Friday, May 6, 2011

Light This Candle


Yesterday’s post didn't even scratch the surface in terms of all the great tales in Alan Shepard's biography: how he viewed himself and his world, how he was viewed by others, and the complex emotional dynamics of the early Space Race.

The amazing author of Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard generously offered an autographed copy of his book for a blog prize, and even made time in his schedule for an interview, so I could satisfy some of the burning questions I had after reading his book.

For example... good grief, are test pilots completely CRAZY?

Neal Thompson Blog
Also check out Neal's blog, where he invites any
and all to "stalk" him on Facebook and Twitter!

Test-pilot personalities seem such a paradoxical mix of precision and flamboyance. Alan Shepard claimed to hate the press, but clearly adored the spotlight. Your book was published 5 years after his death from Leukemia. Do you think he would have liked it? Or liked the attention from being the subject of a biography?

Neal Thompson:
I'm pretty sure Shepard would have seriously disliked the idea of my book, and probably the book itself, too. And I think one reason no book had been written when he was alive was because he refused to cooperate with any potential biographers, and his friends did the same. Many of the people I contacted early on would say something like, "Al wouldn't have wanted me to talk about this." But I think in time some of those sources realized his life story was an important one that deserved to be told. It is true, though, that he hated the press but didn't mind the celebrity status he achieved.

I think he liked managing the spotlight, and keeping reporters away from certain aspects of his story. The deal with Life magazine helped in that regard, and helped assure that, while he was alive, no one got close enough to tell the real story.

I was blown away by the amount of people you interviewed from every phase of Shepard's life. Most impressive was your in-depth research of WWII, his role in introducing jets to the naval fleet as propeller squadrons were retired, and his crossover into NASA at a time when our culture was in Sputnik-turmoil . Did you have a healthy interest in any of these historical eras before this book?

Neal Thompson: At the time of Shepard's death, I was covering the military (primarily the US Naval Academy and the NSA), so I already had an interest in military stories and, in general, stories about men living big lives. So when Shepard died, and I realized, to my surprise, that no one had yet told his full story, I knew I wanted to dig deep and really get to know who Shepard was.

This was tricky in the beginning, since man of his friends were reluctant to talk about him. But little by little I got through to people, and doors started opening. I also felt it was important to explore some of the lesser known aspects of his impressive life and career, such as his days as a carrier pilot. So much has been written about the space race, so I chose to find a fresh approach that showed not only what he did with NASA, but how and why he got to the point where he was chosen among the first 7 astronauts. To learn about the full breadth of his life, I felt that I had to talk to everybody.

Light This Candle, The Life and Times of Alan ShepardGordon Cooper called Shepard the "most complex" of the first astronauts, but NASA white-washed the "image" of the Mercury Seven, so we rarely see their multi-faceted humanity. However, his foibles brought him alive on the page for me, I admired how you didn't shun being truthful. While he was fascinating, brave and intelligent – he was also often arrogant, dismissive, and his adultery was no secret. Did you worry at all about revealing the "evil twin" of an American hero?

Neal Thompson: One reason I was drawn to Shepard's story was because his life is so rich with complexity and paradox. He was raised in a religious and disciplined family, but became a renowned rule-breaker, occasional hellion and undeclared agnostic. He was a good father and devoted husband, but not necessarily faithful. He was a top Navy pilot, but constantly battled against the Navy's rules, to the point of almost being court martialed. He was ruthlessly competitive but could also be generous, kind and extremely loyal. In short, he was fascinatingly complex. He was a human being, with exceptional qualities but also flaws. Learning about all facets of his personality made him seem more real to me, and I hope I achieved my goal of showing the man behind the white-washed NASA image of the man.

You absolutely did. He claimed the "Right Stuff" book and film were fiction, and disliked both. I for one am surprised that a separate film has never been made about him… but now that the 50th-year milestone has passed, perhaps someone will greenlight one. Do you think one ever will make his life story into a movie, and if it was made now, who do you picture playing Alan Shepard?

Neal Thompson: In recent Op-Eds that I wrote in advance of the 50th anniversary of Freedom 7, I describe how Shepard represented the iconic, bad-ass test pilot, how he dressed well and drank martinis and smoked cigars, how he was the epitome of Mad Men-era style and cool – he was basically Don Draper in a spacesuit. So, as for playing him on the big screen, how about Jon Hamm of Mad Men? I would love to see a Shepard-focused film some day, especially one that explores his mid-60s fight back from Meniere's Disease to eventually reach the moon.

Oh wow, yeah, how about John Hamm of Mad Men to play Alan Shepard! Check him out!