Today we welcome Mark Berry.
Book ‘Em: Tell us about you and your life outside of writing.
Mark Berry: I’m an airline pilot with over thirty years in commercial aircraft. Back in 1996 I was a 29-year-old international first officer, engaged, and nine days from buying a house with my fiancée Susanne when she boarded one of my airline’s flights at New York’s JFK headed to Paris, France. TWA Flight 800 was a Boeing 747 with 230 passengers and crew onboard. During climbout over the south shore of Long Island, it exploded and came down in 876 pieces.
Book ‘Em: Which books have you written? What are they about and why did you choose to write them? Do your books have a message? Are they fiction or nonfiction?
Mark Berry: Ten years after Susanne’s death onboard my airline, my Dad and one of my closest friends challenged me to find a way to move forward in life, but they left it to me to decide how to do that. I chose writing, and created a survivor’s guilt novel out of my mixed-up feelings: Pushing Leaves Towards the Sun. Some days I felt like life was short and what did it matter? That philosophy became the inspiration for my co-protagonist Billy who quits school and goes to work in a bar—feeding only his basic needs like alcohol and casual sex—after his best friend dies in a motorcycle accident. Other days I spent trying to make sense out of the tragedy I’d experienced. That became the heart of my other protagonist Lindy, who decides to write and record a music album while exploring the limits of her grief. The lyrics to 12 original songs, that tapped my own inner feelings, are infused in the novel as Billy and Lindy take the high and low roads in the wake of their shared loss.The early readers of my novel unanimously said, “Great, now stop hiding behind fiction and tell your real story.” I didn’t want to write about an airline disaster, especially since I still flew for a living, and began a second novel. I took a Fiction & Poetry class at a local college, and halfway through the professor pushed me to write an essay about the night of TWA Flight 800 even though nonfiction wasn’t part of the curriculum. It was hard, and it opened a floodgate of sealed emotions. On a whim I sent it to the newspaper that I used to deliver on my bicycle as a kid. Greenwich Time not only published the recollection of my life’s worst night, but also syndicated it throughout the state. When I applied to creative writing grad schools, I included that article as proof that I’d been published. The Fairfield University Director called and offered me a slot in their low-residency program, for nonfiction. He wanted me to write a memoir based on that article. I told him I wanted to write a second novel, and that only celebrities and narcissists wrote memoirs. He replied, “No,” and explained that people with a story to tell write memoirs, and they would teach me how to do it. I made a compromise deal with him that I’d try nonfiction for one semester, and if I didn’t like it I could switch back to fiction for the remainder of the degree. He agreed, and then the first chapter I wrote for earned me a 9-page spread in Airways magazine. The Editor-in-Chief wanted to know what else I had for him, and I ended up sending chapter after chapter of 13,760 Feet—My Personal Hole in the Sky as my memoir developed. I’m now proudly listed as a Columnist in Airways magazine’s masthead.
Book ‘Em: Do you have a work in progress?
Mark Berry: I completed my second novel, but I lost my passion for fiction. I’d like to write someone else’s real story next, when I find one worth devoting a year or two to bring it to life. In the meantime I still pen the occasional essay. My most recent one is titled: “There Are No Binkys Allowed in Utah.” It describes how I ended up standing in front of the cockpit, in full uniform, holding a three-year-old’s gooey binky (pacifier) at the end of a flight into Salt Lake City.
Book ‘Em: What was the most difficult section/piece you ever wrote? What made it difficult?
Mark Berry: The opening chapter of my memoir 13,760 Feet—My Personal Hole in the Sky was the last, and most difficult, part of the entire book to write. Based on my intimate knowledge of Susanne and my inside knowledge of TWA, I described what I believe her final flight was like from her perspective. It’s speculative, but I still live nightmares about what she went through, and my brain has filled in what will never be known for sure. Here’s an excerpt:
But because first class, in the nosecone of the aircraft, broke off and didn’t remain with the rest of the now burning wings, fuselage, and tail, I can’t get this image of Susanne out of my head: she’s freefalling for what would have felt like a lifetime, lap-belted to her mostly-blue seat styled with a single narrow white and two wide red vertical stripes. She’s in pure panic while flopping about violently, gasping for breath from the sudden decompression, and deafened by the explosion and resulting wind noise—only to finally die with her eyes wide open when impacting the water at roughly triple highway speed in what would later became known as the yellow debris field.
