Author Interviews/Features

       

Sarah Byrn Rickman

Sarah Byrn Rickman Sarah Byrn Rickman is editor of the official WASP of World War II newsletter, the author of five previous books about the WASP, and an amateur pilot. In addition to her books, Sarah is the author of numerous magazine and journal articles about the WASP.

Sarah is a former reporter/columnist for The Detroit News (Michigan) and former editor of the Centerville-Bellbrook Times (Ohio). She earned her B.A. in English from Vanderbilt University and an M.A. in Creative Writing from Antioch University McGregor.

Sarah was born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and grew up in Denver, Colorado. She now lives in Colorado Springs with her husband, Richard, and their black Lab, Lady.

Interviewed by Pat Bean

Posted on 06/17/2017

Sarah Byrn Rickman, winner of the 2016 May Sarton Award for Biography, wrote her first story at the age of five. Her award-winning book, Finding Dorothy Scott: Letters of a WASP Pilot, is the author's seventh published book. She dictated that first story to her mother and aunt while she was recuperating from measles in a darkened room.

"That's what they did back then, to protect a child's eyes," Sarah says of the dark room. "I was very much into Christopher Robin and Pooh Bear, so I dictated my own story about them, ... and illustrated it on shirt cardboards, the ones that came back from the laundry in my father's clean white shirts."

Her first writing goal, Sarah says, was to follow in the footsteps of the glamorous comic strip reporter Brenda Starr. "I also wanted to write books and was always telling stories in my head...they were more like movies running behind my eyes. Remember the mind's eye that you developed reading and listening to radio? When the Lone Ranger shouted 'Heigh-ho Silver away!' I could see that white horse galloping over the plains. I also read voraciously, way above my supposed reading level. I think I was eleven when I read Gone with the Wind. My senior prediction, upon graduating from high school, was that someday I would write the sequel to Gone with the Wind."

Sarah grew up in Denver, Colorado, and when she was twelve, she spent the summer at the Trails End Ranch for Girls, an experience, she says, that altered her life.

"I was an only child—and I'm an introvert—and that was my first experience living with, and having to get along with, other girls. It prepared me for college, but more than that, it made me who I am today. The ideals, the friendships, the camaraderie there, along with a stable full of horses, which I loved, and hiking and camping opportunities in the mountains of the wondrous Rocky Mountain National Park, completely changed my perspective."

"I learned to live with and deal with other people, to accept them for who they are, and I learned to love nature and the mountains and freedom and responsibility, all wrapped up together. I spent six glorious summers in that rarified atmosphere."

As for college, there was never any question but that Sarah would attend her father's school, Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. "I wanted to go there...our little family of three had lots of family there. Vanderbilt is a great learning institution. It, along with my upbringing and something inside me, sowed the seeds of the liberalism and the feminism I now embrace. And that colors everything I do and write and think now." Sarah did become her own version of Brenda Starr, first as a reporter and later as an editor when her two sons were in the fourth and fifth grade. In her fifties, she wrote her first book, a mystery, in collaboration with a friend. After her boys graduated from college, she returned to school and earned a master's degree in creative writing. Her second novel was her thesis.

Then she was introduced to Nancy Batson Crews, who, Sarah says, "made it possible for me to win the Sarton Book Award. She is why anyone who reads about the WASP or is interested in their story knows my name." Nancy was one of the 28 women pilots selected for the very first women's squadron, the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron: acronym, WAFS, which later became known as WASP.

All seven of Sarah's published books are about these brave World War II female pilots, who led the way for what is now women's roles in military flying. Sarah says the story that resonates with historians, a story that is truly a heroic one, is the story of Nancy Love, and of Nancy Batson and Dorothy Scott and the twenty-five other women who were the original WAFS.

"Add to that another hundred superb women pilots brought into the WASP...and you have the untold story—the story that tells how the WASP of the Ferrying Division, Air Transport Command, did their part to help win World War II. That is the story I told in my other 2016 book, WASP of the Ferry Command: Women Pilots, Uncommon Deeds."

"Finding Dorothy Scott tells a small piece of that story, but Dorothy didn't live to take part in what happened in 1944—though she was on the brink of that when she died." Nancy Batson did live it, Sarah says, and sixty years later she passed that story on. "She challenged me to write it, and then helped me do it by introducing me to her fellow surviving WAFS, who told me their versions of the story. The Originals: The Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron of World War II—my first book, published in 2001—is that story."

Sarah says she had wanted to fly since reading about Amelia Earhart, but that she was into her seventies before she finally earned a Sport Pilot certificate, the lowest rating you can acquire and still be a licensed pilot. "Another word for it could be 'fair weather flyer,' as I am not instrument rated, nor do I want to be. When I fly 'in the soup' I am in an airliner, and they do the flying. I fly when I can look out at the unobstructed and incredible views of the earth from the air."

Sarah says that on the day she completed her first cross-country solo, a 75-mile trip that included landing at two grass fields, she was "pumped." It shows in a photo of her on the Internet beside a yellow 1946 Aeronca Champ plane known as a taildragger.

"I love taildraggers and I love flying off a grass runway...and now, thanks to my Sport Pilot certificate, I am a full-fledged member of the Ninety-Nines, the organization for women pilots founded by Amelia and 98 other women pilots in 1929."

Sarah says encouragement for her writing came at the right time, but that it is the writing itself that inspires her. "I continue to see more possibilities and avenues to explore. I've just written my first script for a 15-minute WASP documentary I plan to produce. I am now part of a poetry group, and they are encouraging me to shed my journalistic restraint and let it all hang out in poems. But I'm not there just yet, but thinking..."

"Winning the Sarton Award has blown me away. Validation is so important. The Sarton Award is my first gold sticker. It confirmed my sense of the worth of my writing, but, even more important, it confirmed the impact of Dorothy Scott's story. It is her writing, her incredible letters that made the book possible. This is, I believe, the affirmation I needed to move away from my reportorial style and to explore the depths to which writing can take you."

Sarah gives credit for getting Dorothy's story told, and leading her through the best way to present it, to her editor Joanna Conrad at Texas Tech University Press. Meanwhile, Sarah's eighth book, BJ Wasp, Squadron Leader, is expected out this fall. It's the author's first young adult biography.

"I will say this, and hope it never comes back to haunt me. I have never suffered writer's block. Right now, I have more stories to tell, books to write, than I can possibly manage. But I'm relishing the challenge." As for the best writing advice she received, Sarah says, it came from her mother, although she calls it non-writing advice.

"Back to those shirt cardboards that I used when illustrating my Pooh book: My mother's advice to me, 21 years later, was to start off my marriage not ironing my husband's shirts, because he would always want me to do them. By then, of course, we had automatic washers and dryers and permanent press shirts. Besides, I was a liberated 1960's working girl. I took her advice and never ironed a shirt."


Pat Bean is a retired, award-winning journalist who traveled around this country for nine years in a small RV with her canine companion, Maggie. She now lives in Tucson, Arizona, where she is putting the finishing touches on her book, Travels with Maggie She is passionate about nature, birds, writing, art, family, reading and her new dog, Pepper.
       

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