Story Behind the Story

Stealing Air is a story that has kept my interest soaring for decades.  When I was in sixth grade and assigned to write about a cartoon Frankenstein’s monster character, I knew that my classmates would be writing about scary monsters.  I wanted to put a unique twist on the concept, so I came up with a short story called Flyboys,

Flyboys introduced a lot of the ideas and characters central to Stealing Air.  It introduced best friends Brian and Max who worked in a shed that appeared abandoned from the outside, but where the inside had been converted to the secret workshop where the two of them built the flyer.  Frankie made his debut in that short story, but he was named Frankie Stein.  Get it?  He was still a mean, tough guy who liked taking out his aggressions on Brian and Max, and at the end he was put in place by an aerial attack from the flyer.

Obviously the six page short story on lined notebook paper was very different from Stealing Air.  Brian and Max were present in that sixth grade story, but I hadn’t yet thought of Alex.  Instead, Brian and Max were assisted by Max’s little brother who was a genius, but had some sort of problem that prevented him from talking.  Frankie was around, but in the short story he had no sister.  Wendy didn’t exist yet.  The short story version of the flyer was also very different, and completely impossible.  In Flyboys, the engine, wings, tail assembly, two seats and two slingshots were all somehow mounted on top of a single skateboard.

The plot of Flyboys was simple.  Basically, Frankie gave Brian and Max some trouble, Max completed work on the flyer, and Brian, along with Max’s little brother, flew the flyer around town.  When it came time to exact revenge on Frankie, Brian and Max’s brother shot rotten eggs from slingshots, an attack method that Alex actually suggests in Stealing Air.  However, Frankie had his own slingshot and fired a rock, striking the flyer’s engine.  The damaged aircraft crashed into a large park fountain where Max’s brother hit his head on the fountain.  This head injury, instead of killing Max’s brother as would likely have been the case in that situation, instead miraculously returned his powers of speech.

Even though Flyboys was simple and had a lot of problems, the basic idea stayed with me for years.  I loved the idea of Brian and Max having a secret workshop all to themselves which they would access via a tunnel under the shed’s wall.  Remembering the intensely complex and difficult issues with friendship in late elementary and junior high years, I added Alex to complicate Brian’s friendship dynamic.  Wendy was the next character added, but it took a while to fit her into the story as someone other than just a pretty face.  Making her be Frankie’s sister let her raise the stakes for Brian since she insists Brian not fight her mean brother no matter what Frankie does.

Of course one major factor in keeping me interested in Stealing Air was the flyer itself.  I’ve always found flying fascinating.  Since I was a little kid trying to fly by jumping off the top bunk with a garbage bag parachute to much later when I’d ride helicopters in the army, I loved the idea of resisting gravity and soaring off into the sky.  Combining my old fondness for skateboarding with my fascination with flying made me want to write about the flyer that would come to be known as Blackbird.

Blackbird went through many changes as Stealing Air developed.  As I mentioned, the flyer began with all aircraft components and two seats on one skateboard.  This impossible design was immediately abandoned in favor of a configuration with three skateboards in a triangle.  While working on Stealing Air, I made a crude Lego model of this version that can be seen in the photos below.  However, after I built this model, it quickly became clear that the skateboards were too front loaded, throwing the center of gravity forward of the wings, where it cannot be if the Blackbird is to fly at all.  I tried to solve this problem with the in-line skateboard design.  This might have helped balance out the weight, but the model felt very unstable when I rolled it, and knowing the wings would be low to the ground, I pitied Brian as he’d have to stick a very precise, level landing on such a narrow strip of wheels.  If he was banked only a few inches and didn’t put the skateboards down flat, a wing might clip the ground to send the aircraft crashing.  Finally, I settled on the two parallel skateboard design shown on the model to the right.  This is the design for Blackbird throughout Stealing Air.  This setup distributes the weight better and would make for better landings at least when Blackbird is actually flying.  The problem with the brakes, of course, is still something Max and I are working on.

Stealing Air is very special to me because it is the first book-length story I ever wrote, and the novel had a long road to publication.  I finished the first version of Stealing Air when I was maybe twenty-two or twenty-three.  That novel had most of the pieces in place such as Brian, Max, Alex, Frankie, Wendy, and their adventures dealing with Blackbird in Riverside, Iowa.  However, at that point, I still needed to learn a lot about writing.  When I began sending the book out to agents and editors, seeking publication, it was quickly rejected.  It wasn’t ready for publication, but I couldn’t understand that yet.  I finished college, and then I was sent to serve with the Iowa Army National Guard in the war in Afghanistan where I was inspired to write the story that would become my first novel Words in the Dust.  After my time in the war, I enrolled in the Vermont College of Fine Arts where I studied and worked to improve my writing.  After Words in the Dust was released, I turned my attention back to Stealing Air, rewriting the entire novel, adding Plastisteel, Mrs. Douglas, Mr. Pineeda, a large pig balloon named Mr. Piggly, and a number of other elements to give it a fresh update from the older early version.  Now Stealing Air is the fast paced fun adventure I’d always hoped it would be.  Twenty-one years is a long time for a story to make it from my sixth grade desk to bookstore shelves, but if readers have even half as much fun reading Stealing Air as I had writing it, I think they’ll agree it was worth the wait.