My only consolation is that, without being able to turn around, she never saw behind her the giant hole where the rest of the aircraft should have been—an oblong oval opening to the tumbling sky, bordered by torn cables, shredded aluminum aircraft skin, sheared beams and spars, and accented with sparking severed wires. And I hope she couldn’t comprehend what was actually happening if she lived long enough to ride this nearly three mile high, free-falling hell-ivator all the way down to the ocean’s surface, and then sink to 140 feet below, where her body would wait to be recovered.
Book ‘Em: What sort of research do you do for your work?
Mark Berry: Since my memoir is from personal experience, I began with what I remembered. I did send segments to the people who I wrote about for them to review and comment. Often their recollections triggered even more of my own, and having my friends, fellow crewmembers, bosses, and acquaintances who’d experienced my story as early proofreaders was both helpful and fun as I reconnected.
Book ‘Em: Which books and authors do you read for pleasure? Is there an author that inspires you?
Mark Berry: I just finished the newest Lee Child novel The Midnight Line two days after it was released. I’ve read all 21 books with his protagonist Jack Reacher. I met Mr. Child at a book conference once. I collect photos with my favorite authors like some people collect sports memorabilia. This fall also briefly meet Nelson DeMille while he was in town promoting his latest novel The Cuban Affair. My secret literary hero is Jimmy Buffett. It’s a little-known fact that he’s one of only eight authors who have topped the New York Times Best Seller List for both fiction and nonfiction. Plus, he’s an amazing songwriter. Meeting him is still on my bucket list. I had to write about an author I’d lie to meet in order to get into creative writing grad school. The Director asked me, “Really, Jimmy Buffett?” That was until he read my reasoning. A few of the other names that keep Mr. Buffett company on that exclusive list of eight are Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Dr. Seuss,
Book ‘Em: Was there a person who encouraged you to write?
Mark Berry: As explained earlier, my Dad and my buddy Warren threw me the gauntlet of challenge to try to make sense of what I’d been through. Basically they staged an intervention and told me I was functional, successfully continuing my career, but they felt I was empty inside. The first writing I tried in response to their request turned into one of the companion songs I credit my protagonist Lindy with creating as part of her survivor’s guilt and grief exploration. Then I found musician Kim Smith on MySpace (shows how long ago this was) who wrote the music to go with my lyrics and brought the song to life. Here’s a sample of “From a Long Way Away:” http://marklberry.com/pushingleaves/from-a-long-way-away/
From a long way away Everything still looks OK I still go to work Well, almost everyday I put my tongue on the roof of my mouth It keeps me from saying what I have to say
I sail the seas With no wind at all I count the years With chalk on the wall I get around but have no place to be And you can’t see anything wrong Just by looking at me
From a long way away Everything still looks OK But the sun keeps setting In the middle of the day I put my tongue on the roof of my mouth It makes me look like I’m smiling Day after day Day after day
Book ‘Em: What would you say are your strengths as an author?
Mark Berry: My writing is unique because I infuse companion songs into my books. My novel has 12 and my memoir has 40. I wrote the lyrics and then teamed up with online indie musicians, so each song has its own flavor. If a producer ever wants to option the movie rights to my books, they have their own built-in soundtracks already. Readers can listen to all of the companion songs on my website anytime:
Book ‘Em: How often do you write, and do you write using a strict routine?
Mark Berry: I write everyday when I’m engrossed in a project. I completed NaNoWriMo once, so I know I can rev up my production to 50,000 words in a month if I need to. Other times I take a break and pursue other interests. Right now I’m an avid bike rider and I attend Crossfit almost every day. I still fly for a living too.
