Back in February, I published a review of “The Final Salute” by Kathleen Rodgers. Now it is my honor and pleasure to share with you a really great interview I have conducted with the author herself. Enjoy learning more about Kathleen Rodgers and please check out “The Final Salute.”
1) What is the earliest piece of writing you remember doing? Why did it stay with you?
I wrote a short mystery in seventh grade. I don’t remember the characters or much about the story, but I recall it had three main elements: a trap door, a basement, and skeletons. Looking back, I realize that story was probably my first stab at fiction. Why does it stay with me all these years? That’s the first time I can recall transferring a story in my head onto paper. Of course it was scribbled in sloppy cursive into a spiral notebook. Even then, I don’t think I stayed within the lines. Pretty risky stuff for a shy seventh grader.
2) Who most encouraged your writing?
The first person who comes to mind is Bill Kopf, my high school newspaper advisor. Mr. Kopf let me write about Big Foot and UFOs instead of school news. He also encouraged me to enter a statewide writing contest where I won first place for “Strange Blobs of Light Whiz Through the Night,” an article about UFOs. My first real boss was Bill Southard, the managing editor of the Clovis News Journal. Bill gave me my first professional break when I was nineteen. He hired me to write first birthdays, obits and headlines. Within a week I was writing front page feature stories.
My aunt, Kay Lamb, also a writer, gave me my first subscription to Writers Digest when I was a senior in high school. My parents, though divorced, pooled their resources and bought me my first typewriter when I was seventeen – a portable turquoise manual I carried everywhere. Then there’s my longtime writing mentor and friend, Parris Afton Bonds, a New York Times bestselling author. I met Parris in 1984, and she has stayed steadfast in her belief in my work. My husband, Tom, is a huge source of support. He pushes me to get my work done. And last but not least, my READERS. They’ve become some of my biggest cheerleaders.
3) What inspired “The Final Salute?”
Two things: a) Fighter pilots dying in peacetime training missions. b) How the brass cover up sex scandals in the military.
The story is based on the years I spent as a military wife married to an Air Force fighter pilot. I was twenty-one years old when I married into the world of military aviation. A world I thought was full of parties at the Officer’s Club, the roar of jet engines, and a place where my husband and the other pilots lived on the edge of the envelope at a speed faster than the rest of us.
Early in my marriage, I learned about the other side of military aviation. The side that nobody likes to talk about when a plane goes down. When a hush goes over a squadron of men like a black pall because earth and sky have collided and one of their brothers isn’t coming home. In one year alone, my husband and I lost eleven friends in air mishaps. And this was during peacetime. But the crashes kept coming, and the death toll rose. We toasted the dead and partied on.
I learned to accept two things about my husband’s career choice: His job could kill him, and he loved every minute of it. When I started writing the novel twenty years ago, my main goal was to give a voice to the men who perished flying for their country and the women and children they left behind.
4) Do you typically base your characters on specific people or are they composites… or are they completely created out of thin air?
My characters are composites of other people. I like to think of my fiction as a combination of real life and make-believe. When mixed together, you have a rich and satisfying gumbo. At least that’s my goal as a novelist.
5) What is your writing process like?
I whine a lot. Then I realize how lucky I am. A writing instructor at SMU reminded me recently that writing fiction is a privilege that so many people in the world don’t get to indulge in. Even when I’m writing a first draft, I’m constantly revising. I write longhand on legal pads, in journals, on post –it- notes, in the margins of the church bulletin and on the computer. The writing life is a messy life, but it’s the only life I know.
Many years ago I was contracted to write a story about ADHD for Family Circle. The 2500 word piece was puzzled together using sticky notes, napkins, scraps of paper, index cards. In a photo my husband snapped of me at work, I’m seated on the living room floor with all those notes fanned out in front of me. There’s nothing linear about my process, but with the magic of computers, I can put it all together into some semblance of order.
