“The Philosopher’s Flight by debut novelist Tom Miller has already set a high bar for any book vying to be the most entertaining novel of 2018.”—BookPage
A thrilling debut from ER doctor turned novelist Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight is an epic historical fantasy set in a World-War-I-era America where magic and science have blended into a single extraordinary art. “Like his characters, Tom Miller casts a spell” (Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club and The Last Bookaneer).
Eighteen-year-old Robert Weekes is a practitioner of empirical philosophy—an arcane, female-dominated branch of science used to summon the wind, shape clouds of smoke, heal the injured, and even fly. Though he dreams of fighting in the Great War as the first male in the elite US Sigilry Corps Rescue and Evacuation Service—a team of flying medics—Robert is resigned to mixing batches of philosophical chemicals and keeping the books for the family business in rural Montana, where his mother, a former soldier and vigilante, aids the locals.
When a deadly accident puts his philosophical abilities to the test, Robert rises to the occasion and wins a scholarship to study at Radcliffe College, an all-women’s school. At Radcliffe, Robert hones his skills and strives to win the respect of his classmates, a host of formidable, unruly women.
Robert falls hard for Danielle Hardin, a disillusioned young war hero turned political radical. However, Danielle’s activism and Robert’s recklessness attract the attention of the same fanatical anti-philosophical group that Robert’s mother fought years before. With their lives in mounting danger, Robert and Danielle band together with a team of unlikely heroes to fight for Robert’s place among the next generation of empirical philosophers—and for philosophy’s very survival against the men who would destroy it.
In the tradition of Lev Grossman and Deborah Harkness, Tom Miller writes with unrivaled imagination, ambition, and humor. The Philosopher’s Flight is both a fantastical reimagining of American history and a beautifully composed coming-of-age tale for anyone who has ever felt like an outsider.
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The Philosopher’s Flight
Though he was a famously incompetent sigilrist, Benjamin Franklin included five practical glyphs that he had learned from the women of Philadelphia in an early edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack, as well as a simple design for a message board. In less than an hour, a woman could build a Franklin sand table using a silver penny, pane of window glass, hammer, and broom handle. This was to prove vital to the Continental Army during the Revolution.
Victoria Ferris-Smythe, Empirical Philosophy: An American History, 1938
A LITTLE MORE THAN five decades after Mrs. Cadwallader ended the Civil War, I was eighteen years old and lived in Guille’s Run, Montana, with my mother, Maj. Emmaline Weekes, who served as our county philosopher. In her official capacity, Ma responded to all manner of accidents and natural disasters. The rest of the time, she earned a decent living doing the kind of dull, ordinary sigilry that was in constant demand—short-haul passenger flights, koru glyphs for enlarging crops, simple smokecarving cures for asthma and pleurisy.
Much as I would have liked to help her in the field, Mother only rarely gave me the chance. I had the typical male lack of philosophical aptitude and so instead of going on emergency calls, I did the work of a philosopher’s son: I kept the books, ordered supplies, cooked, and stood night watches.
On the night of April 6, 1917, I was engaged in the thrilling task of organizing handwritten invoices from the previous year when Mother stormed into the house at nine o’clock, dripping wet from the rain.
“What kept you?” I called.
“Don’t even start, Boober!” she shouted. “Those cattle were scattered clear across Teller’s Nook. I must have put in four hundred miles trying to track down the last ones. Mr. Collins is going to be mad as hell when he gets the bill.”
Mother ran a towel over her face and graying hair. She’d taken ten emergency calls over the previous fourteen hours—a very busy day—in the midst of terrible weather.
“There’s beef stew on the stove,” I said.
Mother dished herself a bowl and collapsed in a chair. I’d eaten hours before.
“You’ve heard the news, I expect?” Mother said.
I had. After months of prodding, President Wilson had convinced Congress to declare war on the German Empire. So now America, too, would be part of the fighting that had racked Europe since 1914.
I’d decided I wanted to join up the second I heard. The army or the navy; one was as good as the other. A uniform, a chance to see the world while fighting next to the boys I’d grown up with, a real man’s job.
But I knew Mother was going to be a problem. She’d spent three decades with the Rescue and Evacuation Department of the US Sigilry Corps, flying wounded and dying soldiers from the front lines back to the field hospitals. She’d done tours of duty in the Franco-Prussian Intervention, the war with Cuba, the Philippine Insurrection, and the Hawaiian Rebellion. As a result, she tended not to approve of America involving itself in other people’s wars. She wasn’t going to like the idea of me enlisting.
