Saturday, July 02, 2005

Stars & Stripes: Kim Ponders, Femme La Guerre

Kim Ponders is author of a literary novel coming out from HarperCollins this fall called THE ART OF UNCONTROLLED FLIGHT. It retraces the tumultuous life of Annie Shaw from childhood—as the daughter of a Vietnam-era fighter pilot—through to her becoming a pilot herself. Kim—and, perhaps not by coincidence, Annie too—served in the Air Force during the first Gulf War. Mad Max “sat” with Kim Ponders recently to talk about books, gender, self-promotion and life in the armed forces.

Max: When I say “the armed forces,” I mean, of course, the literary community. Have you ever encountered so savage an enemy as a writer wronged?
KP: Savage, certainly not. Writers are a cultivated, crafty lot, though we might think savage thoughts.

Did you grow up wanting to be a pilot, or a writer? Or none of the above?
KP: I grew up wanting to survive. I had no plans to be a writer or flyer until those opportunities came before my eyes, which they did, roundabout the out years of college. What I am is an opportunist, and if something looks captivating, I’ll go for it.

And which career have you enjoyed more? Or is the jury still out?
KP: Writing, certainly. I work my own hours and don’t have to get my uniforms pressed.

Annie Shaw, Air Force pilot. Kim Ponders, Air Force pilot. Hmmm. Care to provide a de rigueur disclaimer about the difference between life and art?
KP: Hemingway said ‘Write what you know.’ John Gardner said, ‘Write only from your imagination.’ Now, I ask you, who’s better known?

Your honor! The witness is being non-responsive! Will you please direct her to answer the question?
KP: Not non-responsive. Crafty. Yes, counselor, I grew up in circumstances very similar to those I describe in the novel. And the scenes that occur before and during the war are based on things I saw and witness, and yes, experienced—because those scenes I chose were, I think, the most evocative and the most telling. I wanted to get at what I thought was the essence of what it’s like to be a woman flying in the Air Force. For the record, I was an aircrew member with AWACS, but not a pilot.
[Ed. note: Here's more back story regarding the writing of her novel.]

The opening sections of THE ART OF UNCONTROLLED FLIGHT reminded me a bit of Mary Karr’s The Liar's Club. Did you read that book?
KP: Of course. It’s a great book. Our lives were not terribly similar. I grew up in Massachusetts, not East Texas, for one thing. My father was a grandiose man and a mystery to me, and my mother died when I was very young. But Mary Karr strikes me, at least from her memoir, as a survivor. The key, the gift, I think, is to be able to internalize things and then articulate them, spit them out again. That’s what Mary Karr did and what I tried to do with THE ART OF UNCONTROLLED FLIGHT.

And then Annie Goes to War. I can’t think of any novels that tell about war from a woman soldier’s p.o.v.—is “soldier” right, by the way, in your case?
KP: No, in this case, it would be airman.

But re: the point of view—and I don’t mean to diminish novels about war written from a female civilian point of view, but are there others about a soldier’s experience from the point of view of a woman? Other than, say, thrillers?
KP: Not that I know of, at least in English. The Russians had women fighter pilots in WWII, and the Israelis have had them for years. Perhaps there are novels from those countries.

What’s the best soldier’s-experience-of-war novel you ever read?
KP: Hands down, it’s Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I’m not sure if that’s a novel—it might be linked stories. In any case, it’s a phenomenal encapsulation of what it must have been like for a vet to come to terms with Vietnam. In terms of pure novel, I’d choose A Farewell to Arms or Catch-22.

You’ve recently launched a blog, FEMME LA GUERRE—“A take on modern war and the American military from an ex-Air Force flyer turned writer and—can we say it (Gasp)—Woman.” That “(Gasp)” is really part of the subtitle, by the way. Why “Gasp”?
KP: People who knew me from early in my life couldn’t believe I’d joined the Air Force. And then, there I was, an outspoken woman aviator who also read books. A real enigma. In fact, I never gave a second thought to being a ‘woman’ through all this. I just did what I wanted to do. All the arguments surrounding women in the military have always sounded irrelevant. Why should it make a difference that I’m speaking from a woman’s perspective?—and yet, that seems to make all the difference in the world.

