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Which Book Should You Read?


Conversation with Kate talking about SAVED:

What gave you the idea to write a book about a female helicopter pilot in the Coast Guard?


Actually, my initial interest wasn't in the Coast Guard or in helicopters. It was in people's insatiable thirst for risk. I had noticed a surge of interest in the past decade in bungee jumping and skydiving, not to mention the scores of people going off to climb Mt. Ranier, Mckinley, and Everest. Of course not everyone is rushing out to climb mountains, but if they're not actually climbing them, they're reading about other people climbing them.


Where do you think this sudden interest came from?


I don't think it's a new interest, we're just finding new outlets. Over the past few centuries, we have systematically reduced the risk in our daily lives. But it seems that, when it isn't there, people go looking for it. Some people climb mountains, others seem to need a more steady diet and become firefighters or policemen—or Coast Guard helicopter pilots.


If you were interested in the idea of risk, what led you to choose a Coast Guard helicopter pilot over another profession, like a policeman?


Well, first of all I decided I wanted to write about a pilot because of the type of story I wanted to tell. I was reading a book about risk when I came across a sentence that said:

"Most would think of risk as a civil servant quitting their job to climb Mt. Everest, but it is actually just as risky if not more so for someone who spends most of their time climbing mountains to stop climbing and become a civil servant."

I think every good story asks a question, and I thought this was a great question. What happens to someone who is addicted to risk—who has found respectable, even admirable outlet for their addiction in their job—what happens if they lose their job? To make it interesting, I needed to create a situation in which the main character would not be able to easily replace that job with another that filled that same need. A pilot seemed the perfect answer. A pilot can have their license taken away and never fly again.


That answers half of the question. How did you choose the Coast Guard over the more obvious branches like Navy, Air Force, or Army?


I was first attracted to the Coast Guard because I wanted to have a female lead character, and the Coast Guard is the only branch of the Armed Forces that has no restrictions on what a woman can do. And that's how I got to a helicopter pilot as well, because they do all the rescues. But that choice came with a lot of other bonuses. I was able to explore a lot of ideas like What makes a hero? Is what you are doing heroic if you're doing it for the rush? And if your job is to take risks, how do you draw the line between brave and foolhardy.


What research did you do for this book? Did you know anything about helicopters or the Coast Guard before you started?


I had very little knowledge about either. One of the first things I did was to read a manual about how to fly a helicopter. You'd think that a three hundred page book about the technical aspects of how to fly a helicopter would be somewhat dry, especially as I'm a dedicated fiction reader, and I'm not usually drawn to non–fiction in general. But I found this book absolutely fascinating. I had always taken helicopters for granted, but the more I read about them, the more I realized what incredible machines they are—and how incredibly complicated they are to fly. One pilot used this analogy to compare flying an airplane to flying a helicopter: Flying an airplane is like riding a bicycle and flying a helicopter is like riding a unicycle. Most people can learn to ride a bicycle in an afternoon—how many people can ride a unicycle?

I also read everything I could get my hands on about the Coast Guard and from that I got enough general knowledge to write a first draft. But nothing replaces real, hands–on research, so I took a trip to the Coast Guard Air Station in Sitka, Alaska, where I'd set the first half of the book.


Why Sitka, Alaska? What went into that decision?


That was one of the easiest decisions. If you're going to write a book about risk, you want to select one of the riskiest backdrops—and in terms of danger to a Coast Guard helicopter pilot, nothing tops Alaska. It is, hands down, the toughest posting in the service. Weather–wise, it has the fiercest storms. Icing conditions, so dangerous to aircraft, are worse in the clear Alaskan air. No one but the Coast Guard flies after dark, and in the winter, it is dark for twenty hours a day. The helicopter pilots of the Sitka Air Station are the only ones to rescue lost hikers, stranded hunters, anyone injured or sick in any of the hundreds of remote villages that line the Inside Passage, not to mention any problem at sea. And since the majority of the towns are accessible only by air or sea, most people own a boat and many depend on the ocean for their livelihood.

When I went to visit, and I talked to the pilots, I realized that truth really is stranger than fiction, because as incredible as I'd made the search and rescue (SAR) scenes in my book, these pilots had stories of real SARs that were even more dramatic.


How did you find Sitka, the town?


It's still a frontier town. When you fly into the airport there you see this little fishing village on the end of an island the size of Delaware, and no other lights or other human habitation for hundreds of miles. When I went for a hike, one of the locals suggested I bring along bear mace. But bear mace comes in canisters the size of small fire extinguishers, and it seemed as if using it would just invite a mauling, so I decided against it. Then that same friendly local offered to lend me his revolver instead.


Do you think you got a sense of what challenges women pilots face in the Coast Guard, and specifically in Sitka?


There has only been one woman pilot posted to Sitka in the Air Station's history. She left only a year or so before my visit, so many of the pilots I met had flown with her. But the pilot who read the manuscript for me to double check for general terminology and accuracy asked me if I'd intentionally based my main character on the actual woman. Of course I had not, but he said the resemblance was eerie. So I guess that I did get a sense of the difficulties facing women pilots in the Coast Guard, and in creating what I hoped to be a believable character, managed to get pretty close to reality.

And as for Sitka, it's a man's world up there. Most of the leisure activities involve hunting, fishing, or ATV riding—not exactly activities popular with most women. Then most of the male pilots are married, so when the families get together, the wives can talk with each other while the men stand around the barbeque. It's not a social structure that a single woman pilot can fit into easily and be accepted.


You've made a point of writing strong women characters in both SAVED and your first novel, KILL ME FIRST. How do you think your heroines are different from others in fiction today?


Thankfully, these days strong women characters are not as scarce as they once were, but I do think there are some things that make my two heroines unusual. What distinguished Sarah Shepherd in KILL ME FIRST was that she was over fifty and had been a house wife most of her life. But that didn't mean she couldn't still be sexy and adventurous, and even a little dangerous. I think no matter what someone's outward appearance, strange and unusual things can lurk below the surface.

In SAVED, the difference is not so much age as genre. You have plenty of female detectives in mysteries and thrillers, but not many women holding their own against the boys in the action–thriller genre. In books by Ludlum and Clancy women are there to be protected, to provide romance, and ultimately, to get out of the way of the men. In my books, the men have a good run for their money.


Are you, yourself, a risk–taker or adrenaline addict?


That's the most ironic thing of all. I couldn't be farther from an adrenaline addict. In fact, there is a skydiving scene in the book, and when I was doing research I felt like it might be my duty to go at least once. Of course it was the last thing I wanted to do, so I asked my mother (who is acrophobic) if she thought I should go. She promptly responded, "Absolutely not," and I, in great relief, agreed. However, I didn't let the research suffer too much. I was going to Las Vegas for other background research, and I found a place in town with "Indoor Skydiving". It recreates the feel of freefall with a huge vertical fan, Willie Wonka style. It was a blast—without the slightest tinge of risk.

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