Breaking In a Horse: An Interview with Benjamin Johncock

Article by ben

Any time I pick up a book about NASA, I flip through, trying to find the name of the place where I live: Clear Lake. See, NASA has never much interested me, but Clear Lake—the master-planned community southeast of Houston that houses the space program (and, less importantly, me)—does. I want to learn about the place, and learn other people’s impressions of it. Sure enough, flipping through THE LAST PILOT before I have read a word of it, I find, deep in the novel, what I’m looking for: “Clear Lake was not a lake. Or clear. It looked murky, but Grace figured Murky Lake didn’t have the same appeal. Still. It looked pretty. From a distance.”

At the risk of alienating my neighbors, that about sums it up.

In some ways, THE LAST PILOT seems like a chronicle not only of NASA in its early days, but also of terrible weather: the oven-like heat of the desert, the boiling fog (as our general manager, Jeremy Ellis, calls it) of the Gulf Coast, the tundra of wintertime Washington D.C. Against these various settings, we see the story of the birth of NASA from the point of view of a test pilot named Jim Harrison. This is a historical novel, yes, and Harrison encounters many famous personages along the way, but fundamentally, this is a book about his marriage to Grace, and the way heroism sometimes needs to negotiate with the domestic sphere. Johncock, a debut novelist, tells his story so convincingly that I assumed Harrison was a real person—but no. Instead, he becomes a fictional everyman faced with the grand ambition (and perhaps folly) of America, trying to comprehend the future.


Brazos Bookstore: For you as an author, first exploring the idea of this novel, was the marriage your way into the space program, or was the space program your way into the marriage?

Benjamin Johncock: The process was a little different from that. I didn’t start with any one idea—or much resembling one. It’s a very fluid process that takes place in and out of my consciousness. At first, it’s just certain jetsam floating around from childhood that resonates into adulthood—various experiences, themes, thoughts that continue to tug at some deep part of you—that have a certain gravity. Because of this, you don’t really choose the story, it chooses you. During this stage, I try and do as little as possible. Sometimes I’m criticised for this. It’s a delicate time. I try not to explain myself too much. As some of this jetsam begins to encounter more recent stuff from adulthood, then thoughts and ideas begin to coalesce. This stage can take some time. It is an inefficient process. If you’re lucky, and you’ve successfully done as little as possible, then you might find your mind sparking and fizzing with little titbits of ideas, tiny blobs of story—specks, really—but this is where things start to become real. It’s important not to jot any of these down too quickly. They’re like fawns timidly emerging from a misty woodland vista. You don’t want to scare them off. If things go well, you’ll find yourself reaching for books or films without really knowing why, led by your subconscious, that has detected Items of Use therein. I then start to magpie stuff from around the house and the internet: photos, clippings, bookmarks, etc. Then notes will start to be taken. Little snippets that build over time. Like I said, it’s a deeply inefficient process. There’ll come a time when all this material output reaches a kind of critical mass, and I get pushed into actually Writing Something. I try to ignore that I am STARTING. Because I am unlikely to think anything helpful at this point. And this stage is transient, malleable, too—back and forth between states (writing/notes/nothing/mooching/magpie-ing/hot showers, etc.). You’re breaking in a horse, and you have to do it slowly.

BB: The natural world in this book always stands out at being particularly bad: the bugs at Cape Canaveral, the humidity in Houston, the Mojave sun. Even when Harrison goes to Washington, D.C., the freeze is unpleasant, “so cold he thought the day might snap in two.” With weather so bad, it starts to make sense these men would want to escape Earth. How do these aspects of setting serve as a counterpoint to the more heroic deeds happening here? When writing, were you thinking about how such great human achievements seemed to emerge from such unpleasant places?

BJ: It’s the frontier, and the frontier is never pretty—and if it was, it would lose some of the romance. The pilots loved these places, though—Muroc, the Cape—they loved the isolation, the primitive, desolate landscape. All of which was good for flying too. And I like the similarity between the Mojave and the Cape, in terms of their barrenness.

BB: The space program is always thought of as such a quintessentially American enterprise, so tied up in patriotic mumbo-jumbo. As someone born and now living in England, did you feel like you were approaching this as an outsider—and if so, did that help you? Sometimes the most interesting art about American life is made by people who weren’t born in America…

BJ: This is a very interesting point. Did I feel like I was approaching it as an outsider—no, only because an approach implies specific intent (see first question). Did it help, not being American? Yes, I think it probably did, in a way.

BB: Tell me something the U.S. space program has in common with an independent bookstore.

BJ: Both require risk, passion, belief, balls and a shit-ton of money.

BB: You have no idea whom we’ll interview next, but no matter: What should we ask him/her?

BJ: What did your father teach you?

BB: Speaking of which, Mark Haskell Smith wants to know: Have you ever been naked in public?

BJ: We’re all born naked, in public, aren’t we?

The Last Pilot: A Novel Cover Image
Unavailable from Brazos Bookstore
ISBN: 9781250066640
Availability: OUT OF PRINT - Not Available for Order
Published: Picador - July 7th, 2015

Article Type Terms: