Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Interview with Tom Miller, author of The Philosopher's Flight

Please welcome Tom Miller to The Qwillery as part of the 2018 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Philosopher's Flight is published on February 13th by Simon & Schuster.

TQWelcome to The Qwillery. What is the first fiction piece you remember writing?

Tom:  A Star Wars sequel, when I was in sixth grade, inspired by Timothy Zahn's trilogy. It followed a starfighter designer for Sienar Fleet Systems (which builds the TIE fighter), who is a rebel sympathizer and covertly joins the New Republic Navy, only to be outed and have both sides turn on him. I still have about 200 pages worth of starship and character designs which I made over several years based on the old West End Games D6 Star Wars role-playing game.

TQAre you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?

Tom:  Pantser-Hybrid. I write by the seat of my pants on the first draft, though with a few pre-planned plot points-- a man swimming for his life needs a rock in the distance to aim for. As I revise, I become much stricter about plot; I have a ton of spreadsheets and timelines for boring but essential stuff (In what year were my various different fictional forms of technology and magic developed? When was my protagonist's mother born? What names have I already used for minor supporting characters?).

TQWhat is the most challenging thing for you about writing?

Tom:  Starting.

TQWhat has influenced / influences your writing? How does being an ER doctor prepare you for writing a novel?

Tom:  I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy, so I look at my own book and say, "Well, that's a subconscious borrowing from Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, that structure echoes Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy, that's similar to season 1 of X-Men: The Animated Series," though I don't take it for granted that anyone who's familiar with those works would necessarily agree. Chuck Yeager's autobiography, which I read as a kid, as well as accounts of the astronauts and early space program, shaped my protagonist, Robert. Probably the most direct influence was Susanna Clarke's fantasy alternate history Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which I read while I was in grad school, messing around with the idea of fake folk tales. I wanted to write something like it that was set in America.

As an ER doctor, I meet people from every walk of life and get to witness how they react under extreme stress (both my patients and colleagues-- and me); it's hard to imagine a better milieu for a writer. A large amount of medicine, historically and even today, is based on the notion of empirical treatment-- we don't always know why or how a medication or technique works, but we've observed its effect over and over. And every ER doctor has to be a good storyteller: we weave the patient's account of their illness together with physical exam findings, lab tests, imaging and medical knowledge to fashion a story that's succinct and compelling enough that when I call an otolaryngologist at home at three in the morning and ask her to get out of bed and drive to the hospital through a Wisconsin snowstorm, she says, "I agree it sounds like a Ludwig's angina" and not, "Go to hell, we'll see him in the morning."

TQDescribe The Philosopher's Flight in 140 characters or less.

Tom:  In a WWI America where women are best at magic, a boy who wants to join the witch-army meets a girl war-hero trying to break into politics.

TQTell us something about The Philosopher's Flight that is not found in the book description.

Tom:  One of my better lines is a parody of a Secret deodorant ad.

TQWhat inspired you to write The Philosopher's Flight? What appeals to you about writing Historical Fantasy?

Tom:  One of my first jobs out of college was as a travel writer. I was on a solo five-day hike in a remote part of New Zealand in 2004 and invented a world and characters to entertain myself. It was compelling enough idea that I tried twice to use it to write a novel using that world set in the present day, but it just didn't work. While I was in grad school, I wrote a couple of short stories set there, which took place during the Civil War and at the turn of the 20th Century. Those worked a lot better.

There was something helpful about the longer chronological distance. Part of it has to do with the mindset necessary to read historical fiction-- you're already expecting a strange, counter-factual world. If, in order to send a message to a friend who lives on the other side of the country, my protagonist rode a horse into town, spoke to a technician specially trained in an arcane code of dots and dashes, who then used a system of copper wires to transmit a message thousands of miles in a second, which was decoded by a second technician, transcribed onto paper and given to a boy with a bicycle and a funny hat to deliver, you're already imagining a fantasy world as strange and complicated as any I can invent-- it just happens to be true. Likewise, that distance is useful for writing about social issues, since we come to historical fiction expecting to encounter values, assumptions and ethics that are different than our own.

TQWhat sort of research did you do for The Philosopher's Flight?

Tom:  Some of the more helpful books I read were an account of the construction of the trans-continental railroad, Robert Graves's WWI-era autobiography Good-bye to All That, John Dos Passos's letters from his time as an ambulance driver in France, and several collections of diary entries and essays from the American suffrage movement. I've also had an interest in military history and aviation for many years, which has filtered into the flying scenes and world building.

TQPlease tell us about the cover for The Philosopher's Flight.

Tom:  We wanted the cover to suggest the time period (1917), magic, the importance of flying to the story, and the central role that gender politics plays. The floral scrollwork has a Beaux Arts look appropriate to Great War America; the sun doubles as an arcane-looking sigil; the stylized figures are flying in a posture and relatively outfit accurate to the story; and the young woman with the pony tail and raised fist suggests the fight for equal rights (as well as good aerodynamics). The last image was so striking that Simon & Schuster used it in place of their usual colophon-- the publisher's imprint on the title page. I'm told that honor was last given to a silhouette of Bruce Springsteen in his autobiography Born to Run.