Book ‘Em: Five years from now, where do you see yourself as a writer?
Mark Berry: I’m waiting for a friend of mine to retire from Wall Street to bug him to co-write an insider’s view of that world with me. I also know a gal who is a courtesan for the rich and famous. I tried writing her story, and we published a chapter in a motorcycle magazine, but then she decided to hold on to her anonymity. Writing a memoir is a lot like standing naked in traffic. It’s very exposing, and I understand when people start down that path, exposing piece-by-piece of their life, and then chicken out. I had a strong motivation to complete my memoir because I wanted, and still want, the truth about TWA Flight 800 to be revealed. I absolutely feel a missile shot the flight down (over 200 eye witnesses) and the government deliberately covered it up. I’d hoped that my readers would become emotionally invested in what happened to my fiancée Susanne, and eventually enough public interest would bring a reveal to the surface.
Book ‘Em: If you could offer one piece of advice to a novice writer, what would it be?
Mark Berry: Be open to revision. That’s the key. When I finished the first draft of my first novel I told my uncle, the only person in my family with publishing experience, and he said, “Great, now go back and rewrite it.” I asked him how he could say that without even having read my work? He explained that every first draft is just that—an idea of what the book will become. Ultimately I rewrote that novel 15 times, but by then my skill had finally developed to where I could be proud of my work and send it out into the world.
Book ‘Em: What would you consider the best compliment a reader could give your book?
Mark Berry: The absolute best aviation writer ever to live was Ernest K Gann. He wrote Fate Is the Hunter among his many works. If anyone mentions his name and my memoir in the same breath I feel deeply honored. Another welcome accolade is when someone I know simply says they were surprised to find they really liked my writing. There seems to be a stigma that if we know somebody, they can’t perform at the same level as the bookstore names. When my writing is able to keep them awake at night, in spite of their pre-conceived prejudice against familiarity, I smile hard. The last great compliment is when it comes from one of my commercial aviation peers. It’s a hard balance to write informative enough for the initiated to understand the airline world and yet not bore my fellow pilots and co-workers.
Book ‘Em: Provide an excerpt of your writing that you would like to share with our members.
Mark Berry: Here’s the opening of my memoir 13,760 Feet—My Personal Hole in the Sky:
Chapter 1 – TWA Flight 800
An onshore breeze stirred as the mercury began its slow descent from near the top of the thermometer glass, barely cooling from the afternoon high of over 90 degrees, and the sandy beaches shook off the day’s glaze a little faster than the ocean. Some high-altitude cirrus clouds traversed with the imperceptible speed of a clock’s minute hand, almost like they were an atmospheric afterthought. I’ve flown thousands of flights into New York’s major airports, and admired Long Island’s southern shore so many times that I could paint it as it must have existed on the evening of July 17th, 1996.
The sky was that deep shade of blue you only see only at dusk during summer, in the moments just before the sun finally sets. After a full day of absorbing radiation, heat, and light, the ocean set up a low shimmer above the steadily rolling waves as the atmosphere tried to reclaim what the golden orb had tirelessly delivered while passing overhead. The sea and sky seemed to be shaking a thousand hands along that stretched horizon. The distant colored sails of leisure boats jibed and tacked—small irregular triangles bending and pulling their water-skimming vessels. And above them were departing aircraft—some fanning out for a variety of domestic destinations, while the European-bound flights cued up offshore like a string of marching ants on an invisible fishing line, all heading for the North Atlantic track system with an entry point somewhere far-off near Newfoundland.
A recent departure from JFK International airport joined the procession—a double-decker red and white Boeing 747 with four under-wing engines, each producing roughly 50,000 lbs. of thrust during climb-out. From the shore, it appeared as a Cross of Lorraine: a single line for its body with two lines across it—one larger to represent the wings, and a smaller one for the tail—such as a stick figure a child would draw. Inside the plane’s windows, too far away to see, are 230 passengers and crew. And although I know several of them, someone special to me is in seat 3-2 in the forward first-class section: my fiancée Susanne Jensen.