Discussion with Sarah Lotz: Why Flying Scares Us (And How Writing About It Doesn’t Help)
I’ve got something different and amazing here on the blog today! In case you missed it, last week I reviewed the excellent, bone-chillingly terrifying The Three by Sarah Lotz. Seriously, it’s a fantastic book and horror-thriller fans should definitely check it out.
Even more exciting though, is I had the pleasure of getting to chat with the author herself, and she turned out to be the most awesome and fun person to talk to. What initially began as a pitch for a guest post instead turned into an entire discussion when we discovered we were both fellow pteromerhanophobia sufferers. Eh? you must be asking. Well, read on to find out, and to learn more about The Three…
Mogsy: Sarah, in my review of The Three I talk a lot about how what I fear often goes hand in hand with what also fascinates me, and I know that was what first drew me to your book. For years, I have struggled with a fear of flying. I can get on a plane these days, but not without a TON of anxiety! It’s a little paradoxical, but I think what made reading your book such a deliciously frightening experience. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that you too are flight-phobic! I really couldn’t believe it. Seriously, with your fear of flying, what made you write a book involving plane crashes and how on earth did you manage it?!
Sarah Lotz: I’m the same as you! I can get on a plane without hyperventilating, so I’m not strictly phobic about flying, but I’ve never yet managed to clip myself into my airline seat without having a panic attack. I’m a bit of a masochist, so I tend to write about what scares me (it’s why I write a lot about malls in my other books – I’m terrified of mannequins, I know, I’m hopeless!).
Also, I thought that writing about and researching air accidents might help me make sense of what is essentially an irrational fear. Turns out this is one instance where too much information about a subject is a bad thing. Sure, talking to pilots was reassuring – without exception they were all the kind of cool-headed men and women I would happily follow in any apocalypse-style situation. But reading the transcripts of the last moments of actual crashes was anything but. They are not just terrifying, they are deeply upsetting (and I urge you never to do this). For example, knowing that the passengers on Japan Airlines Flight 123 – the most devastating single crash in history – knew their fate, that they had enough time to write messages to their loved ones as the plane lost control, was emotionally scarring.
And here’s one back at you: What is it about flying that scares you?
Mogsy: Oh boy. Well, mainly the thought of being trapped in what is essentially a tin can tens of thousands of feet in the air FREAKS ME THE HELL OUT. I know flying is safe, safer than driving, and that you’re more likely to get in a car accident than a plane crash. But as you’ve already alluded to, all the information and the stats in the world don’t help much when it comes to an irrational fear, do they? I just don’t like dwelling on the incredibly slim chances of survival even in the extremely rare case of being in a catastrophic incident, like the ones in your book. And I think that’s what induces most of my panic.
And you? What is it about air travel that makes you scared? And did you have to do anything to mentally prepare yourself when writing some of the scenes in this book, knowing you were about to tackle a subject that terrifies you?
Sarah Lotz: I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get to the root of the fear, and I suspect it’s because I’m not smart enough to figure out how planes manage to stay in the air. I know the physics, I’ve studied the science, yet when I fly, I still have that inner Charles Grodin voice yelling, ‘These things go down – it’s too big!’ I also secretly believe that if there aren’t enough people on board who believe it will stay in the air, it won’t (!) I’ve also watched far too many Air Crash Investigation episodes on Discovery to fully believe that there isn’t a lonely piece of tape stuck on a duct somewhere that’s just waiting to cause a major incident. It’s pathetic really!
The novel opens with a crash scene, focalised closely through the eyes of a woman travelling to visit her daughter in Osaka. I wrote it in one breathless go – and I had such terrible nightmares afterwards that I couldn’t sleep without using sleep-aids for more than two weeks. I’ve always used writing as catharsis – for example, if someone pisses me off I’ll happily write them into a story or a novel where they’ll come to a sticky end – but writing down one of my deepest fears backfired in this case.
