices, pronunciations, and idiosyncrasies of usage—is always very interesting, and I get ideas for dialogue from it.

I also get great inspiration from looking at landscapes near my home in Spain. The mountains and valleys are very dramatic, and the sea coast, with Gibraltar jutting up in the distance, is always fascinating. The light changes in striking ways from season to season and hour to hour. The pathways through the countryside are intricate, complex. All these landscapes capture my imagination powerfully, and I’ve reproduced them in the works of fiction I’ve been writing recently.

What is one thing you learned about your book after it was published?

I learned how much people of my generation remember the Cold War in deeply personal ways. I’ve heard from so many people who tell me they recognize the scenes and situations I describe in Fighter Pilot’s Daughter viscerally. It’s interesting too to see how they respond to these descriptions with gratitude! It’s brought home to me the fact that there really haven’t been many non-fiction books written of a personal nature about life during those years.

Aside from writing, what’s your passion?

I love to hike in the mountains of Andalucia. Our house there is a small place but it’s situated at the base of a high mountain called La Loberia. I often put on my hiking boots and climb to the top. From there you can see the whole circumference of the landscape, from Gibraltar to the west and north to the mountains of Grazalema and east to Sierra Bermeja. Cork oaks, olives and almond trees grow up there, and you can find wild herbs as well-oregano, rosemary and thyme.

I also like to ride horses very much, but I’m not terribly good at it. There are several stables near my Spanish home where I’ve ridden, and once years ago some friends took me riding bareback in the mountains nearby.

A third passion is swimming. It’s my favorite and best sport. Chapter 11 of Fighter Pilot’s Daughter describes my time with my older sisters on a synchronized swimming team in California. I only did that for a couple of years, but the training and practice made me a strong swimmer. For many years I swam almost every day. Writing has taken up too much time for me to do that in recent years, but I still head for the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean whenever I can in summers and for whatever heated pool is in reach during the colder seasons.

What’s next for you?

I’ve been writing fiction since Fighter Pilot’s Daughter came out. I’ve finished a novel, The Stars Over Andalucia, set in the village in Spain where I live for half the year. At the moment I’m considering having it translated and published in Spanish, but there are still many issues to consider before taking this step. I’m also about half way (I hope!) through a first draft of a new novel titled The Time Keeper’s Room. It’s set in Spain and Morocco and focuses on the experiences of a young woman who’s exploring her family’s and her country’s past. She has visionary contacts with figures from the medieval period when Spain was shifting from Islamic to Christian domination. It’s a rather exotic story, and I’m having a great time writing it.



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