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Debbi Mack interviews crime writer Les Abend on the Crime Cafe podcast.
Read along with the podcast or, if you’re in a rush, download a copy of the show notes here.
Debbi: [00:00:13] Hi, everyone. This is the Crime Cafe, your podcasting source of great crime, suspense, and thriller writing. I’m your host, Debbi Mack. Before I bring on my guest, I’ll just remind you that the Crime Cafe has two ebooks for sale: the nine-book box set and the short story anthology. You can find the buy links for both on my website DebbiMack.com, under the “Crime Cafe” link. You can also get a free copy of either book if you become a Patreon supporter. You’ll get that and much more if you support the podcast on Patreon, along with our eternal gratitude for doing so.
Debbi [00:01:02]: Hi, everyone. Today, our guest is a writer with one of the coolest jobs anyone on the show has had. He’s an airline pilot, and his proverbial second act is as a crime writer. Author of the novel, Paper Wings, it’s my great pleasure to have with me today, Les Abend. Hi Les, how are you doing today?
Les [00:01:27]: I’m doing great, Debbi. Thank you for having me on.
Debbi [00:01:31]: Well, thank you for being here. I wanted to touch on, first, your previous experiences in writing for the trade publication Flying Magazine. You weren’t entirely a newcomer then to the world of writing and publishing before your novel came out, correct?
Les [00:01:51]: That’s correct. Yeah, I’ve been writing for Flying Magazine now as a columnist for, I guess, 18 years. So, yeah, I was familiar with writing stories—the stories I write for Flying Magazine are a little bit different. They’re actual experiences and I just try to convey some insight to the general public, to the ‘flying’ public and more particularly, to general aviation pilots.
Debbi [00:02:16]: Mm, that’s very interesting. So, the audience for that magazine is general aviation pilots?
Les [00:02:23]: For the most part, unless you include mom and dad. So, yeah.
Debbi [00:02:28]: (chuckles). And do you write about your experiences as a pilot?
Les [00:02:30]: I do, I do. And often times, you know, if it’s not my experiences, it’s other folks’ experiences or something that I’d like to highlight about the industry. But primarily, my experiences.
Debbi [00:02:40]: That’s really fantastic. It was a great training ground for you, I would think.
Les [00:02:46]: It was and honestly—this is sort of a segue to where I get to the book—the objective was for me to get some notoriety so I could move forward with a novel, which has always been a goal of mine since I was young. And I sort of got sidetracked with Flying Magazine; you know, I’d send in some unsolicited articles and so on and so forth. And the editor-in-chief was looking for somebody at that very time, so it worked out very good and he wanted me to continue. He said, “most airline pilots can only write one article. I’ll tell you what, if you can write another one, you might have a little bit of a future”. And well, the rest is history, so I’m very grateful.
Debbi [00:03:34]: Well, it’s really fantastic and it’s a wonderful demonstration, kind of like a case study of how one person got into writing a book for publication. Because you’ve trained yourself through writing these stories for the magazine. Something for people to think about, I think.
Les [00:03:56]: It’s been very helpful and it’s been a great experience. And actually, the most gratifying thing to me, as probably you as a writer and screenplay writer, is that somebody enjoys it or somebody is motivated to move forward. With my career, some of the best moments I’ve had is somebody taking me aside and saying, “because of you and the columns that you presented, I moved ahead with my career as an airline pilot”, so that’s very gratifying to me.
“And actually, the most gratifying thing to me, as probably you as a writer and screenplay writer, is that somebody enjoys it or somebody is motivated to move forward.”
Debbi [00:04:25]: That has to be a wonderful feeling. You were on CNN. What was that experience like?
Les [00:04:34]: (chuckles). Well, it was like drinking through a firehose. You know, for me to get to that point was kind of an interesting story from the standpoint of somebody from CNN Op-Ed had contacted my editor-in-chief and said, “Hey, can we use this guy to write about…” there was a subject matter they wanted me to write about and I developed the relationship. And when Malaysia 370, MH370 disappeared now, what, six years ago, I guess, they asked me if I would go in and go on camera, and I said I don’t work very well with cameras but, you know, maybe some other time. And the editor-in-chief of CNN Op-Ed said, “No, we’d really like to get you on camera” and then the rest is history. I showed up in Manhattan, got lost downtown, I got to my chair about five minutes prior to airtime, I was told to look into this black thing called a camera and screen and talk to the interviewer at the time, who was Don Lemon. And you know, years later I’m still doing it, so.
Debbi [00:05:39]: Wow, that’s really something. How did you learn to fly?
Les [00:05:46]: Well, I’m not sure I’ve learned yet, but I’m doing the best I can, even after 7,000 hours. Honestly, that’s something that those of us that are consummate professionals say; we’re always learning, there’s always some new experience that we haven’t had even with the amount of time that those of us as airline pilots have had. But you know, I began when I was a kid. I think I sat in my mother’s lap in a sail plane in Elmira, New York and that really sparked the interest. But what really moved me ahead was a certificate I received when I was six years old, and the certificate said that I had flown aboard American Airlines with my spirited mother who had taken me into the cockpit, and said 20 years from that date I could appear for an interview. And I said, “okay”. And that was the end of that, and I took them seriously. And unfortunately, 20 years from that date, we had a bunch of my colleagues or my future colleagues were on furlough, but I did get an interview of sorts and well, once again, the rest is history. And 34 years later, you know, here I am as an airplane pilot, retired airline pilot now.
