In the story, we are inside the head of 15 year old Anna. It’s an emotional journey of resilience and aloneness. When in the process of writing the story did it become apparent to you that you needed to write it as fiction based on fact, rather than as non-fiction? And why?
While I was researching, I realised, with a cast of seventy or so characters, many still alive, that I wouldn’t be able to write with absolute accuracy about what they said and did, and how they behaved after so many years, so it had to be fiction. Adam Foulds said that sometimes, ‘Truth is often best told through fiction, where history can be reordered and compressed to develop its full dramatic and human potential.’ I’m hoping that’s true in this case.
The story is fraught with tension like the shocking moment when Anna’s belt gets caught on the hi-jacker’s bullet strap as she squeezes past him to go to the toilet. The air literally crackles with tension. But you have broken the tension with very human, almost fragile moments… like Anna worrying about how she was going to descend the steep ladder in her short wrap-over 1970’s skirt without showing her underwear. And the moment when the turtle gets lost. The fact that the boy she is sitting next to isn’t some gorgeous guy, but actually almost geeky. Was it possible for you in the writing process, to shut out your own emotional trauma and almost remove yourself from the story?
No, not always. The first draft was particularly hard. I had to go in and dig up all the emotions involved and then, to write convincingly, relive them. I had been warned (by those who know about these things) that I was probably giving myself a daily bout of trauma therapy. But my editor had said she didn’t want raw emotion or therapeutic writing, so somehow I had to process the trauma and provide her with proper professional story telling. Luckily, with each ensuing draft, the story became less and less emotionally charged for me, so now it’s in a quieter place far off.
In a traditional story-telling scenario, ‘the call to action’ moment is marked by the hi-jacker suddenly appearing in the doorway with a gun in his hand. The moment is very dramatic but how difficult was it for you to keep up the beats of the story-telling process, given the fact that you remain in the same confined space for the rest of the story – almost in a capsule – where Anna’s world has shrunk to the joy of a few sips of water and a cracker and she isn’t even sure whether anyone knows she’s alive?
Well, I had a number of dramatic ‘real events’ to hang the story on and move things forward. For example, when the press arrived and were allowed to come into the plane and film us, when we had our photo taken with all the guerrillas in the desert, when we were harangued and threatened by the angry hijacker we called Lady Macbeth. And being inside Anna’s head meant I could go anywhere with her thoughts.
I felt you captured the sense of tight confinement in a space that's essentially a prison (though in sharp contrast the plane is in a vast desert landscape.) How did you manage this sense of confinement? How did you put yourself back into this small space? And I wondered if the plane itself became another character for you just as landscape becomes a character or a force in a story set in a wide, open space.
I became increasingly attached to the plane as I wrote, and decided that, to really make the inside location authentic, I had to visit the VC 10 at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, Cambs. Though the plane was closed to the public, they let me have it to myself for several hours to write and film. It was an extraordinary experience. I also went back to Jordan to find the revolutionary airstrip where the planes were all blown up which I describe at the end of the book.
Anna has a very close relationship with her mother. For those who haven’t yet read the book, I should explain Anna is travelling alone back to boarding school when the hi-jack occurs and with no mobiles in the 70’s, is unable to communicate with her family. But every now and again you break the story with the mother’s viewpoint. I thought it was a brilliant touch and for me added to, rather than negated the tension. From a writer’s perspective, was this what you intended? And did you have this in mind right from the start or was it something that evolved through the re-writing and editing process?
I found it impossible not to mention Anna’s parents’ reactions to the news of her hijack. And, as I wrote, it became apparent that central to the book was how Anna was sustained by her mother’s love as she faced death. I also thought that readers would need some respite from the ratcheting tension on board as the clock ticked down to the deadline and the passengers faced the prospect of being blown up.
I had a sense that you weren’t asking the reader to take sides. In the story you give a young Palestinian boy the opportunity to voice his case and you get Anna to mull over this. Are these the thoughts of the adult writer or can you recall the 15 year old Miriam having empathy for these hi-jackers?
Yes, I can recall talking to the hijackers and hearing their stories, and being horrified by the contrast in our respective lives. I had lived already in the Yemen, Africa and China, so I had seen poverty at first hand, but I had never experienced the homeless and the dispossessed with such immediacy before.
When I watched your film and presentation at the CWIG Conference, even though the events took place 45 years ago, the visuals were shockingly real. For me there are two that stand out – the photograph of the real Miriam standing outside the plane in the desert, blond hair sweeping her face and as fragile and vulnerable as any 15 year old could be – and the photograph of the VC10 plane being blown up only hours after the rescue with the same explosives that had been strapped to the wheels and had filled the undercarriage while you were on that plane. The full impact of those two visuals juxtaposed against each other could not have been more startling.
|Newspaper photograph taken outside the V10 on the airstrip during the hi-jack. Miriam in the centre.|
|The explosives detonated by the hi-jackers shortly after the rescue.|
I think you’ve shown this sharp reality in your writing – the fragility but at the same time the bravery and quiet resilience of this young girl in an atmosphere of tinderbox tension where jittery nerves could precipitate disaster. How did you manage to capture the person who is Anna?
Anna has of course elements of me in her character, but she isn’t me at 15, she’s an amalgam of my daughters and many other 15 year olds I’ve known. Equally Marni isn’t my mother. As a work of fiction, I wrote the novel based on something real that happened, but then imagined Anna and the other characters in the book into existence.
As a writer I love that... you 'imagined Anna into existence'. Thank you Miriam for sharing your writing process. Anyone who reads Girl on a Plane, cannot escape being untouched by the events of those four days in September 1970 on a strip of the Jordanian desert. It’s a book that has enormous relevance and will find a place in the minds of readers for a long time to come. Girl on a Plane needs to be shared.
GIRL ON A PLANE by Miriam Moss, Andersen Press
Zeraffa Giraffa, by Dianne Hofmeyr, illustrated by Jane Ray, published by Frances Lincoln, is one of The Sunday Times Top 100 Classics for Children in the last 10 years.