Since “The Final Salute” was written on speculation, I had to impose my own deadlines, and I had to keep telling the ugly voices in my head to shut up. One voice kept asking, “Who are you to tell a story about fighter pilots? You’re a woman. You’re not even a pilot.” I learned to trust my storytelling abilities and my life experiences, and that combination gave me the authority I needed to complete the novel and put it through numerous revisions.
6) The military experience is clearly deep within your psyche being both a child of and wife of military men. Did the desire to tell these people’s stories inspire you to become a writer or is it more a case of “writing what you know?”
All of the above. Growing up in a family of six kids in Clovis, New Mexico, home of Cannon Air Force Base and the Santa Fe Railroad, I spent countless hours in a rocking chair, daydreaming about what it would be like to be someone else. Little did I know then that I was simply creating stories in my head. Then one day in junior high I learned that I could write them down.
7) What writers inspired you as a child? What writers inspire you now?
I wasn’t a big reader as a child, but the book – or series – that got my attention was “The Boxcar Children.” My oldest sister and I used to act out the stories in our backyard, taking turns being each of the characters. Then imagine my delight as a young writer to learn that I’m a descendant of Samuel Langhorne Clemens on my Grandmother Virgie Clemens side. I’ve been trying to channel him for years.
Although I was born and raised in New Mexico, I’ve always been drawn to southern writers. When I was young and trying to find my own voice, I practically worshipped at the feet of Pat Conroy. My favorite African-American author is Ernest J. Gaines. I’ve read “A Lesson Before Dying,” “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” and “A Gathering of Old Men” at least twice. Mark Childress’ novel “Crazy In Alabama,” taught me that a good story could have a reader laughing and crying at the same time. That’s what I tried to do in “The Final Salute.” I tried to balance the serious stuff with lots of dark humor.
Two of my favorite female novelists are the late Carol Shields and Irish novelist Maeve Binchy. Both have a gift for turning the ordinary family situation into the dramatic without it coming across like a soap opera. That’s my goal, too.
8) The writing experience is a complex mix of reward and frustration. Many writers – yours truly included – harbor both feelings of sometimes wanting to put it all away and never write another word mixed with a deep calling to tell the stories within them whether anybody reads it or likes it. What has your experience been like?
My biggest culprit is self-doubt, but luckily I also have this thing about follow-through and finishing what you start. At one point, I took a break from writing for five years. I went back to college, got a dog, worked as a nanny and tried to walk away from the writing life. But it was there, lurking over my shoulder. It called to me. And I listened. And I came back even stronger.
9) What can you tell us about your next project?
My new novel is about a woman named Johnnie Kitchen, a closet writer whose mama has been missing from Portion, Texas, for twenty-three years. After “The Final Salute” came out in late 2008, I thought I was done exploring the military in my fiction. Then my youngest son joined the Army. Let’s just say it’s had an impact on my work. I hope to complete the new novel by the end of this year. Then I’ll start the task of trying to land a new agent. My goal is to find a major publishing house, but the industry is changing so rapidly. One way or another “Johnnie Come Lately” will find an audience.
10) How would you characterize your own writing?
Whether I’m writing a nonfiction piece for a magazine or newspaper or working on a novel or short story, I write to get to the truth. I try to create an emotional impact that will draw my reader in. My former editor at Family Circle Magazine once told me, “Your strength as a writer is your storytelling ability.” This is around the same time that I pulled back on my freelance work and tried to concentrate on the manuscript that would grow up to become “The Final Salute.”
11) Is there anything else you would like to share with my readers?
If you have a dream, go out there and chase it. God gave me a teaspoon of talent and a jug of determination. When mixed together, I milk it for all it’s worth.
“The Final Salute” is ranked #1 on Amazon’s Top Rated War Fiction based on customer reviews – 2012. Ranked #2 on Amazon’s best selling Military Aviation – 2010. Stories about Kathleen Rodgers’ novel have appeared in The Associated Press, USA Today, Military Times, Family magazine, Mobile Press-Register, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and several other publications. In 2009, Army Wife Network selected The Final Salute for their July book club, and that same year the author won a Silver Medal for fiction from Military Writers Society of America (MWSA).