I’m chatting this week with the acclaimed author of more than 20 books for children, Candace Fleming. Fleming writes picture books, novels and biographies for children and teens. Her meticulously researched title Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart (Schwartz & Wade), is a compelling read and has been met with a host of starred reviews.
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The New York Times wrote that in this book you peel away the myths surrounding Earhart’s life, "giving readers the accuracy they deserve." How important was it to you to do this?
I didn't intentionally set out to strip Amelia of myth. I simply set out to write about the actual person—her accomplishments, her motives, her strengths, her flaws. And in the process of uncovering the human being, the myths just naturally fell away. That's a good thing. After all, the importance of biography is to learn about people just like us, imperfect people who overcome all sorts of obstacles to accomplish great things. Amelia Earhart was imperfect. That's what makes hers such a complex and compelling story.
Tell me about your research.
All good research begins with primary sources, and in the case of Amelia Lost, that research led not only to a deeper understanding of her life, but to the story of the dramatic, suspenseful tale of the 17-day search for her downed plane. And believe it or not, it’s never before been told in a book for young readers! Yes, a few of the historical pieces have been used in the past to support various theories about her disappearance. But the entire picture—scattered and dispersed among dozens of archival files and private collections—was harder to decipher. Luckily, Ric Gillespie and the smart people at TIGHAR helped guide me through the historical record, providing me with a day-to-day—in some cases, minute-by-minute—account of what really happened. That account can be found in my book.
What most surprised you about Amelia?
That Amelia was…well…sort of a fibber. Take, for example, the often-repeated story of the flier’s first glimpse of an airplane. According to Earhart, this happened at the Iowa State Fair in 1908 when she was just 11 years old. “It was a thing of wire and wood,” she wrote in her memoir, The Fun of It. “I was much more interested in an absurd hat made of an inverted peach basket which I purchased for fifteen cents.” It’s a sweet story, but placed in the context of aviation history, it can’t possibly be true.
Or take that popular anecdote about Fred Noonan and the around-the-world trip. According to Amelia, Fred was confined to the navigator’s station in the rear cabin and could communicate with her only in notes passed forward over the fuel tanks by means of a bamboo fishing pole. True? Absolutely not. In fact, Fred spent much of his time in the cockpit with Amelia, clambering over the fuel tanks in the rear cabin only when he needed room to spread out a chart. At first, I was frustrated by these (and so many more) fabrications. I started to think I should retitle the book, Flyer, Flyer Pants on Fire. But then I began to see her fibs as a challenge—a challenge to finding the real Amelia behind the public persona and discovering the events that led to her disappearance.
The Kirkus review wrote that your shifting narratives in the book (from the days leading up to her disappearance over to the facts of her childhood and beyond) "could have been maddening, for suspense reasons alone, but a rhythm is established and the two plotlines gracefully fold into the conclusion." I was also impressed by this. How hard was that to pull off?
It wasn’t too difficult to write, at least structurally, because the two pieces felt like separate stories—one with Amelia as the main character; the other with the searchers as the main characters. The tricky part was knitting those two pieces together, finding a suspenseful or natural break in one, creating a graceful lead into the next.
What would you want readers to take away from Amelia's life, after reading this biography?
That Amelia Earhart is just like them, an ordinary person who did extraordinary things.
What's next for you?
I have a YA novel coming fall 2012 from Schwartz-Wade, called On The Day I Died, as well as a picture book, illustrated by the amazing (and so handsome) Eric Rohmann, called Oh, No!, also published by Schwartz-Wade, in fall 2012. And I'm working on a new nonfiction book about the First Amendment. It's history, knitted with the story of three teenagers who took their freedom of speech case all the way to the Supreme Court—and won!