“Is there any chance you could be called up?” I asked, trying to position the conversation just so.
“Never,” Mother said. “They’ll mobilize a few of the younger reservists and move more active-duty women overseas. But they’re not going to call a sixty-year-old lady, even if my name is still on the lists. It would be an embarrassment. No, what I’m worried about is when Wilson calls for a draft for the army.”
And there was my chance.
I regretted it a little. If I’d had my pick of careers, I would have done as Mother had and served with Rescue and Evac—the best fliers in the world, saving lives instead of taking them. But that was impossible. R&E was the Corps’ most elite unit. They’d never commissioned a man. And while I was a fine hoverer for a boy, the least R&E woman could fly circles around me. So, the army didn’t seem a bad second choice.
“I spoke with the State Philosophical Office,” Mother continued. “They expect to get two draft exemptions for essential support personnel. One of those is for you.”
This was going wrong already. She must have spent months laying the groundwork for that.
“Well, that’s good to know,” I said. “But what I was thinking is that Willard Gunch dropped by this afternoon. He and Jack are talking about riding into town, maybe on Monday. To sign up.”
“Roddy Hutch is going with them,” I continued. “Probably Eliot Newton, too. And—”
“No! How can you even think it?”
“Mother, listen—if you sign up, you get to choose. You don’t have to go in the infantry.”
“It’s all of them that get blown to hell and flinders! In the cavalry and the artillery and the merchant marine. I could tell you stories about the burns on the sailors at Manila Bay that would make your teeth sweat.”
“Jesus, Ma! I’m going to be the only man my age in Montana sitting at home. You joined the Corps when you were only thirteen years—”
“I don’t care if you’re the last man in the world sitting at home! You’re not going, and I’m not discussing this.” She swept up her bowl and spoon, went to her bedroom, and slammed the door.
• • •
Midnight came and went. Outside, the rain picked up and battered at the shutters. I fixed myself a cold ham sandwich and sat glumly back down in our little laboratory behind the kitchen.
Essential support personnel. I should have seen it coming. I should have rehearsed my speech better, with all its fine sentiments about duty and loyalty to one’s friends and adventure. Maybe I would broach the idea of enlisting again tomorrow after Mother had had time to get used to it.
I tried to set my feelings aside as I settled in to mix up a batch of silver chloride, which we used for stasis sigilry. It was a godsend for flying when you had to strap a sick or nervous passenger to your back—draw a stasis sigil with powdered silver chloride on a client’s chest and she went stiff as a corpse. No breathing, no bleeding, no experience of what was going on around her. Most important, she didn’t try to help you hover by flapping her arms and throwing off your center of gravity. We were down to our last three tubes. I’d already put an order in with Harnemon’s Philosophical Supplies, America’s finest purveyor of philosophical powders, but they needed a couple weeks to arrange a shipment to a place as remote as Guille’s Run. I would have to mix up a batch of homemade stuff to last until their delivery arrived.
I weighed out a measure of thin, feathery crystals of silver nitrate and dissolved it in a beaker of hot water. I stirred for several minutes until I had a colorless solution, then did a few calculations and poured in the appropriate amount of common table salt. A whitish precipitate formed, swirling like snow toward the bottom of the beaker. Over the next hour, I laboriously filtered out the solids, washed them, dried them over a flame, and measured the powder into tiny smoked-glass tubes, which I put safely away in their padded box.
Then I kicked the powder cabinet shut.
How did Ma think she was going to stop me if I decided to sign up? I was an adult; it wasn’t as if I needed her permission. I could simply go. Tonight even. She could find any old philosopher to replace me.
I needed advice. I needed my half sister Angela.
I went back to the kitchen and pulled out my message board. It was quite a large model for the time, an eighteen-inch square of glass with a wooden frame, the underside of which was coated with silver leaf. I took a scoop of milled quartz—highly refined sand—and poured it onto the glass, then smoothed it with my board scraper. Using the four-beat rhythm that the sigil required, I traced Angela’s personal glyph into the sand in the upper right-hand corner with my finger.
Ma said no, I wrote in the sand. What nxt?
I countersigned my own glyph in the opposite corner, drew the sigil to send, and wiped the sand level with the scraper. The same message would appear immediately on Angela’s board the next time she set it to receive.
(A perfectly reasonable person might ask why it should work at all—why should the sand on a slab of glass two thousand miles away shift to form the same words I’d just written? Well, philosophy warps the laws of probability. If you watched a million plates of sand for a million years, eventually the powder on one of them would slip a little and end up resembling the letter A. Philosophical energy just gives it a nudge in the right direction.)
