Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Barbara Bamberger Scott is talking with Iain Stewart, author of Knights of the Air, Book 1: Rage!
FQ: Have you traveled to or maintained any ties to East Africa; if so, has that affected this work?
STEWART: I have visited from time to time, but I don’t think those visits affected this book. The Africa I knew as a child was very different to the Africa of today, and in turn my Africa was even more different from that in 1914. But one thing is consistent—the rugged independence, and somewhat emotionally repressed characters [certainly compared to modern America.] It was a hard land and the old timers I knew in Kenya had a whiff of the Old Testament prophets about them. So, I don’t think recent visits contributed, but my upbringing there definitely did. It was, and is, a rugged and beautiful land with tough characters.
FQ: How much of Lance Fitch is really Iain Stewart?
STEWART: Very little. He is much tougher than me. I grew up surrounded by firearms and hunting but although I loved shooting at targets, I hated killing game. I did my hunting with cameras. I played rugby and adored the physicality so thought I was tough. But when I went on a British Army Camp, I realized I was out of my league when a soldier dropped a light artillery gun carriage on his finger and had a nail half ripped off, but casually ripped the rest of it off with his teeth and carried on wading through mud while holding onto more than a hundred pounds of slippery gun barrel. I would have been calling for the nearest nurse. I am not sure many people appreciate how seriously tough warriors are compared to us mortals. They are a breed apart.
But in one aspect Lance was like me, when I was a teenager and saw the world in simple black and white. It took me many years to learn nuance and empathy, and to feel comfortable that life is often shades of grey. That is very much the character arc Lance will go through over the four books.
One character role model I used for Lance was Denys Finch Hatton, a well-known name in Kenya. Finch Hatton is today best known for being Karen Blixen's lover in her autobiographical book and movie, Out of Africa. In the movie, he is played by Robert Redford. Blixen, whose portrait of him is regarded in Kenya as overly sentimental, but he is an admirable type not uncommon among frontier settlers; literary, thoughtful, idealistic and fiercely independent. For this reason, I named my hero Fitch, close but not identical to Finch.
As an aside Finch Hatton was a hobbyist pilot, who crashed and killed himself in 1931. He was a notoriously bad pilot unlike my hero. As another aside, he was also the lover of Beryl Markham, who he invited to join him on the fateful flight. She declined, and became one of the great pilots, making the first solo flight across the Atlantic from UK to America [much longer than the other way]. She was another example of the interesting people who littered Kenya, and she wrote what I consider one of the very best books about Africa and flying, the lyrical West with the Night. Hemingway said that it was a "bloody wonderful book."
The other clues to Lance's character come from the Arthurian Lancelot, the warrior knight who aspires to ideals and berates himself constantly when he inevitably falls short. Just like Lance.
The idea of a white hunter having the ideal background for a fighter pilot [called scout pilots in those days, but I use fighter pilot in the book to make it clearer for the modern reader], is based on two things. Firstly, Manfred Richthofen was obsessed with hunting long before he became an ace, and the hunting mindset served him well. He was only hunting non dangerous game, so potentially lethal African wildlife demanded a much keener study if you wanted to live. Secondly, John Buchan [of The Thirty-Nine Steps fame], has a minor character, Pieter Pienaar, who was an accomplished hunter and becomes an ace. He is only mentioned in passing in several books, but the idea took root.
FQ: Have you ever experienced the kind or degree of PTSD that Fitch goes through?
STEWART: Never, thank goodness.
Researching this area was difficult, in that during WW1 it was not understood at all; indeed it was thought cowardly to discuss or admit such things. If you even mentioned you suffered from nerves, people would look askance at you. Most of the WW1 flying autobiographies talk about things as a great game, although the more honest ones admit the strains later in the war.
I think today we understand that PTSD can come about from many sources. One is the repeated concussive effects of high explosion on the brain, which Lance suffers from his time in the infantry while under artillery fire. In WW1 that was called shellshock and was fairly common, if misunderstood. A second source is repeated exposure to hideous sights, sometimes caused by one's own deeds. I found good material on these stresses in two main areas.
