Skywriting: Keith O’Brien on ‘Fly Girls’ (Q&A w/ event details)

Keith O’Brien will present his new non-fiction title, Fly Girls, at Mystic’s Bank Square Books next Thursday evening, August 23, from 6:30 – 7:30 p.m. This event is free and open to the public; copies of the book will be available for purchase/signing. Location: 53 W. Main Street.


Today, I’m joined by Keith O’Brien.

Keith O'Brien
Keith O’Brien

Keith is the author of the bestseller Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History (Eamon Dolan Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)—a newly published work of non-fiction. His previous books include Outside Shot: Big Dreams, Hard Times and One County’s Quest for Basketball Greatness (2013) and Catching the Sky (2016), co-authored with extreme sports star Colten Moore. A recipient of the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism and finalist for the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sportswriting, O’Brien is a former reporter for the Boston Globe and a frequent contributor to National Public Radio. He makes his home in New Hampshire.

Praise for Fly Girls:

“O’Brien details in crisp and engaging writing how his subjects came to love aviation, along with their struggles and victories with flying, the rampant sexism they experienced, and the hard choices they faced regarding work and family. Highly recommended for readers with an interest in aviation history, women’s history, cultural history, and 20th-century history.”—Library Journal, STARRED review

“Journalist O’Brien tells the exciting story of aviators who, though they did not break the aviation industry’s glass ceiling, put a large crack in it….This fast-paced, meticulously researched history will appeal to a wide audience both as an entertaining tale of bravery and as an insightful look at early aviation.”—Publishers Weekly

“A vivid, suspenseful story of women determined to defy gravity—and men—to fulfill their lofty dreams.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Air races captivated the nation during the golden age of aviation in the 1920s and 1930s, and few participants drew more attention than the female pilots who challenged the male-dominated field. O’Brien focuses on five of those women…The narrative flows easily….as O’Brien shifts between them, showing their competitive spirit and camaraderie even in the face of the trying circumstances of the first Women’s Air Derby in 1929.”—Booklist

From the publisher:

The untold story of five women who fought to compete against men in the high-stakes national air races of the 1920s and 1930s — and won

Between the world wars, no sport was more popular, or more dangerous, than airplane racing. Thousands of fans flocked to multi‑day events, and cities vied with one another to host them. The pilots themselves were hailed as dashing heroes who cheerfully stared death in the face. Well, the men were hailed. Female pilots were more often ridiculed than praised for what the press portrayed as silly efforts to horn in on a manly, and deadly, pursuit. Fly Girls recounts how a cadre of women banded together to break the original glass ceiling: the entrenched prejudice that conspired to keep them out of the sky.

O’Brien weaves together the stories of five remarkable women: Florence Klingensmith, a high‑school dropout who worked for a dry cleaner in Fargo, North Dakota; Ruth Elder, an Alabama divorcee; Amelia Earhart, the most famous, but not necessarily the most skilled; Ruth Nichols, who chafed at the constraints of her blue‑blood family’s expectations; and Louise Thaden, the mother of two young kids who got her start selling coal in Wichita. Together, they fought for the chance to race against the men — and in 1936 one of them would triumph in the toughest race of all.

Like Hidden Figures and Girls of Atomic CityFly Girls celebrates a little-known slice of history in which tenacious, trail-blazing women braved all obstacles to achieve greatness.

Fly Girls

Now, Keith O’Brien reveals the origins of his new book …

John Valeri: What inspired you to explore the topic of women’s aviation for Fly Girls – and how do you feel that your book adds to the “hidden history” motif that has become popular in recent years?

Keith O’Brien: All history is hidden until it is told. So I’m not sure this motif is any different today than it was in the past. Seabiscuit was a hidden story, until Laura Hillenbrand wrote it. The Boys in the Boat was a hidden story too, until Daniel James Brown wrote it. I was drawn to this story for the same reasons why they were likely drawn to theirs: these characters had been forgotten, they were likable and compelling, they faced impossible odds, and then triumphed in the end. I stumbled onto the idea by accident. But once I started digging into it, spending long hours in old newspaper microfilm at the library, I just knew there was something here – a story that needed to be told.

JV: In addition to popular figures like Amelia Earhart, you tell the stories of lesser known women pilots. How did you go about choosing which figures to include – and was there one story that you found particularly compelling? If so, why?

KO: Storytelling is always about choices – what to include and what to leave out. And there were certainly lots of colorful characters, male and female, on American airfields in the 1920s and ‘30s. As I writer, I loved so many of them. But this is where you need to know your story, know your narrative. Once I knew that, I knew which characters to include. Organically, they just belonged – because they were friends or rivals, because they were interacting with one another, because they were driving the story. Lots of women flew airplanes between 1927 and 1937 – the decade when Fly Girls takes place. But I was looking to tell one specific story – about women fighting for the right to fly and race airplanes. If I wanted to do that, these five characters had to be at the heart of the narrative. Each of them is important.

JV: These stories resonate, given the gender bias that still exists today. Can you talk a bit about the challenges these women faced in the pursuit of their passion, and how their experiences are relevant to our consideration of male/female “roles”?

KO: These women faced adversity at every turn – cultural norms, societal expectations, blatant discrimination and sexism, and even banishment. At the turning point in this story, air race officials would ban the woman from flying, from racing, and the air race officials didn’t even try to hide their motivations. They publicly stated that women didn’t belong. And still, these women kept flying, kept going. They refused to quit. Sadly, that’s a story that is all too relevant today. Women are still fighting expectations about what they can and cannot do.

JV: You are a veteran journalist. In what ways did that lineage benefit the research and writing of this book – and what did you find to be the most liberating and challenging aspects of writing a full-length non-fiction piece?

KO: This is my third non-fiction book. In 2013, I wrote a book chronicling one year in Kentucky high school basketball called Outside Shot: Big Dreams, Hard Times and One County’s Quest for Basketball Greatness. And in 2016, I co-authored extreme sports star Colten Moore’s memoir about his brother’s death. That was called Catching the Sky. So I’ve done this before. The important thing with a 100,000-word story is staying organized and knowing your narrative. I don’t outline my books in any traditional way. But I absolutely know where I’m going – what I need to tell a story and what I don’t. And then I go get what I need, pursuing the story like any journalist would.

JV: In your opinion, what is the role of the bookstore within its community – and how can/do author events enhance the reader/writer/bookseller relationship?

KO: A local bookstore, to me, is everything. It’s a gathering place. A place to go for inspiration. A place to go with your children. And speaking now strictly as a reader, I know that I always love attending author events at a bookstore. It’s a way to stay connected and a way to learn. There’s nothing better than sitting in a bookstore, surrounded by a crowd of strangers, listening to an author tell his or her story. I’ve met some of my literary heroes at such events. And the cool thing is, my kids have too. They love going to a bookstore to see an author they know.

JV: Leave us with a teaser: What comes next?

KO: I’m not sure, exactly. With Fly Girls finished now and on the bookshelves, I’m looking forward to doing some work again this fall for National Public Radio. I just love that medium for telling stories. But I’ve also got a few new book ideas rattling around in my head. These ideas are just that right now – ideas that need shaping, need forming. But I’m excited to dig into them.


With thanks to Keith O’Brien for his generosity of time and thought and to Amy K.S. Sterndale, Founder of Sterndale Strategic, LLC, for facilitating this interview.

Don’t forget: The author will appear at Mystic’s Bank Square Books next Thursday evening, August 23, at 6:30 p.m.


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