I drew sigils to bring up the conversation Angela and I had had during the afternoon.
Hows she tking it? Angela had written.
Dunno, I’d replied. I havnt askd yet. She’s prbly mad not to be joinng th fun.
Don’t joke abt tht! 4 wars was plenty. Talk lik that & she might voluntr.
Wht abt y? I’d asked. Cld be philsphr draft.
Nevr, Angela had said. If they do, I’ll mov to Mexco.
Snds warm. I’ll vist.
Sure, bt when are y vistng me here?
I wished I could. Six months before, Angela had run off to New York City, where a friend had found her a job as an amanuensis handling the message boards at a bank. It shouldn’t have been a surprise; Angela had entertained fantasies like that for years, one exotic locale after the next. But when she’d actually left in the middle of the night with one of Mother’s old duffels full of clothes and equipment, Ma and I had been stunned.
Angela’s departure had left Mother in a difficult spot. Angela had been Ma’s field assistant, backing her up on difficult calls and taking care of the simpler ones herself, so that Mother wasn’t exhausted by the end of the day. I was a poor substitute at best, a fact the State Philosophical Board had driven home a few weeks earlier by denying me credentials as an apprentice. They didn’t mind if I tagged along from time to time, but, as they put it, We cannot find any precedent for permitting a man to serve as a state philosophical officer, even in a trainee capacity. Indeed, it seems unwise and inhumane, both for you and potential clients, to allow such a circumstance.
Which meant Ma now did all the practical philosophy and I was nothing better than her housekeeper.
“It’s not the women’s work you’d hoped to be doing, is it?” my best friend, Willard, had said on my last visit to Billings, twelve miles up the road. That conversation had turned into our first fistfight in years. (I’d knocked out two of his teeth.) Willard was right, though. Something was going to have to change at home before I got in real trouble or Mother dropped dead from exhaustion.
I tried to console myself by reading a few pages from my favorite book, Life and Death on San Juan Hill, the memoir of Lt. Col. Yvette Rodgers, who’d commanded the first modern R&E wing during the war in Cuba. Chapter eleven—Lt. Col. Rodgers trying desperately to guide a wounded flier back to the landing field by message after sunset, the woman lost and running low on powder, when the Corps encampment comes under Spanish cannon fire. Rodgers has the clever idea to—
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the sand shift on the message board, which I’d left set to receive under Mother’s glyph. It now read:
TO: E Weekes
FR: Montana Philosophical Office, Night Desk
PRIORITY CALL. Respond immediately.
“Oh, come on!” I muttered. I didn’t want to haul Ma out of bed.
Robert Weekes for E Weekes, I replied. Details, pls?
Original request reads: ‘RA, RA, RA fam,’ the State night desk answered. Unable to reach originator by board. Glyph matches for Klein, Evelyn. Address on record is rural home approx 1.8 miles north of Three Forks.
That was a mess. So, someone had messaged an RA—a request for assistance—for an entire family and then had failed to reply to any follow-up messages. A sigilrist might do that right before she ran out to fetch the doctor. Or for a fire. Or as a prank. The State Office seemed confident of the location, but I’d never heard of anything called Three Forks.
Wht county is 3 Forks? I asked.
Gallatin County. Best estimate of location: latitude N45° 53' 33", longitude W111° 33' 8".
I pulled out a sheaf of topographical maps and found the spot—175 miles away, well outside Mother’s usual area of responsibility.
I wrote: Confrm: to Emmaline Weekes?
Y. No closer CP avail. Tell E sorry from us, Robert.
“Son of a bitch!” I said. Mother was going to have to cover it and it was going to take the rest of the night. On top of that, she’d be flying in the middle of a rainstorm with only the sketchiest information.
Acknowledged and accepted for E Weekes at 2:48, I wrote.
I rapped on her bedroom door. “Mother!” I called. Nothing. I opened the door and shouted her name. She continued snoring. “Flight for you, Major!”
Without entirely waking, Mother lurched out of bed, wrapped her bathrobe around herself, and shuffled into the kitchen.
“Did you say something?” she asked.
I ran back through the messages for her. Ma shook her head in disgust. “I’m supposed to be at the construction site for the hotel in Billings at six! If I’m lucky, I’ll clear this in time to be a couple hours late.”
