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Taking Wing : 'I Was Amelia Earhart' Centers on the Imaginary Transformation of the Aviator and Launches the Career of Author Jane Mendelsohn

July 18, 1996|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You can tell you're in someone else's fantasy just by reading the title, "I Was Amelia Earhart." You might even wonder if the author, Jane Mendelsohn, still answers to her real name.

Such odd concerns have only helped attract more readers to her brief, poetic novel. Within weeks of the book's April publication (Alfred Knopf), there were paperback and movie deals, a rushed second printing and high visibility on the bestseller lists.

"I don't feel like I was ever Amelia Earhart. But once I'd gone through her journey by writing about it, I thought the title was something she might write," says Mendelsohn, a 30-year-old New Yorker who is married to filmmaker Nick Davis.

She uses the title to introduce an imaginary story of how circumstances changed the life of the famous aviator. When Mendelsohn describes the change, she answers not only for, but as, her heroine. "I used to be Amelia Earhart," she says, "now I'm someone else. I'm no longer the Amelia Earhart of the myths."

Mendelsohn is accustomed to speaking this way. She wrote most of her book in the first person. But at times she switched to the third person. And when she talks about the novel, she still switches back and forth.

"The title contains the theme of the book, which is transformation," she says. "Earhart lived a very external life as an adventurous flier. Later, she got to know herself. It's a story about fantasy and reality, history and fiction."

In the writer's fantasy, this change occurs after Earhart's plane disappears from the skies near New Guinea during a 1937 flight around the world. Earhart, 39, and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were never found. "A lot of people are willing to leave it that they went down in the ocean," says Mendelsohn. "But other things are plausible. We really don't know what happened."

The few facts that are available captured Mendelsohn's attention four years ago when she read a newspaper article about fragments of an airplane discovered on a deserted Pacific island. There was reason to believe they might belong to Earhart's Lockheed Electra. Over the years, dozens such reports, and even alleged sightings of the lost heroine, have proved to be false.

"I was waiting for some idea to sweep me away," Mendelsohn recalls of the days before she began her book. The newspaper article suggested to Mendelsohn the possibilities of a romance between the pilot and co-pilot--which have never been proved--and of an adventure on the island.

Writing the book took close to three years, much of it spent listening to tape recordings of Earhart's voice, looking at pictures of vintage airplanes and newspaper clippings surrounding her desk, and imagining herself climbing into the cockpit of a plane as she sat down in front of her computer. Writing began to seem like flying--a solitary adventure into empty space.

She finished one version of the book in two years, but didn't like it. "Amelia Earhart's spirit was missing," she says. In the rewrite she let Earhart tell most of the story herself.

*

The sky is flesh.

By this startling first line of the novel we learn that Earhart is in love with her work.

"I wanted people to know the book is about language," the author explains of the stark, erotic beginning.

Poetic lines carry the story, at times describing years of frustration in a brief confession. "I was risking my life without living it," admits the adventuring Earhart, who was married to publishing magnate and flamboyant promoter G.P. Putnam.

This is not Mendelsohn's first flight into poetry. She has been publishing since she was an English major at Yale University--she graduated summa cum laude in 1987. After college she wanted to be a full-time poet but entered Yale Law School instead. She left after a year. "I went to law school because I didn't have any real plan. I didn't really know how to be a poet."

Some of the publishers who turned down Mendelsohn's book complained about its lyrical quality. They said it was too short (146 pages), too arty. Later, some reviewers added that it was too pretentious.

Ann Close, a fiction and poetry editor at Alfred Knopf, saw it differently. But it took a strong tail wind to lift "Earhart" up the charts. That came in the form of Don Imus, a New York-based radio talk show host.

"My wife, Deirdre Coleman, gave me the book to read," he says. Intrigued by the title, she bought it the first week it was out, finished it in one day and persuaded him to try it, although he rarely reads fiction. "I was blown away by it," says Imus, who raved about the novel on his morning show and invited Mendelsohn to be a guest.

At first he wondered about recommending the somewhat obscure book to listeners. His show, "Imus in the Morning," airs nationally, including over KLAC-AM (570) in Los Angeles. "Why talk about a book nobody can find in stores?" he wondered. Shortly after the show, the book went into a second printing, notching up the number from 30,000 to 250,000.

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