Q & A

Tom Beaching at Lake Powell
Tom Casey was born in New York City on July 4, 1950, the eldest of eight children.

“My parents moved to Westchester in the early fifties. I grew up near the beach in Rye. The beach became a big part of our life in summer, and that gave me a sense of the sea and adventure. When I was older I learned to sail; and later, flying continued the theme of expanding horizons. Flying airliners has given my life an otherworldly dimension, a storybook quality.”

Did any special circumstance lead you into writing?

“My favorite part of our house was the attic. Among boxes of unexamined items was a painting my aunt made of little girl holding a candle. But it was all wrong, and the girl had the face of an old woman; it was very scary. As I think about it today, I’ve always been attracted to what’s hidden, scary, or discarded. The desire to write came from love of adventure applied to a curiosity about hidden aspects of character and sexuality.”

Did coming from a large family help or hinder your growth as a writer?

“It can’t help but deepen understanding of personalities and how transactions take place among human beings; subterfuge and conniving are endless among children, though I was also aware of a code that developed spontaneously among us based on fair play. If all of us were sitting in front of the television, for example, and one had to leave his chair, he must declare possession, or “call dibs”, before he left his seat. If this was done, his place was protected; if not, the chair was fair game for anyone, usually the biggest and strongest, or occasionally the fastest: survival of the fittest in this case obtained. But the code did evolve, and I’ve often thought that for all our savagery as humans, there does exist an innate sense of fairness.”

Were you a good student?

“No.”

Why?

“My mind was always out of doors. I crave freedom. I was a good sailor. I’m a good pilot. Writing fiction is form of free expression. I have spent literally weeks in rooms writing with no sense of claustrophobia, yet I found classrooms impossibly confining, physically and intellectually suffocating. Also, I never understood why I should take anybody else’s word for anyting. I’m experiential by nature, and then there is this strand in me that reaches for larger meaning. In HUMAN ERROR, there is an image of the horizon seen from an airliner at dawn, corresponding to the existential intersection of consciousness and death: ‘The horizon she so often saw from a privileged altitude was the place on earth like the place in the mind where the world and wonder meet, where imagination shines for awhile on the edge of vast darkness.’”

You’ve been a professional pilot for how long?

“I’ve been paid to fly since college, where I was a flight instructor. Then I was in the Air Force; I was flying jet transports all over the world at twenty-three. I remember reading Thomas Pynchon’s GRAVITY’S RAINBOW while I was flying arms to Turkey during the Greek-Cypriot war. Our load manifest said we were carrying lettuce and Tampax. After the Air Force I had a couple of different flying jobs, and then American Airlines hired me. I’ve been flying with them for twenty-eight years.

You are a Captain?

“I’m a Captain on the B777. I fly JFK to London mostly; sometimes to Sao Paulo, Brazil, and occasionally to Tokyo.”

It seems an exotic profession.

“Writing is far more exotic. Flying and travel are metaphors for searching. The outward voyage has its perils but the inward voyage is more harrowing.”

What other writing have you done?

“Besides writing novels, not much. I’ve included on this web site an essay, a short story, and a little antic piece I wrote some years ago because occasionally I’m moved to write outside the novel; but not often. Really, the intensity and complexity of writing fiction takes all my time and energy.”

What are your strengths as a writer?

“An ear for lyrical rhythms, insight into character, and the ability to write dialogue are probably my greatest strengths. I struggle with plot.”

Do you outline?

“Never.”

Wouldn’t it be helpful?

“Probably. But something would be lost, I think; spontaneity, a tension that evolves naturally when the characters take over and run away with best laid plans. Just like in life, when your wife runs always with your best friend.”

Did that happen to you?

“No. It was the Matron of Honor.”

Are you serious?

“Didn’t you read HUMAN ERROR?”

Is that what led you into psychotherapy?

“I entered therapy just before I was furloughed from the airline during the breakup of my second marriage. In the span of two months I suddenly had no job, no money, no marriage, no home, and my writing was hopeless. Yet I made a conscious decision to write the novel I wanted to write; I didn’t want to work for a newspaper or write for magazines, or any of that. The problem was that I had no idea of how to write a novel, and even if I had talent, which was not at all clear, I knew it would take a long time to make it happen. Yet, I had a crazy kind of faith in myself. I entered analysis to find out if I was delusional. It turns out that you all are!”

How long did it take you to write HUMAN ERROR?

“Ten years.”

And STRANGERS’ GATE?

“Eight years. I think it was Norman Mailer who said learning to write takes as long as learning to play the piano well. You’ve got to put in the hours.

Who were your heroes growing up?

“Judy Garland.”

?!

“Just kidding. I’m not sure I had heroes until, as a teenager, I learned to fly and began to read seriously. In flying Charles Lindbergh was certainly a hero. I understood him and could see myself doing what he did. In literature my early heroes were the Russians, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. I got into them at an early age for some reason. I remember being on a family ski trip to Vermont and staying home to read ANNA KARININA. I was sixteen or seventeen. Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY remains a favorite for its perfect pitch, its lyricism. The story is pedestrian, but there’s a lesson in that: great writing transcends a lot of flaws. Fitzgerald had a lot of faults, and I would say a narrow talent, but he found gold with Gatsby. I wouldn’t call Malcolm Lowry a hero exactly, but he’s one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. UNDER THE VOLCANO is a classic, though I don’t think many outside the writing profession have read him. I came to appreciate Hemingway much later in my life. I was in my late thirties when he clicked for me, but he’s huge. And Henry Miller, Willa Cather, Norman Mailer, and Truman Capote influenced me, and later Robert Stone. I’m not much for mannered novels; I’m more interested in the soul. Read Cormac McCarthy’s SUTTREE for a challenging, subversive take on American life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

What advise would you offer to aspiring writers?

“In your work, if you have courage to make something magnificent, you will experience failure and you will become a fool before you find wisdom, if you ever do. Don’t let it worry you. You don’t have to be wise to find the truth, just relentless. And if the writer in you finds truth and begins to shine, not everybody will be as thrilled about it as you are.”

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