Mother was fully awake now and copying the coordinates down. She spread out the large-format Montana topo map on the desk and began lining up a course. “Squeeze through the pass and sight from the church steeple in Bozeman. Roughly west-northwest.” She had a straightedge and compass out and was using a cardboard slide rule to determine flight times and powder expenditure. She stopped and gave me an irritated look.
“Well, go get dressed!” she said.
“I am dressed,” I said.
“Put on your skysuit.”
“You want me to fly it?” I asked, my voice rising an octave and a half.
Mother didn’t even look up from her charts. “I need a navigator and a second pair of eyes. This is already a goat rodeo and it’s going to get worse.”
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Philosopher’s Flight includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Tom Miller. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Eighteen-year-old Robert Weekes is a practitioner of empirical philosophy—an arcane, female-dominated branch of science used to summon the wind, heal the injured, and even fly. While he dreams of becoming the first male in the elite US Sigilry Corps Rescue and Evacuation Department—a team of flying medics—he is resigned to mixing batches of philosophical chemicals and keeping the books for the family business in rural Montana, where his mother aids the locals.
When a deadly accident puts his philosophical abilities to the test, Robert rises to the occasion and wins a scholarship to study at Radcliffe College, an all-women’s school where he strives to win the respect of his classmates, particularly Danielle Hardin, a disillusioned war hero turned political activist. As Robert begins to fall for Danielle, her activism and his own recklessness attract the attention of the Trenchers, a fanatical anti-philosophical group that Robert’s mother fought years before. With their lives in mounting danger, they must band together with a team of unlikely heroes to fight for Robert’s place among the next generation of empirical philosophers—and for philosophy’s very survival.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the structure of the novel. Why do you think that Miller chose to give each part of the novel a title? How do these titles frame the narrative? What effect do they have on your reading of each section?
2. What did you think of Rachael Rodgers? Describe her reaction to Robert’s flight test. Did you think he deserved to be classified as an expert flier? Why is Rachael resistant to do so? How does she view his presence at Radcliffe?
3. Robert imagines the Trenchers “as most young people of my generation did: a lot of rabid, vicious old men.” (p. 47) Who were the original Trenchers? Why did they oppose sigilry? How did the movement change? What do you think caused the Trenchers to oppose sigilry not just in war, but also in everyday life?
4. When Robert is accepted into Radcliffe, his mother is skeptical about the education and tells him, “The proper place to learn sigilry is in the field.” (p. 56) Do you agree with her? Why does Robert originally apply to Radcliffe? What types of lessons and skills does Robert learn in a classroom setting?
5. Why does Gertrude agree to teach Robert? Describe her style of instruction. Did you think that she was a good teacher? Why or why not? Gertrude insists that Robert use his locker in the aerodrome. Explain her rationale. Why do many of Robert’s classmates object to his presence in the locker room?
6. Jake tells Robert, “I’m not your type. You need someone who’s as goddamned serious as you are.” (p. 146) Do you agree with Jake? Why or why not? Were you surprised by Robert’s relationship with Danielle? Do you think that they were well-suited for each other? Explain your answer.
7. Danielle Hardin is referred to in many ways throughout the course of The Philosopher’s Flight, including the “Hero of the Hellespont” and the “Darling of the Dardanelles.” Why was Danielle given these nicknames? How does she feel about them? Did knowing the monikers affect the way that you viewed Danielle when her character was first introduced? In what ways?
8. Who is Lucretia Cadwallader? Why did she argue in favor of banning all philosophy from warfare, and why does Danielle feel doing so was “an overreach” (p. 186) that paved the way for the Zoning Act? Do you agree with Danielle’s opposition of the Zoning Act? Why or why not? Danielle tells Robert that in order to prevent the banning of philosophy she will “have to engage [those who oppose sigilry]: editorials, debates . . . marches” (p. 188) and that Robert should be doing the same. How is Robert in a unique position to further the pro-sigilry cause?
9. Robert’s mother tells him, “This isn’t a new war. Since the first woman lifted a finger to send a message . . . people have tried to destroy us.” Why have the philosophers historically been so maligned? Describe the ways that Emmaline and her contemporaries attempted to fight those who sought to destroy them. She tells Robert, “we fought the wrong way.” (p. 58) What does she mean? Why do you think their strategy is ineffective?
10. What is the Order of the Chanticleer? Why does Robert decide to join? Describe the other members of the group. Why do you think the Cocks and Hens event that the order participates in is such a popular event on the Radcliffe campus? What effect does it have on the community?