So what is this blog, anyway—a publicity stunt for your novel, I assume?
KP: (laughs) Damn straight! It’s the converse of “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”

That went way over my head.
KP: Well, there are a lot of literary novelists out there writing literary fiction about firemen and cops and soldiers and housewives and schoolteachers, whether they’ve actually been any of those things or not. And it doesn’t matter—if they’re good, I mean—whether they’ve lived the life or not.

But in terms of marketing a book?
KP: Let’s face it, there aren’t a lot of novels by someone with my background. And everyone says how hard it is to get attention for literary fiction, and it is, obviously. I’m proud of my background, proud of my military career and I feel like I’ve got something to contribute to the public conversation—especially now, with a war on. And if it happens to help sell some copies of my book, too, then great.

In one of your posts you write about the four soldiers—women—who were killed in Iraq last week.
KP: Yes, four women were killed—3 marines and a sailor--in an ambush on a convoy last week. And this incident has everyone up in arms again about whether women should hold combat positions.

Did you have any particular reaction to this news? Different than, say, news that four male soldiers had been killed? I know that the p.c. answer is supposed to be, No, all death is a tragedy--but surely, as someone who served yourself during the first Gulf War, you identified with these women in some fashion, no?
KP: My first (emotional) reaction was one of frustration and sadness. I feel terrible for their families, for all the kids who’ve lost parents over there. But I think your question is a little leading. P.C. or not, I feel the same sense of helpless loss for each of the almost 2000 deaths that have happened. The fact that four women died—the most during a single incident to date—doesn’t effect my emotional reaction, and it doesn’t effect my politics. My second reaction was that, damn, this is going to reignite the issue of ‘women in combat’ that had Congress stirred up last month. I think it’s wrong to resurrect such a complicated argument based on a tragic event and expect the outcome to be some rational solution. The U.S. desperately needs a sane, intelligent national debate on whether and how women will serve in combat. Unfortunately, we’ll never have this debate if the only time it ever comes up is when a crisis occurs. What we don’t need are more emotional knee-jerk reactions, more simple sound bites. The issue itself it not at all simple.

You also talk about a movement afoot presently designed to curtail the number presence of women in combat zones. I read about this in the New York Times, and it mentioned an Army general who was in FAVOR of such a bill. The article indicated that women in the military seemed to take the opposite view--that is, they were in favor of making their presence in such situations more (rather than less) the norm. What's your guess about the mindset of women serving currently? What's your own view?
KP: It’s a complicated situation. The Army isn’t advocating putting women in direct combat positions, but in ‘combat support’ positions. It’s complicated because of the way the Army is redesigning their combat force to be more responsive to asymmetric threats. They want lighter, more mobile units to move around with their own support (i.e. intelligence) personnel—which are by definition ‘support’ positions and frequently women. The problem is that because these units are on the front lines, the ‘support’ positions are coming under direct fire, and firing back. But I believe it’s a political, rather than a military issue. The Army cares about one thing: winning the war. The generals in charge care not a dime about the issue of women in combat. At least I hope they don’t. I hope they’re thinking about the best way to win the war tomorrow. Administrators, policy makers, politicians—these are the people who make the issue confusing—rather that being the leaders they’ve signed up to be, they’re too busy polling the voters to put their spin on the issue. It’s frankly gone beyond the issue of whether women should participate in combat. They do—and they have to. There ain’t enough willing men to fill the roles. Oh, well, I guess we could open the draft. Perhaps that’s a better solution.

Is the General being a chauvinist, or are there reasons why women SHOULDN'T be on the front lines, other than not wanting to be killed? Which obviously is a desire that transcends gender lines...
KP: No, he’s being a realist. Most men are stronger and faster than most women. Fewer women than men can meet the challenges of the front line work. Not all women belong on the front lines—but some do. Some can carry their weight (and others’ too). And, by the way, there are plenty of men who don’t belong on the front line.
No other reason—biases, trauma in POW captivity, sexual issues on the battlefield—strike me as valid reasons to keep women out of combat. All of these things take place with or without women present, though nobody wants to talk about it.

You served on the front lines as well, during the first Gulf War, correct?
KP: It wasn’t the front lines. I flew in a combat support role with AWACS. We flew in well-defended positions behind the line of battle.