You mentioned that there’s something deliciously frightening about reading in fiction what terrifies you in real life – in this case, air travel – is it because it’s a ‘safe’ way of experiencing it? And does this help, or make it worse?
Mogsy: You are a braver person than I am! I can’t watch those documentary shows, no way. Now fiction, though, I can do. Since we’re confessing our fears, I have another one — being lost in space. The thought of it makes me want to curl up into a ball and cry. But at the same time, I love watching movies like Gravity and reading space disaster sci-fi. Yes, I guess its helps because it’s a safe way of experiencing it; I get that adrenaline rush but from the safe comfort of my own living room. It’s that whole fascination and fear thing again, a part of me tends to gravitate towards stories about topics that frighten me and it’s definitely what initially drew me to the description of The Three.
Which makes me wonder, you’ve mentioned writing about your other fears and scary topics in the past and that has been cathartic. Why do you think it backfired so astonishingly in this case specifically? Do you think it’s because flying is such a “reality” and a necessity in today’s world (as opposed to being lost in space — like when am I going to be blasted off in a rocket anytime soon?)
Sarah Lotz: Oh gosh yes – lost in space! I can understand that. Add spiders to the mix and that would also be my worst nightmare.
I can’t quite pin down why researching and writing the book didn’t ease the fear, but I suspect it might have something to do with my personality type (coupled with an over-active imagination!). I know intellectually that the chances of anything happening while flying are infinitesimal, but once I’m sitting in that seat and the plane is barreling down the runway, I’m painfully aware that the whole thing is out of my control. I can’t see what the pilots are doing; I have no way of knowing if the maintenance crew were up to scratch that day. When I’m driving, I have at least some element of control (as long as I drive defensively); if I’m on the bus or in a taxi, I can gauge if the driver knows what she’s doing. I know this sounds more than a little crazy! But I do wonder: Could it be that we’re afraid of flying because we’re control freaks? 😉
Have you ever tried any form of therapy to cure your pteromerhanophobia? (I love this word!)
Mogsy: Oh, so that’s the name for fear of flying! You’d think I would have heard that term before now, but it’s actually the first time. To answer your question, does self-medicating and booze count as a form of therapy? In all seriousness, I haven’t sought much help beyond support from the people around me, because deep down I know it’s an irrational fear and therefore I’m aware I can’t attack it with logic. If you have any tips you’ve found that helps, I’d love to hear some!
And I think you may have hit on something. I definitely fall more into the type-A personality spectrum and I hate the feeling of helplessness and not knowing. It’s always such a relief for me to find someone else who understands my pteromerhanophobia (now that I know the word, I have just GOT to use it at least once) and it’s even better knowing I’m not the only one fascinated by the fear.
So final question for you then, Sarah: do you think you achieved your goal with The Three? I mean, after this discussion and knowing how you’ve just absolutely terrified me (and I daresay some readers who aren’t afraid of flying before will be after reading the book), what are your thoughts? Was this what you’d aimed for and expected? 🙂
Sarah Lotz: It’s been great to connect with a fellow aerophobia sufferer (another term for it – there are loads!). While I’m delighted the novel has elicited a strong reaction in some people, I’m not sure that I set out with the specific goal of terrifying readers – especially people who are flight phobic (that would be a bit cruel, I think!) I always start with the intention of writing the best novel I can, and to make it as entertaining and thought-provoking as possible. The crux of the book, to look at how a devastating event can impact society and change it, was a rocky road to navigate. I wanted to see if I could write in a multitude of voices and write across cultures, while keeping readers interested and wanting to know what happens next. This was a risk – some of the subject-matter veers into the contentious – and the reaction to the book so far has been mixed (which is how it should be!), but I can’t see the point in playing it safe.
But all that said, whatever happens, writing and publishing the novel has brought me into contact with some wonderful readers, reviewers and authors. Thanks a million for inviting me on your blog, Mogsy – I loved chatting to you.