11. When Dar and Robert attempt to see a film together, Dar runs out of the movie theater during the newsreel. Dar tells Robert that she’s furious that “they put a pretty face on [the war]. And that they put me in one of those newsreels when I came back.” (p. 209) Why is this so upsetting to Dar? Compare and contrast the version of the war in the newsreel with the reality of the war as experienced by Dar and Jake.
12. This quote from one of Danielle’s speeches appears as part of an epigraph: “The causes were bound together from the first days: civil rights, women’s rights, and philosophical rights.” (p. 196) Explain her statement. What do all three of the causes have in common? Can think of any modern-day parallels?
13. Robert says seeing Vivian “dug up long-buried feelings of a different kind.” (p. 260) Describe Robert’s relationship with Vivian. What effect does their trip to their childhood home have on him? What does Vivian disclose to Robert about their family history? Were you surprised? Why or why not?
14. Why is Robert nearly expelled from Radcliffe? Brock tells Robert that Dean Murchison prevented his expulsion by threating to resign if Robert was thrown out of the college. Why does the dean advocate for Robert? Does Robert have any other allies? Who are they? While she is disciplining Robert, Brock tells him, “Maybe you need to hear it. . . . you’re good enough.” (p. 199) What prompts her to say this to Robert? Why might Robert need this validation?
15. Dar tells Robert that the worst the R&E Corps can say to him is yes in response to his statement that “The worst they can say is no.” (p. 369) Explain her statement. Do you think Robert would be a good sigilwoman of the R&E? Why are so many of the people in his life against it?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. When Robert sees Unger’s glyph, he says, “[it] was an embarrassingly literal choice, but no one else in her right mind would ever use it, which was the point of a personal glyph.” (p. 78) Describe Unger’s glyph. Why might Robert dislike it? Design a personal glyph and share it with your book club. Did you choose a literal design or something more symbolic? If there’s meaningful symbolism behind your glyph, tell the members of your book club about it.
2. Robert tells Ms. Addams that he has wanted to go out for R&E since he was a child and read Life and Death on San Juan Hill. Were there any books you read during your childhood that inspired you to take action either by choosing a profession or visiting a specific place? Share the books with your book club, telling them what made those particular books so meaningful to you.
3. Dar tells Robert that the newsreels make her furious because “they put a pretty face [on war].” (page 209) Watch some newsreels from WWI and WWII with your book club and discuss them. How do the newsreels depict the wars? Do they present them in a more appealing fashion than the reality on the frontlines? Is there a value in doing so? What purpose did war newsreels serve?
A Conversation with Tom Miller
Congratulations on the publication of your debut novel, The Philosopher’s Flight! What has been the most rewarding part of publishing your debut novel? Was there an aspect of publishing a novel that surprised you?
It’s been a very long road, which has been both the most surprising and the most rewarding part. I did the first sketches for the world that became The Philosopher’s Flight in 2004. After two failed attempts at setting the story in the present day, I put the novel aside until 2010, when I began writing a version set during the Great War. For some reason that one worked. Eight years later, I get to hold the finished book in my hand.
From working as an EMT and emergency room doctor, you’ve had a varied career. Do you think that your other professions helped you with your writing? If so, how?
Much as my years in medicine have made it difficult to find enough hours to write, I couldn’t have written the novel without them. R&E was directly inspired by my time in EMS and the emergency room. Those professions have allowed me to meet people of every age and background. I’ve also seen how people react under intense pressure: Do you shout at your underlings, cry, crack a joke, lose your voice, try to carry on with quiet dignity? The danger involved in the stasis sigil echoes endotracheal intubation, which is one of the higher-risk procedures I regularly perform. Freddy Unger is an idealized version of many scientists and researchers I’ve met. The injuries and medical treatments in the book are as real as I could make them—scribbled in the margin next to Robert’s collapse in Helena in one draft is pulseless ventricular tachycardia secondary to profound hypokalemia.
Can you tell us about your writing process? The Philosopher’s Flight is intricately plotted, moving seamlessly through real and imagined history. Did you plot out the entire series before writing the first book?
It sure didn’t feel seamless writing it! I didn’t have a detailed outline at the beginning. I wrote or revised every day for five years, even if it was only a few lines before bed. My first draft ran 900 pages and followed Robert all the way from Montana to Radcliffe and then through his service in France to the Armistice. It took several readers pointing out that an abrupt change in setting and characters halfway through the story didn’t work well structurally before I decided I was trying to write two books, not one. The advantage of having written so far forward was that as I chopped the book in half and went about rebuilding the plot, I had a good idea what was going to happen in the sequel. In the end, I did assemble spreadsheets and time lines with some events as far out as 1958, though I’ve tried to leave myself wiggle room so that philosophy has room for development in unexpected directions as it enters the 1920s.