How many other women served with you then?
KP: There were a fair number of women flying in those positions with me. I’d say about 10 – 14% of the crew force was composed of women. It’s probably about the same now.

At the time, wasn't there an even more explicit exclusion of women serving under those circumstances?
KP: Yes, women weren’t allowed to fly fighters. After the Gulf War, Congress lifted that ban and the Air Force and Navy started recruiting heavily to get women in fighter cockpits—this, again, was a political issue. Some of the first women in cockpits probably shouldn’t have been there, but the two forces wanted to look responsive to the new allowances. Now we’ve not only got more women in fighter cockpits, many of them are in senior rankings and have combat experience under their belts. They’re getting a lot more respect these days for being strong, competent pilots. And they give up a lot, too. It seems to me that most successful female senior officers are either single or divorced, while their male counterpoints are married with families.

How did your male colleagues—“colleagues,” I guess you can tell I never served in the military—how did the male soldiers treat you?
KP: They mostly treated me fairly and with respect. During a flying mission, a good crew is one that’s extremely professional. You can be horsing around, cracking jokes thirty minutes before take-off, but in the air, we always worked closely and very well together. If anyone ever took any heat in the air, it’s because he or she wasn’t doing the job properly....On the ground, it was sometimes another story. I spent many nights on deployment to Saudi sitting alone in my villa, reading or watching movies. On some crews I was “one of the guys,” but on others, I didn’t quite make the cut. I taught myself French on one of those trips.

So all that stuff about the macho “Top Gun” culture is just Hollywood B.S.?
KP: No—dealing with the fighter pilots was a whole different story. They weren’t used to working with women, like the AWACS and tanker crews were, and you really had to prove to them that you were tough and competent if you wanted their respect.

For instance?
KP: In 1994 or so, we were flying in a Canadian exercise called Maple Flag. All the flyers—over 200 of us—would brief in a big room before the mission, and then we’d all debrief afterward, with someone different leading the briefings each day. Well, I was the only woman in that crowd of Americans, Brits, and Canadians. Every pilot who got up to give the debrief started with a joke, and the joke was always sexually offensive. I sat there listening to them for 2 weeks, and on the last day, I was offered the opportunity to run the debrief. So, when I stood up, the whole room sort of hummed and went quiet. So, of course, I had to tell a joke. And I did. I made it the most sexually offensive joke I could tell at their expense. What do you think they did? They laughed ferociously, and gave me a standing ovation, and wouldn’t let me buy a beer all night.

Beer’s good. I don’t know what the hell the difference is between “brief” and “debrief,” but I’m going to let you take that secret to your grave. When’s your book coming out?
KP: September 20, 2005.

And there you have it—buy now, buy often! We’ve been speaking here at BookAngst Radio with novelist Kim Ponders, author of THE ART OF UNCONTROLLED FLIGHT. You can read all about her at Femme La Guerre and at Kim

Ed note: We tried our best to link to BookSense, but weren't able to find the book listed there at press time--perhaps because publication date isn't till Fall '05. This may well be remedied by the time you read this. Use this link to navigate the BookSense site on your own.


Patry Francis said...

Sounds like an interesting book. Thanks for telling us about it.

Anonymous said...

"I can’t think of any novels that tell about war from a woman soldier’s p.o.v"

Military SF is full of them, e.g. David Weber's "Honor Harrington"

Anonymous said...


I was always led to believe that no officer would call themselves an "Airman", being as how it is, in the USAF, the second lowest enlisted rank, just above Airman Basic.

Can you elucidate?

banzai said...

In the generic sense to differentiate between the members of the different services, "soldiers" are Army, "sailors" Navy (and I believe Coast Guard), "airmen" Air Force (I've heard this used for all members of the Air Force rather than just aircrews) and Marines just "marines". In the use of these terms it's often less a gender related term as well (no "airwomen" to correspond to the "airmen" that I've ever heard of).

Many people, officers and NCOs alike, let it slide but some prefer to be addressed (when addressed with the generic term) as the appropriate service. (I recall an instance at Airborne School in 1983 when a naval ROTC member pointed out to a black hat that he was a "midshipmen" rather than a cadet. He got lots more pushups to do after that!)

And Weber may have written about females in combat (David Drake does also sometimes) but it's still a male writer. Try Elizabeth Moon and her Vatta series instead.

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