The first was Heart of a Soldier by James B Stewart, a biography of Rick Rescorla. Rick was a Brit who fought in Vietnam in the American army. He loved fighting and was such a warrior that his men called him "Hard core." Lieutenant Hal Moore, the famed commander of the 7th Calvary Regiment during the Battle of La Drang, and author of We Were Soldiers Once...and Young, said Rick was the best platoon commander he ever saw. But later in life, Rick suffered heavily from nightmares and flashbacks of events that had not seemed to affect him at the time. It didn’t stop him being a hero. On Sept 11 he was head of security for Morgan Stanley in the South Tower. When the planes hit, he got out all his 2700 people. Worried by the thought that there might still be stragglers in the building, he went back in minutes before the Tower collapsed...and never emerged.
The second source was from medical research on the traumas suffered by aircraft crash rescuers. Such men saw often the human body torn apart in the most brutal fashion, literally dripping guts and eyeballs on trees, and later they would find themselves reliving the hideous sights like a film on a loop. In their breakdown descriptions, they emphasized they did not just see the events, they viscerally relived them.
I used these reports to describe the effects of shellfire on the human body, as well as the mental effects. Another source on shellfire horrors was Erich Maria Remarque's remarkable book, All Quiet on the Western Front, probably the most heralded book about the realities of an infantry soldier in WW1.
Some readers have found the graphic descriptions uncomfortable. It is meant to be. I did not want the books to glorify war. I want to honour the human spirit and the acts of friendship, sacrifice and nobility that occur in war, but not war itself. Also, I needed gruesome stuff to explain how even the strongest of warriors can break down from such events, especially if repeated constantly.
FQ: Does positing and writing about an oppressive regime such as Nazi Germany and the ways it might be overthrown give you a sense of hope for current international relations?
STEWART: I do think having a sense of history helps put things in perspective. It seems to me the world heads in broadly the right direction over a prolonged period, albeit there are three steps forward and two steps back.
I was writing about WW1 and Junkerism rather than Nazis but there was a similar brutality in their approaches to realpolitik. Two things show that beyond doubt. The fact that Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler both restored and praised the disgraced 'Hangman' Peters for his brutal killings of Africans, as described in my postscript for RAGE! In later books in my series, you will come across a real-life character called Herman Goering, who commanded JG Richthofen in 1918, and later became de facto No2 to Adolf Hitler in WW2. Goering's father was Imperial Commissioner of Germany's Southwest Africa colony in the late 1800s and was implicated in the genocide in that colony.
But Junkerism and Prussian militarism arose for a reason. It was a reaction to history rather than something buried in the German psyche. Before Frederick the Great of Prussia in the middle 1770s, the major European powers of the time, such as France and Austria, routinely marched through Prussia raping and pillaging, as was the practice among armies of the time. Stuck in the middle of the European landmass, as one of many not-so-strong German-speaking states, every army crossing Europe trampled through Prussia, often on their way to somewhere else. Not that the peasantry [the bulk of the population] noticed the distinction.
Frederick and his successors were dedicated to making sure the people of Prussia were better protected. Of course, that required a martial nationalism that culminated, a hundred years later, in a single powerful German state under the Prussian, Otto Bismarck. You can argue that the other European powers sowed what they reaped with Prussia's and Germany's rise under the Junkers. Beware of forcing your will on others, you may inspire a strong counter reaction. Politicians of today on all sides please note.
Yet now Germany is a democratic stalwart. Japan has been through a similar arc.
That is what I mean by perspective. I can't remember who said something along the lines that "evil never wins long term, it just doesn’t go away even when it is defeated." A bit like COVID really!
FQ: Do you have a favorite historical (real-life) character among the ones you depict here?
STEWART: Erwin Bohme, the man who rescued Lance from Kapitan Peters in my book. How many young men would decide to go to darkest Africa [which was still pretty dark around 1908] and walk from Switzerland to Genoa to catch a ship, casually solo climbing the Jungfrau and Matterhorn on the way? Of course, he later became one of Germany's top fliers and one of Manfred Richthofen's closest friends.
He will re-appear in the later books of the series.
FQ: Could you envision a feature-length film made from Knights of War?
STEWART: It's my hope! Sir Peter Jackson, the director of the Lord of the Rings series, is a WW1 flying devotee and owns a large collection of the aircraft described in my book. He also owns a film studio in New Zealand with the expertise to digitally create the flying scenes. When the book is safely launched, I will try to persuade him...
