'Earhart' author recounts research, writing for WestportREADS crowd
The words of Jane Mendelsohn's best-selling novel, "I Was Amelia Earhart," dance across the page with a daring grace not unlike Earhart's bold attempt to circumnavigate the globe, piloting a Lockheed Electra through Pacific winds and clouds before disappearing into history -- and mystery -- in 1937.
An audience of more than 100 people gathered Wednesday in the Westport Public Library to hear Mendelsohn read from her award-winning book and describe the writing process for her first novel, a 146-page work of fiction that draws inspiration from Earhart's life and disappearance somewhere over the mid-Pacific near New Guinea 75 years ago this July 2.
Mendelsohn's book is the 2012 selection for WestportREADS, a community reading project sponsored by the library with a series of events throughout the month.
The writer's appearance at the library coincided with the anniversary of Earhart's Jan. 11, 1935, trip to California from Honolulu, which she completed on Jan. 12, making her the first person to fly to the United States mainland from Hawaii.
"I Was Amelia Earhart" became a New York Times bestseller, was translated into many languages, and was short-listed for the Orange Prize, an international award that recognizes excellence, originality and accessibility in women's writing.
"This novel imagines what happened to Earhart after she disappeared," Marta Campbell, the library's head of collections management, said Wednesday at the signature event for the WestportREADS program. The program is sponsored annually by the library to encourage a townwide discussion about a book and its themes.
"The book captures Earhart's love of flying, looks back at Earhart's life and describes the island where the aviator and her navigator are the only humans. Like a dream, the language weaves a spell of lush images to surround Earhart's memories. Like poetry, it reaches into an expansive and mysterious part of the reader's mind and evokes a sensuous response, adding another dimension to our understanding of Amelia Earhart," Campbell said.
Mendelsohn's presentation appeared to cast a spell on the Westport audience.
Jacqueline Masumiam, of Westport, called Mendelsohn's writing "lovely, poetic writing; a very beautifully written book." Gerry Kuroghlian, a former English teacher at Staples High School, said he has read "I Was Amelia Earhart" twice, the second time approaching it from the perspective of reading an epic poem, as suggested by Campbell.
"As a prose poem I think it soars. Like a plane goes up and down, the switches between first- and third- (person) narration are very much like flying a plane, gliding, swirling; and that's how the book reads," said Kuroghlian, who will lead a historic look at Earhart at 2 p.m. Jan. 22 in the library.
"There's the first person and the third person, there's the fact and the fiction," Mendelsohn said of her work. She offered insight into her writing process and the effort to get published. She also talked about her early love for books.
"When I was a kid I loved to read all the time. I was really bookish," she told the crowd, which included a childhood friend with whom Mendelsohn read "Gone with the Wind."
"The book was about as big as we were," said Mendelsohn, who graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, from Yale University and matriculated at Yale's School of Law for a year before pursuing a career as a writer and journalist.
Mendelsohn said the discovery of what someone thought could be part of Earhart's shoe on an island ignited her interest. "I read everything I could get my hands on that she had written. I let my mind dream up what might have happened to her. I think it was the mystery that drew me in," she said.
At the time, Mendelsohn had never embarked on such a big project. It took her 2½ years to write the initial book, originally titled "The After Life," which was much longer, more detailed and written in the third person. She said she approached it more conventionally, more traditionally, filling in all the blanks. On her honeymoon she told her husband she planned to re-write the book in the first person.
"I knew what I wanted to say and I knew the Amelia Earhart I wanted to describe," Mendelsohn said. "It's not a biography. Far from it ... It's a fantasy about what happened to her but when you're reading it it feels real," she said.
Mendelsohn said the whole book takes place in the "in between, as if it's Earhart's dream as she is falling."
The writer has high praise for her subject. She said Earhart is an American female icon, but could have more global significance. She said Earhart boldly faced the unknown, took risks and took responsibility for her actions. "I found her a model of individuality," said Mendelsohn, who worked as an assistant to the literary editor of the Village Voice. Her book reviews have appeared in The Guardian, New Republic and Yale Review.
Her novels include "Innocence" and "American Music."
Catherine Onyemelukwe, of Westport, a former library board chairwoman, said she is working on her memoir, including a 24-year chapter in which she lived in Nigeria, and attended the program to learn about the writing process from an award-winning, best-selling author.
Anne Fasanella, of Westport, shared with Mendelsohn her "labor of love" reading to a local woman who is blind and nearly 100 years old. She is 40 pages away from completing "I Was Amelia Earhart" with the woman. Fasanella said she admires Earhart for her sense of adventure and for being a pioneer.
The library will host several related events through Jan. 27 including two viewings of the movie, "Where's Amelia Earhart?" -- the first at noon Jan. 13 and again at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 19, and a discussion of the featured book by Page Turners on at 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Jan. 17.
The Westport READS initiative will conclude with a tropical island party at 8 p.m. Jan. 27, featuring island-style music, cuisine and signature rum drinks. Participants are invited to attend in island casual attire.
Attendance at each event provides individuals with a chance to win a 15-minute flight in a 1929 New Standard, open cockpit bi-plane at the new over the Hudson River and back to Rhinebeck, N.Y.
For more information call 203-291-4800 or visit the Westport Public Library website, www.westportlibrary.org.