‘There is nothing so dangerous as a headstrong girl who knows her own mind,’ said Mary Yellan, the fearless heroine of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. The same can be applied to Della Dobbs, the protagonist of The Wild Air, the latest novel by Rebecca Mascull. Female pilots from the early days of flying are experiencing a renaissance (in the literary world), and having read a few books based on real life pilots and works of fiction it takes a book to stand out. Although Mascull has drawn on the inspiration of aviatrixes such as Lillian Bland and Beryl Markham, the creation of Della Dobbs is entirely her own.
Set during the Edwardian era, Della Dobbs does not fit the mould of femininity, she likes to ride her bicycle and fix it herself. She’s also a loner, and she channels her love of machinery and engineering (as in the cycle) into the latest craze: aeroplanes. When her widowed great-aunt returns from America, Della is intrigued by this outspoken woman of whom her father disapproves. She realises that a life, quite unlike her mother’s burden of housework and childbirth, awaits her. Against the odds, and with her great-aunt’s encouragement, she learns to fly and falls in with a group of male pilots, much to the fury of her father. But Della fights against his, and society’s, prejudice to fulfil her dream. World War One interrupts Della’s fledgling career and her husband goes to France, but when he is reporting missing she takes to the skies to rescue him. This subplot of the novel, in the adventures of Della from shy girl to brave aviatrix, is an example of Mascull’s writing and the marriage of her characters and their vocations – she did a similar thing with Song of the Sea Maid but I won’t spoil it for you by revealing the plot. The character development of Della is almost biopic, as though she were a real historical figure. It is a brave novel which piques the curiosity of the reader, but it is also a reminder of how far women have come.
How much did Lillian Bland and other female aviators inspire your character?
The real lives of these early aviatrixes inspired me – and Della Dobbs – hugely. Their exploits were quite astounding. They fought against prejudice and expectations and forged a path for themselves in a male-dominated, dangerous pursuit. In the pre-WW1 days they were engaged in all the same challenges as their male counterparts, such as aerobatic flying and cross-channel flights. Some, like Hilda Hewlett, had their own aeroplane manufacturing companies. Melli Beese, a German aviatrix who appears in the novel, was an aircraft designer, as well as a great pilot. Katherine Stinson toured the Far East with her plane. They were fearless and determined. I admire them enormously!
You mentioned, last year, that you flew in a small aeroplane to get a sense of your character. How important is primary research to you?
It’s become more important the more I write, actually. I used to think you could imagine it all (and I think to a certain extent you still can) but I realised that if you can do primary research, you certainly should. I found the brilliant pilot Rob Millinship through the Shuttleworth Collection in Bedfordshire and he was incredibly helpful with my research. When we first met, he said very soon into our conversation that he would take me flying in a light aircraft, at which I immediately baulked and said, Oh well, maybe, having no intention of really doing it! I was too afraid! He said that really I had no business writing about flying if I wasn’t going to do it. I thought, I can use research and my imagination – it’ll be ok. He asked me several times and I kept putting him off. Then one day I suddenly thought, Oh blimey, stuff it. I’m gonna do it! And I did. I can honestly say it changed my life. And it made for a much, better, truer book. He was absolutely right, too. I had no business writing about such an extraordinary thing as light aircraft flight if I hadn’t experienced it myself.
How do you choose your subjects and what inspires you?
It’s all delightfully random. I’ll see something that grabs my interest, just catches my attention, a chance encounter, something on Radio 4 or on TV. It’ll present me with a situation, often a What if? kind of thing. With my first novel, it was the idea of how on earth it would feel inside your mind if you were both deaf and blind and you had no way to communicate. With my second, it was what would happen if you had a brilliant scientific idea but nobody was interested in listening to you? And with this one, it was the obsession with flight in those incredibly dangerous early days – what would make anyone want to go up in a kite with an engine, with no seatbelt, no parachute, no safety whatsoever – why would anyone want to risk it, let alone an Edwardian woman? It just grabbed me! Then, once I start doing a bit of research, I’m hooked and I won’t rest till the story is told.
Can you tell The Mitford Society about your writing process?
I start with a notebook and fill that with thoughts about the story. Once that’s finished, I know I’m ready to start the research. I read a heck of a lot, watch documentaries and movies, visit key locations (whenever possible) and engage in other primary research, such as flying! Or visiting a hop field and running my fingers along the bines so I know what they feel like, for example. Then I write a detailed synopsis (yes, I’m one of those curious creatures who actually enjoys writing synopses!) and a chapter plan. I then work from this as I’m writing the chapters. The story always evolves beyond the planning as I’m going along, but I like to have it there as a foundation. This is my process for an historical novel, anyhow. I’m thinking of maybe writing something totally different next and I might alter my method for that. I might just write and see what happens! I fancy a change.
The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull is published by Hodder and Stoughton.