There is a real paucity of good movies about WW1 flying. Most of them are poor, either because the technology wasn’t good enough to project the realities of war flying or because the planes used were not historically accurate. Digital technology now means the flying scenes can be shown accurately, but it needs a director who doesn’t massacre historical accuracy for a cheap Hollywood plot. By far the best WW1 movie in my opinion is The Blue Max. If you want cinematic realism in your flying scenes, it sits alone.
FQ: What historical materials were especially useful in depicting the position and role of the pilot and gunner in the planes (both German and English) of which you seem to have so much knowledge?
STEWART: WWI flying is brilliantly served in literature and art. The internet is rife with technical details for all the planes. But I wanted to show how it felt to fly and fight in these planes, and so relied more on firsthand experiences.
Take for example, the FE2b in which Lance served with Arthur as his gunner. Fredrick Libby, the American who served in the Royal Flying Corps as a volunteer before America entered the war, was one of the most successful FE2b gunners. In my book he is Rod Andrew's gunner in a Bristol Fighter, a little artistic license by me. Libby wrote a wonderful book of his wartime flying called They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?. I relied on him for much of the description of the role of an FE2b gunner.
But that generation were so determined not to appear to be bullshit-artists that they were very matter of fact in their writing. I had to use my imagination a lot to provide more vivid descriptions. I am lucky in that I have flown open cockpit biplanes but for those who have not, try sticking your head and arm out of the car window while doing 100 mph [when you can safely and legally do so!] and imagine what it is like to be standing in that gale, in a plane made of wood and fabric, thousands of feet high, protected from the blast of wind only by a knee high wooden frame and a strip of canvas as your safety harness. It would make your pulse race, I guarantee.
Remember also that our generation is used to flying at high altitudes and high speeds, but back in 1916 very, very few people had ever experienced anything remotely close to 100 mph or being higher than a two-story house. What was it like for them?
Where, for certain aircraft, I could not find a first-hand WWI source, I relied on first-hand accounts of pilots that had flown restored planes or replicas. The most entertaining of these is Flying the Old Planes by Frank Tallman. Apart from being the so-called "King of the stunt pilots" in the 1970s, Frank possibly flew more hours in WW1 planes, both German and Allied, than any other active pilot of his time. He was also gifted with a wonderful turn of phrase, describing one plane as flying "like a nervous hummingbird," and another as being "as pleasurable to fly as sitting in a bathtub full of bees while dressed in a bathing suit."
FQ: What writer(s) most influenced your composition of Lance’s story?
STEWART: In terms of using history and fictional characters and events closely melded together, my main inspirations were George Macdonald Fraser in his Flashman series—the adventures of a Victorian rogue, and Bernard Cornwell in his Sharpe Series, mainly about a rugged, reluctant hero during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s.
Their stories are creatively imagined, their action exciting, their prose true to period and sometimes lyrical, and their history impeccable. Military historical fiction doesn’t get any better in my opinion.
FQ: Would you give our readers a sneak book into book 2 of your series?
STEWART: Here Is an excerpt from Knights of the Air, Book 2: Fire!
Lance could not, would not, allow Pa to die alone.
He thrust open the throttle before he could change his mind. The engine bellowed and the plane rolled forward, reluctant through the weight of the wet grass. A dim figure ran from Arthur's office, arms waving in the signal to cut the engine. Yellow light from the windows glistened off the puddles. Lance ignored the running man. Arthur had never specifically banned flying this morning, just assumed that no-one would be mad enough.
The SE5 accelerated. Buildings blurred beyond the fire of his exhausts. His goggles streaked with water. He pulled them up and squinted as shotgun pellets of rain stung his exposed cheeks.
The poplar trees raced towards him, towering taller with every second. The tailskid lifted. A gentle pullback of the stick to lift off. Nothing. The SE5 roared onwards, refusing to unstick as the sodden grass sucked at the tyres. A puff of the cheeks, a deep breath, and a prayer, and he eased back harder on the stick. The wheels unstuck. Thank you, God!
Lance held her nose down, gathering speed to clear the trees. His belly sucked in as he gauged pace and distance in the gloom. His nerve cracked and he yanked back on the controls. Branches reached for him, thrusting their black claws against the bruised sky. A gust flung him upwards and the plane rocketed over the trees into the wild squalls.
His heart hammered, but the hardest part was still to come.