Brendan I. Koerner is an author, blogger and journalist. His various areas of interest/expertise, at least according to his MicroKhan website, are as follows: “Sri Lanka, electric power transmission, Polynesian footballers, minor characters from The Iliad, primate sociobiology, user interface design, Canadian whiskey, the history of cholera, low-grade animatronic robots, Naga anthropology, cult dynamics, ruby thieves, the Pyongyang Metro, the techniques of master pickpockets, bush flying in the Alaskan tundra, anti-poaching technology, and spaceports.” He doesn’t talk politics, which I respect, but does reserve the right to “randomly discuss such mainstream fare as professional American football… and cheap beer.” I respect that even more. Hmm… I wonder if I could get him into my football pool. Among other things, Mr. Koerner is currently a contributing editor for Wired magazine and writes the monthly “Mr. Know-It-All” column. I can’t imagine anything more appropriate. He’s appeared on The Colbert Report as well as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and now, amazingly, has agreed to spend some time with me. I’m honored, flattered, and exhibiting all the symptoms of shock.
Q: You have a long list of journalistic credits in a number of wide ranging publications including Harper’s Magazine, The New Republic, Legal Affairs, the Christian Science Monitor, Spin, Wired, the New York Times, and a host of others. Your first two full-length books, Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier’s Flight from the Greatest Manhunt of World War II, and The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, couldn’t be much more diverse if you tried. When you embarked on a writing career, did you ever imagine it would take you in so many different directions?
A: Not at all. I¹ve never been terribly strategic about my long-term writing plans, perhaps to my detriment. When I first started out, I just knew that I liked the idea of cobbling sentences together for a living. I didn¹t have a specific beat in mind. And over the years, my curiosity has tugged me in a lot of different directions. I will say, though, that there are certain big themes that I¹ve ended up exploring again and again; the promise and the peril of American reinvention is one, as is the tragedy of fundamentally decent people who are ruined by foolish choices.
Q: Is there one story you’re really dying to tell?
A: There¹s a story I¹m pursuing at the moment that I¹m super-keen on, even though I have no idea what ultimate form it¹s going to take. It¹s a bit of a problem, really, in that I want to dedicate all my time to the research, even though I have no clear endgame in mind. I¹d rather not mention the particulars, to avoid jinxing the endeavor, but I will say that it¹s another fantastic crime yarn from a bygone era.
Q: What is your initial process for researching a story idea?
A: I start by accumulating as much material as possible: newspaper articles, legal documents, photographs, without worrying too much about organization.
Once I¹ve got a pile that seems fairly daunting in size, I start to sift through and take notes about what catches my eye, the little details that will push the story beyond just a dry recitation of facts. As I do that, I¹ll also start compiling a list of new research queries I know I¹ll need to make, what government entities I¹ll have to submit Freedom of Information Act requests to, for example, or what potential interviewees I¹d love to track down. It’s a time-consuming approach, one that can gobble up months before I even have a sharply defined sense of how the narrative will unfold. But that labor is so critical to the creation of a cohesive tale.
Q: In The Skies Belong to Us, you detail the rash of airline hijackings that occurred from 1961 to 1972. I believe you were born in 1974. How did you first become aware of those events, and what made you decide to research them so extensively?
A: It all goes back to a New York Times Metro section story that I read in October 2009. The piece was about a man named Luis Armando Peña Soltren, a former Puerto Rican nationalist who had hijacked a plane to Havana in 1968. He then spent the next 41 years living in Cuba, then suddenly decided to return to the U.S., where he had left behind a wife and daughter; the Times story was about his arrest at JFK Airport. I¹ve always been drawn to stories about fugitives and exiles, who are compelled to reinvent themselves while on the run. But perhaps more important, I was amazed that I¹d never heard of this Soltren fellow before; hijacking is such a frightening and taboo crime these days, yet this man had managed to evade capture for over four decades. So I became curious about whether there were other Vietnam-era hijackers who had managed to dodge justice for years. In the course of my search for those kinds of characters, I stumbled across the names Catherine Marie Kerkow and Willie Roger Holder, the two figures who became my great obsession.
Q: As an award winning, well established and successful freelance writer, are you still pitching ideas or do you have people coming to you?
A: I try to generate my own ideas as much as possible, because that way I know that I¹ll have an emotional investment in the story. That said, I do often take a collaborative approach with editors‹they¹ll give me a one-sentence theme, then I¹ll flesh it out into something with narrative potential.
Q: What was the strangest, most surprising or most disturbing thing you’ve ever learned while researching a story?
A: Wow, that¹s a tough question. Any worthwhile story will reveal plenty of surprises during the reporting process. One thing that immediately pops to mind, though, is a Wired feature I wrote last year, about a custom stereo installer in Los Angeles who got nabbed by the Feds for building secret compartments in cars. The compartments had been used to smuggle large quantities of drugs to the Midwest, so the installer was prosecuted as part of a conspiracy despite the fact that he¹d never seen or touched any of the contraband. I was really taken aback by how harshly he was treated by the justice system, and I was quite moved by how his family had rallied behind him.
Q: According to Wikipedia, you were given the middle name of Ian because your dad was a big fan of Ian Fleming (author of the James Bond books). Was your dad disappointed when you started writing nonfiction?
A: Oh no; my dad¹s never been anything less than 100-percent supportive of my writing. When he gave me that middle name, it definitely wasn¹t because he wanted to nudge me into fiction, or any kind of literary pursuit. Truth be told, I¹m sure he would have preferred that I found a more stable line of work. But the man does love a good yarn, and he appreciates the care and effort I put into every project.
Q: I have to ask this. Given your standing in the literary world, why would you graciously devote so much of your time to a totally unknown author with a handful of blog subscribers and a few dozen followers on Twitter?
A: Honestly, it would never occur to me not to respond to someone who took the time to read and contemplate my work. Engaging with readers is one of the best parts of this job. It means so much to hear from folks who¹ve had a genuine reaction to my stories. So thank you for reaching out.
Brendan’s latest book is called The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, If you haven’t read it yet, I strongly suggest you do so, and click here to check out my recent Turn the Page review.