Into the Abyss is what the Discover readers and I refer to as a 1 AM read: impossible to put down, worth losing sleep to finish. Carol Shaben has done an extraordinary job of reporting the stories of four men – the pilot, a police officer and the criminal he was handcuffed to, and the author’s father — who survived a plane crash in the Canadian wilderness.
Shaben discusses why she was inspired to write the book, her research and responsibility she felt to the survivors and their family members, and paying homage to her father and his remarkable life, here on the Discover blog.
What inspired you to write this book?
What gripped me about the story on which I based my book, were its remarkable constellation of characters and the fateful intertwining of their lives. On a stormy winter night in 1984, 10 people boarded a small commuter plane bound for remote communities in the Canadian north. An hour later six were dead and four men fighting for their lives: a 24-year old rookie pilot who hadn’t wanted to fly that night, but felt his job was on the line; my father, a prominent politician; a young cop; and an accused criminal he was escorting to face charges.
That night the dividing lines of power, wealth and status dissolved as these men from vastly different backgrounds struggled together to cheat death. They formed unlikely bonds that would endure a lifetime and prove vital in helping each man transfigure his life.
Quite simply, this was a book that needed to be written because the story of these heroic men and their journeys from tragedy to lives begun anew proved more dramatic than fiction.
Why now, so long after it happened?
Years later, watching my father struggle, it struck me how powerful and enduring the impact of this single tragic event had been on his life. My father often spoke about whether he’d made good use of the ‘extra time’ God had granted him and not others on that plane. He kept in touch with the luckless young drifter who saved his life. Every year on the anniversary of the crash, my father would check in with the pilot to see how his life was going. Then, twenty years later on the anniversary of the crash, my dad organized a reunion of the survivors. I’d always suspected that what he’d shared with these men the night of the crash was important to him, but I suddenly realized that their connection was much more than a tenuous bond. These men forged unfathomable friendships and it was deeply important to each of them that their lives unfolded in meaningful ways.
How did you come up with the title?
The title of the book, Into the Abyss, comes from a quote by Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist who coined the phrase “follow your bliss”. He wrote extensively about man’s quest for meaning and one of his quotes really captured the inspiring journeys of the men in my book:
It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life.
Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.
All of these men had gone down into an abyss the night of the crash. They had watched others die and faced the specter of their own deaths. And in rising on the crucible of that tragedy and trying to rebuild their lives they had all stumbled before finding the true riches of life.
What was the hardest part of writing your book?
The research. In reconstructing the story, there were two things working against me. The first was that I’d been living overseas when the crash occurred and I’d missed the whole thing. I read about it in a local newspaper—the most surreal moment of my life. Many clearly remembered the events of that night and the days that followed, with good reason. The government opposition leader and five other men and women from the close knit communities of northern Canada where I’d grown up died in that crash and thirty-four children lost a parent.
But I had no first-hand knowledge. By the time I began my research two decades had passed so I was forced to recreate every detail and emotion from archival materials and interviews. When it came to archival materials, I scoured newspaper and magazine articles, television footage, legal documents and government records and had to submit access to information requests for official search and rescue or other records, often waiting months for replies.
When it came to the interviews there were also numerous constrains. Some survivors were reluctant to share what happened that night or the personal details of their lives; others familiar with the crash were no longer alive to be interviewed.
Finally, I felt a tremendous debt to both the men in this story and the families of the deceased to get the facts right and do no harm. That’s a very tall order when you are dealing with people who are still alive. In some cases the children of the deceased are people I grew up with. I also wanted to do justice to the lives of the survivors who entrusted me with their stories, including my father who passed away of cancer before I could finish the book.
There’s some of your own story in this book. Was it hard writing about yourself and your relationship with your dad?
Excruciating. In fact, I didn’t want to be in this book. I didn’t feel this story was about me. It was only after submitting my first draft that my editors told me that by not including myself in the book, I was depriving readers of an important personal connection and way in to the story. They asked me to write a first person introduction to the book and rewrite the final section so my voice could be heard. That was really hard for me to do, as I’d been narrating from the distant and decidedly safer third person point of view.
My editors also told me that they felt that they knew all of the men in this story except my father. They asked me to delve more deeply into his life and character. That was really hard. After all, he was my dad and though he’d been a prominent public figure much of his life, underneath that public image, he was a very private man. What right had I to bare the details of his personal life?
In the end, that editorial decision turned out to be a gift. I came to appreciate my father so much more and had the rare privilege that few children get to truly understand a parent as a person in their own right. So this book also pays homage to my dad and to the spirit of his remarkable life. For that opportunity, I feel very lucky.
Who have you discovered lately?
Claire Vaye Watkins, Battleborn – her debut short story collection was stunning.
Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.