Speaking with Philip Moynihan: A writer who dives into a rich range of topics
HELLO PHILIP MOYNIHAN, WELCOME TO ABOUT INSIDER! WHAT WAS THE INITIAL INSPIRATION FOR YOUR BOOK “SPIRIT OF THE SKY WALKERS”?
For well over thirty years Penny and I have flown our Mooney all over North America in fair weather and foul. We had accumulated virtually every experience that one could accrue in the world of aviation. But in our later years of flying, other interests started creeping in, and we found that we were not focusing the appropriate attention on our aviation pursuits as we should have been. When we got to the point where we were struggling to maintain currency, we decided it was time to hang up our wings.
But flying is an addiction, and quitting “cold turkey” is not easy. I felt that writing about our countless adventures was a good way to deal with the withdrawals. So I set about this task in earnest. Throughout her years as an active pilot, Penny had been a member of the Ninety-Nines, a national women’s pilots association. And off and on I would write an aviation-related poem for her group’s monthly newsletter. When drafting this book, it occurred to me that introducing each chapter with one of these poems would add a new dimension in setting the stage for the chapter’s theme. Often sensations can be captured in poetry that are difficult to describe in prose, as poems allow us to enter otherwise precluded realms. I think this approach worked. The only two exceptions were the poem I borrowed from Robert Service to introduce Chapter 9 about our Alaskan flight adventures, and the poem I wrote to conclude the book and our life in the air.
My final line for the book was always going to be sic transit gloria mundi – thus passes the glory of the world. To me that phrase seemed to epitomize this glorious chapter of our lives. It was shortly before the book was published that I finally thought of a way to work that phrase into the last line of a poem.
HOW DO YOU MAKE TIME TO WRITE AMONGST EVERYTHING ELSE YOU HAVE TO DO?
Finding time to write this specific book was not overly difficult. By the time we had hung up our wings, I had already been retired for about a decade and was able to find a bit more free time during the day than would have ever otherwise been possible. I found, however, that even then I had to apply discipline to make the time available. I set a goal to draft at least a chapter a month, to get the basic thoughts down. I would do rewrites later. I found that I was easily exceeding that goal. As I mentioned earlier, I found flying to be an addiction and I was merely describing my “habit”!
DID YOU SHARE YOUR IDEAS WITH ANYONE WHILE WRITING?
I did share a few of the cursory book ideas with a couple of friends who were interested in aviation in general. One such friend was a Russian immigrant with whom I had worked while at JPL and who had once served in the Russian Air Force. I would even occasionally take him flying. But during the actual writing of the book, I discussed the specific details of these adventures only with Penny.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PASSAGE IN YOUR BOOK?
Oh that’s a difficult one to answer! Since each chapter pertains to very different stages of our flying adventures, it’s very hard to pinpoint a favorite. For example, right away in Chapter 1 I discuss the time before we became pilots when we were invited to join the Santa Monica pilot’s fly-in in Guaymas, Mexico, and partake in the flowing wine and contribute to the boisterous voices. I overheard Penny later tell a friend, “If these people can learn to fly, then so can I.” That was my tripping point to become a pilot.
And for just the love of flying itself – the absolute euphoria it brings. How does one possibly describe breaking out of a solid cloud layer to the shock of a cacophony of fall colors wrought by the brilliant reds and oranges spread over several square miles of Vermont in early October?
Euphoria is one thing, but anyone who has ever flown for as long as we have will likely have experienced some form of in-air mishap, and that’s different type of adrenalin rush. I discuss a couple of those adventures in Chapters 7 and 8.
But if you force me to select only one favorite passage, then it would be the very last poem on the very last page in its entirety.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO BUILD ON THE BOOK IN THE FUTURE?
No. I think this book is the final summary of our flying lifetime.
HOW DO YOU DO THE RESEARCH THAT SUPPORTS YOUR WRITING?
For “Spirit of the Sky Walkers” I went through both Penny’s and my flight logbooks, which we both made notes in after each flight we ever took. Although the entries were very terse, there was sufficient information to put together the story of that particular flight, whatever it may have been. These logs were especially useful for reconstructing our many cross-country flights.
However, the research procedures for my other two books were quite different. For example, “Zen in a Mountain Snowstorm” evolved from a collection of essays I had written. A general interest I have, which since I have retired has evolved into somewhat of a hobby, is that when I come across a subject that sparks my curiosity, I research the subject and write a short essay on it. These essays are all referenced, and the references cited. Well, these essays have accumulated. A few years ago I was reviewing them, and I noticed that several lent themselves to subjects that very likely could come up in an evening’s conversation among a half dozen people of different backgrounds. So for the “Zen” book I set that likelihood as the theme involving discussions among a group of folks having dinner and later sitting around a fireplace. It seemed to work!
IS THERE ANYTHING YOU’D CHANGE ABOUT THE WRITING PROCESS?
For me, probably not much. I do need to implement a little more discipline to the process, however. It would really help me to have a specific schedule where I set aside a block of time dedicated to writing. For example, right now I’m working on a series of short stories, but progress has been very erratic due to my lack of discipline!
HOW WOULD YOU LIKE YOUR OTHER WORK — ZEN IN A MOUNTAIN SNOWSTORM — TO BE REMEMBERED?
The “Zen” book is a more intellectual endeavor, and there is a lot of food for thought crammed between the pages. Because of this, it’s not necessarily a casual read. I would like this book to awaken people’s awareness to perspectives of the world and its environments that all of us in general seem to be oblivious to. The book addresses such issues as overpopulation dangers, immunotherapy for illnesses like cancer, the rapid acceleration of modern technology, and voter suppression – all of which are relevant topics of today. It even addresses the parallels between Eastern mysticism and quantum physics – and what brings on the numerous ice ages that Earth has experienced. If this book can cause the reader to think beyond the immediate, then it has done its job.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO WRITE THE RAVENS OF SNOVER CANYON?
As I explain in Chapter 3 of the “Raven” book, a few years before I retired, I became aware that a mated pair of ravens had established their territory in the canyon immediately adjacent to where we lived. They got my attention when the male confused his reflection in the glass of our balcony’s sliding-glass door with that of a competitor and attacked it. From then on I began noticing the complexity of their behavior – different somehow from that of other birds. When I actually did retire, I started taking daily notes of observations I made of everything they did. I continued these daily journal entries for nearly a year, covering an entire season of their raising their young. While doing that, I researched ravens in general. The more I learned, the more fascinated I became of the shear intelligence of this bird species. Along the way, I mentioned my journaling to several friends. All of them encouraged me to summarize these notes into a book, which I did. And I dedicated Chapter 2 to ravens’ intelligence. It’s a compliment to be called a birdbrain!
WHAT DOES THE LA TIMES FESTIVAL OF BOOKS MEAN TO YOU?
In one word – Exposure. This event attracts thousands of visitors, and a significant number will be passing by the Strat Advertising booth. Many of these people will notice my books on display.