TQIn The Philosopher's Flight who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?

Tom:  Robert's hard-bitten flight instructor at Radcliffe College, Gertrude, was easy-- I simply imagined the drill instructor from Full-Metal Jacket, made him a grandmother, and required all of her profanity to contain phrases that had never before been uttered. Robert was the hardest; the first 80% of his voice was easy, but the last 20% took me several years (and many revisions) to get right. He went from a comic, fish-out-of-water, aw-shucks country boy, to an affable Forrest-Gump-like character who happened to encounter many of the leading figures of the age, to an overly technical test-pilot/flier, before ending up as a young man with an impossible dream. Trying to balance Robert's more traditional, John Wayne ideas of masculinity (a man ought to be good with his fists, shoot well, protect the fairer sex) with his fairly progressive view of the role of women (he's been raised with the notion that an upwardly mobile, middle-class, frequently single-parent female workforce is normal, as are women in leadership positions in the military) also posed a challenge.

TQWhy have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in The Philosopher's Flight?

Tom:  For the simple reason that the harder I pushed at the idea of defying traditional gender roles, the more interesting the story became. As I made the opposition to Robert joining an exclusively female group louder and crueler, I came to understand his character better. Likewise, as Danielle's efforts at entering the political arena are met with increasing misogyny and violence, I think we learn that even in a world where discrimination against a straight white male is real, a woman is going to have a much scarier fight trying to break into a traditionally male career.

TQWhich question about The Philosopher's Flight do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!


Do you really expect us to believe that all these in-world famous people knew each other as teenagers?

Yes! Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones were freshman roommates at Harvard. Also, baseball superstar Ted Williams was future astronaut John Glenn's wingman when they flew combat missions in the Korean War.

TQGive us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from The Philosopher's Flight.

Tom:  From the preface, as the protagonist explains magic:

"And what is empirical philosophy—what is sigilry—except a branch of science that we don’t yet fully understand?"

From Chapter 21, as Robert meets his future mentor, Gertrude:

"“Well, this is a sorry state of affairs,” she drawled. “Out of this entire aerodrome, only two hoverers have dared mewl the phrase ‘Rescue and Evacuation’ in connection with their own names. One has fewer flight hours than any of my great-grandchildren and the other has a phallus.”

TQWhat's next?

Tom:  The sequel. I'm trying to wrap up revisions in the next few months. Making themes of wartime aeromedical evacuation, weapons of mass destruction, and gender discrimination fun to read about (while respecting that these are serious topics) has been tough. We're hoping for a publication date in mid-2019.

TQThank you for joining us at The Qwillery.

Tom:  Any time!

The Philosopher's Flight
Simon & Schuster, February 13, 2018
Hardcover and eBook, 432 pages

A thrilling debut from ER doctor turned novelist Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight is an epic historical fantasy set in a World-War-I-era America where magic and science have blended into a single extraordinary art. “Like his characters, Tom Miller casts a spell.” (Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club and The Last Bookaneer)

Eighteen-year-old Robert Weekes is a practitioner of empirical philosophy—an arcane, female-dominated branch of science used to summon the wind, shape clouds of smoke, heal the injured, and even fly. Though he dreams of fighting in the Great War as the first male in the elite US Sigilry Corps Rescue and Evacuation Service—a team of flying medics—Robert is resigned to mixing batches of philosophical chemicals and keeping the books for the family business in rural Montana, where his mother, a former soldier and vigilante, aids the locals.

When a deadly accident puts his philosophical abilities to the test, Robert rises to the occasion and wins a scholarship to study at Radcliffe College, an all-women’s school. At Radcliffe, Robert hones his skills and strives to win the respect of his classmates, a host of formidable, unruly women.

Robert falls hard for Danielle Hardin, a disillusioned young war hero turned political radical. However, Danielle’s activism and Robert’s recklessness attract the attention of the same fanatical anti-philosophical group that Robert’s mother fought years before. With their lives in mounting danger, Robert and Danielle band together with a team of unlikely heroes to fight for Robert’s place among the next generation of empirical philosophers—and for philosophy’s very survival against the men who would destroy it.

In the tradition of Lev Grossman and Deborah Harkness, Tom Miller writes with unrivaled imagination, ambition, and humor. The Philosopher’s Flight is both a fantastical reimagining of American history and a beautifully composed coming-of-age tale for anyone who has ever felt like an outsider.

About Tom

Photo by Abigail Carlin
Tom Miller grew up in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. He graduated from Harvard University and went on to earn an MFA in creative writing from the University of Notre Dame and an MD from the University of Pittsburgh. While writing The Philosopher’s Flight, he worked as a travel guidebook writer, EMT, and college English instructor. He's now an emergency room doctor in Madison, Wisconsin. This is his first novel



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