You dedicated your book to Abby “who once asked why there were so few women in my stories.” What was the experience of writing so many strong female characters like? Did you find writing about women different than writing about men? If so, how?
It required breaking out of what David Foster Wallace once called the “default setting” of thinking. In college and grad school, without ever considering it, nearly all the characters I wrote were men. While writing The Philosopher’s Flight, I realized I would have to invert that tendency. It was also essential for me to listen to my female colleagues and friends and consider how their experiences might be different than mine. Every female doctor I’ve worked with has been routinely called “nurse” by patients, even when they’re wearing a badge that says physician in inch-high letters; surely Dr. Synge, Professor Brock, Assistant Dean Addams, and Maj. Weekes experienced similar moments. (Though one pities the man who said to Emmaline, “Sweetie, why don’t you send in a real soldier?”) Likewise, listening to friends who have experienced street harassment and responded with Jake-size outrage, witnessing the awful sexual threats directed toward essentially every outspoken female public figure on Twitter, and reading about the challenges faced by the first women to join different specialties within the armed forces helped to shape the characters.
The history of the empirical philosophers is so vivid. How did you go about creating it? What was the most challenging aspect of making the fantastical world of the philosophers believable?
The more I sweated the boring details—How many ounces of powder per minute does a hoverer use? Would there still be trains if people could fly? How do you make silver chloride?—the more real the world became for me. I’ve had a lot of years to invent those details and winnow them down to the ones key to the story. Sadly, my list of Supreme Court rulings affecting philosophical practice and my description of oil paintings that employed the red-green sigil didn’t make the final cut, but maybe I can find a spot for them later in the series.
Valerie Sayers praised The Philosopher’s Flight, calling you “a sly wizard, reminiscent of L. Frank Baum on his best days.” Was L. Frank Baum an inspiration? Were there any other books or authors that inspired you? Can you tell us about them?
I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read The Wizard of Oz. Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell got me thinking about writing American alternative history with fantasy elements and was the clearest inspiration. (I borrow a little of Strange’s magic for the Battle of Berlin in the sequel.) Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, the Harry Potter series (which I read in college), X-Men comic books, and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series also provided flashes of inspiration. Chuck Yeager’s autobiography, which I read in seventh grade, probably gave me a subconscious prototype for Robert.
The advice that Robert receives from Brock to “try less hard” (p. 332) proves particularly helpful to him when he is hovering competitively. Did you receive advice while you were writing? What suggestions were most helpful to you?
Well, that line comes from real life. I was a rower—albeit not a very good one—in an eight-man shell in college. I tended to move too stiffly and wasn’t well attuned to the pace and balance of the rowers around me. As I got further and further out of sync with the rest of the boat, my roommate, who sat directly behind me, used to shout, “Relax. Relax!” (There are few better ways to make someone tighten up, by the way.)
The best advice for writing, which I’d heard many times, is to write every day. That was vital for actually finishing the first draft. In editing, it wasn’t until I laid out my three main plot lines (R&E, the Trenchers, the love story) in a color-coded spreadsheet side by side so that I could see which one was carrying each chapter (or being neglected) that I was able to shape the story into its final form. Michael Ondaatje’s book of interviews with Walter Murch, The Conversations, as well as Murch’s book on film editing, In the Blink of an Eye, helped me to design my organizational system.
What would you like readers to take away from The Philosopher’s Flight?
I didn’t write the book with a single moral or issue in mind, but I hope readers will consider how appeals to pragmatism and tradition can become excuses for reinforcing prejudice and institutional discrimination. That’s true for the opposition that Robert faces trying to join R&E, but even more so for the backlash Danielle faces as she tries to break into politics.
The Philosopher’s Flight is the first in a series. Can you give us any hints about what’s in store for Robert and Dar and the rest of the philosophers?
Robert has a vital role to play in the final days of the Great War, as does Danielle. Most of the characters in the sequel are new, but a smattering of Robert’s Radcliffe friends will return. Over the course of the series, we’ll see several philosophical breakthroughs and new sigils—and philosophers going to ever-greater lengths to protect their way of life from an increasingly powerful and fearful opposition.
Are you working on anything else? Can you tell us about it?
I’ve done work on the third and fourth novels in Robert’s series, which take inspiration from the race to break the sound barrier and the political upheaval of the 1960s.