Flygirl: An Interview with YA Author Sherri L. Smith

Cat 243 Dover by Mary Jo

(Starting with a brief personal note: my third Lost Lords book, Nowhere Near Respectable,is being released tomorrow, April 26th.  More about the book in a couple of weeks.)

But the big news is that today, much honored young adult writer Sherri L. Smith is visiting the Word Wenches.  Though I’m a neophyte young adult writer, I’ve been reading YAs for years, and one of the best, the very best, that I’ve read is Sherri’s  Flygirl

Sherri'sHeadshots016 In Flygirl, young Ida Mae Jones is a gifted pilot, though she hasn’t a license since a white flight instructor won’t pass a colored girl in 1940 Louisiana no matter how well she can fly. 

Then WWII begins.  Ida Mae’s older brother leaves medical school and goes off to war, and there is a desperate need for pilots—so much so that the army creates a group called the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots to ferry aircraft and free male pilots for combat.

 Ida Mae has the skills and the passion for flying as well as a fierce desire to do anything she can to help the war effort and bring her brother home safely.  She is also light-skinned enough to pass for white.

Flygirl_CATALOG So Ida Mae joins the WASP and serves her country—but at what price to her identity and soul? 

Flygirl is a novel that works on all levels: it’s beautifully written, thoroughly entertaining, it takes me to new worlds, and deals with serious issues in a thoughtful and moving way.  And I’m not the only one to feel that way: Flygirl has won masses of awards and recognition, including listings as one of the best YA novels of 2010 from the American Library Association, the Washington Post, the Chicago Public Library, and more.  I’m honored to welcome Sherri L. Smith to the Word Wenches today. 


 Getting Started:

MJP: Sherri, could you describe your writer’s journey?  Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer?  Why did you choose YA?

SLS:  I’ve written since I was in grade school—it seemed like a natural progression from being an avid reader to trying my hand at writing.  That said, it took me years to actually pursue writing professionally.  I skirted around it, fumbling my way through short stories and half-baked novel chunks into my twenties. 

060807-F-1234P-003 Then, some time in the late 90s, a friend gave me The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and reading it made me realize I wanted to write novels.  A trip to the library brought home my love for the books I read as a kid and a teen.  I have a deep fondness for the books that got me through elementary and high school, so the choice was almost made for me.

MJP: You’ve worked in the movie industry.  Did that contribute to your writer’s toolbox?

SLS:   Absolutely.  I went to college for Film and Broadcast Journalism, and took some creative writing classes along the way, so I have a grasp of several different writing forms.  My work is very filmic, in that I rely on a three-act structure and visual imagery. 

When I hit the working world, I did a stint at Disney in TV Animation.  My job was to come up with stories, so I learned a lot about structure and story arcs.  That was invaluable.  It also taught me to outline stories start to finish—an incredibly helpful tip for anyone who has a thousand half-written pieces lying around.  Learning to map out my ideas helped me reach the finish line.

Shirley Slade, WASP trainee Why WASP?

MJP:  It’s an embarrassing cliché to ask where a writer gets her ideas, but nonetheless <g>…what was your inspiration for writing about the WASP?

SLS:  It’s not embarrassing, because every book comes from somewhere different.  I guess if we all had a magic frog that fed us ideas, then it would be a cliché:  My idea frog, of course.  Flygirl came about after hearing a Radio Diaries piece on the WASP on my local NPR station.  It was a gripping 20-some-odd minutes of audio that drew me in completely.  Then the idea frog in my brain hopped around and stirred up some other thoughts that came together to create Ida Mae Jones and the rest of the book.

MJP:  My YA series also involves WWII, and it’s a fascinating period.  How did you research the wonderfully convincing details and atmosphere?

SLS:  Oh, so much research!  I’m sure you know what I mean.  I listened to audio 081229-F-1234P-004 tapes on the Library of Congress website, man on the street interviews taken after the day Pearl Harbor was bombed.  It gave me such a sense of how the world felt at the time. 

I talked to my mom and other people who grew up during that period.  I watched movies , and read books set in the time period, nonfiction and fiction alike.  Documentary films, reference books.  There’s a great series of research books from Writer’s Digest called  The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life that covers all these different time periods. 

I used a Prohibition through World War II book by Marc McCutcheon.  It lists everything from slang to clothing styles, popular music and news of the day, celebrities, and just about any little item you can think of.  That really helped to get the details right.  I wish there were more of those books!

WASP pilot Elizabeth L. Gardner MJP: World War II changed society as a whole and the lives of the people who lived through it.  Ida Mae is no exception.  What do you think her future holds?  And do you think there’s hope for that hint of romance in the story?

 SLS:  It’s an interesting question.  While the war opened up so many doors for women, a lot of those doors slammed shut again the minute the war was over.  Ida would not be allowed to be a pilot again, regardless of her race, unless she wanted to move to Alaska and try her hand as a bush pilot (which some WASP did do after the war).  At best, she could hope to be a stewardess when the commercial airlines got up and running. 

But she’s a determined woman, so I’m pretty sure she’d find a way to keep flying.  The war didn’t stop her, after all.  So nothing else will either. 

081229-F-1234P-005 As far as the romance with Walt… again, the world was against it.  If Walt accepted her for who she was, there were a handful of states that would allow it, although anti-miscegenation laws weren’t repealed nationally until 1967.  And even if the law allowed it, that didn’t mean it was accepted by society at large.  I guess it all comes down to what kind of man Walt is.  Hmm. 

It makes me nervous, like I’m waiting for his response, too.  As long as we’re waiting for the mail, there’s hope.  And as long as it’s Ida Mae, I feel positive she’ll have a great life.

MJP:  I’m sure she will, too, and I have hopes for Walt. <G>  Could you give us an idea of what you’re working on now?

SLS:  I’m working on several projects right now.  The main one is Orleans, a speculative novel set in a near future in which the Delta coast is quarantined from the rest of the country after a series of man-made and natural disasters.  The surviving population in New Orleans has gone tribal, and the story follows a teenaged girl trying to save the life of a newborn baby. 

I’m very excited about this book—it’s my first speculative piece, and I’m passionate about New Orleans, which was my mom’s home town.  Aside from Orleans, I’ve been exploring writing mysteries (!), and starting the groundwork for what I hope will be a graphic novel, to boot. 

On top of the writing, I’m also heavily involved with Hedgebrook, a wonderful writers retreat for women up in Washington State.  Hedgebrook hosts writers in six cottages on a gorgeous organic farm—they feed you, body and soul, and in exchange, you write!  Was there ever a better bargain struck? 

I’m part of the Alumnae Leadership Council here in Los Angeles, and we’re sponsoring some terrific creative development workshops in April, as well as a some fundraisers throughout the year to raise awareness and support for this fantastic nonprofit group.  If anyone’s interested in learning more (seriously, if you are a woman and a writer, there’s nothing better), you can check it out at

MJP:  Obviously, you are living a live as full and rich as Ida Mae’s!  Thanks so much for visiting, Sherri.

Sherri has graciously agreed to send a copy of Flygirl to someone who leaves a comment on the blog between now and Tuesday midnight. 

Barack Obama--WASP Gold Medal bill As for you all—had you ever heard of the WASP?  Did you know of them and have dreams of flying with such brave women like Ida Mae?  (The British had a similar outfit.)  And what are your thoughts on how World War II changed our world?

The photo above shows President Barack Obama signing into law a long overdue Congressional Gold Medal to the WASP, and all the brave women who served in it.

Mary Jo