“I think I sat in my mother’s lap in a sail plane in Elmira, New York and that really sparked the interest. But what really moved me ahead was a certificate I received when I was six years old, and the certificate said that I had flown aboard American Airlines with my spirited mother who had taken me into the cockpit, and said 20 years from that date I could appear for an interview. And I said, “okay”. And that was the end of that, and I took them seriously.”
Debbi [00:07:02]: When did you start writing fiction seriously with the intent to be published?
Les [00:07:10]: When I was in first grade, actually. I don’t know if I had the intent of having it being published at that time, but I wrote a little short story about an experience I had with my sister trying to get a snake, a big black snake in a box, and presented it to my first-grade teacher. And I wish I could recover that story, it’s got to be somewhere, but that’s kind of when I started and when I enjoyed writing.
Debbi [00:07:35]: When did you start to do it as an adult, I guess, as a pilot?
Les [00:07:40]: As a pilot, well, the time that I kept pushing myself to say, “Hey, let’s make this novel goal happen.” And that was probably shortly after September 11th, I decided to write some various stories, nothing to do with September 11th at that particular time. But you know, I said let’s pick a subject matter that I know a little bit about and that’s when I did the unsolicited column to Flying Magazine. And then from there, I chased a lot of squirrels, one of them being my career. And I said, you know what, let’s move this ahead and then eventually, I got to be thankful to CNN because it brought me an agent that said, “Why don’t you write something?” And I said, “Well, guess what, that’s what I’ve been trying to do.” And it got me into the publishing world.
Debbi [00:08:41]: That’s fantastic. Tell us a little bit about Paper Wings, what’s the story about?
Les [00:08:48]: Well, I call it a mystery-suspense-whodunnit-thriller. There’s some crime in it, germane to what your podcast is about and what your readers have. It incorporates all of those aspects into sort of an aviation environment without getting into the weeds, without getting technical, you know, for the average intelligent reader to understand. And I’m trying to make it a universal appeal, but like I do with the magazine columns, I’m giving you insight into the professional airline career. Some of it is not pretty, some of it is stuff I’ve experienced, some of it is based on things I’ve experienced or other folks have experienced. And I’d like to continue it as a series and my objective is to make it a series, sort of the cold cases of airline accidents or aviation accidents, I should say. Because it won’t always be about necessarily airline accidents, although I’m much more familiar with that but I’m also a general aviation pilot too, so we own a small airplane, and that’s the world that I started in in order to get to the career that I had for 34 years.
About Paper Wings: “I call it a mystery-suspense-whodunnit-thriller. … I’m trying to make it a universal appeal, but like I do with the magazine columns, I’m giving you insight into the professional airline career. Some of it is not pretty, some of it is stuff I’ve experienced, some of it is based on things I’ve experienced or other folks have experienced.”
Debbi [00:10:06]: Mm-hmm. Let’s see. I was going to say that you do a great job of including technical terms and details without really over using jargon or over relying on it and bogging the pace down. So, how do you manage to strike that balance between including terms and so forth, and keeping the plot moving, making it understandable for the average reader?
Les [00:10:34]: Sure. My outlook is always, as it has been with the magazine, that I have intelligent readers and that if I incorporate some jargon that might be a little bit on the technical, something that wouldn’t be in everyday use, then I incorporate it into a paragraph or a sentence where if you don’t really understand it, you understand how it’s being used. And that’s how I try to make it, rather than referring people to an appendix per se, because that just bogs down a novel, yeah.
Debbi [00:11:08]: (chuckles). I hate that kind of thing. Yeah, I’d much rather understand it in context, and I have to say you did a great job. I mean, I just started your book and it’s hard for me to put down simply because you throw in that occasional acronym or technical term, but it’s like I know what’s going on and you know, you feel the immediacy of the situation that this pilot is in, which I won’t talk about. But I will say that it’s exciting, you have a very nice exciting beginning.
Les [00:11:42]: Thank you, thank you.
Debbi [00:11:44]: Do you have a favorite author or one who’s inspired your work most?
Les [00:11:49]: Well, I would say as a child, my favorite author was Rod Serling. I got to meet him personally when I was 15 or 16, and I always admired the surprises of his story. Twilight Zone and Night Gallery were always favorites of mine, that was kind of a genre I liked when I was younger. And Stephen King. There’s some aspects to Stephen King that I don’t think he gets a lot of credit for—you know, his genre obviously, is sort of the spookiness aspect, although he’s written a lot of other stuff. But those were the two that I sort of aspired, and now present-day, Nelson DeMille. I think he has a tremendous handle on dialogue. You can almost read a Nelson DeMille excerpt in dialogue that you don’t need any other settings, he just does a tremendous job and I aspire to be able to do that.
“I would say as a child, my favorite author was Rod Serling. I got to meet him personally when I was 15 or 16, and I always admired the surprises of his story. Twilight Zone and Night Gallery were always favorites of mine, that was kind of a genre I liked when I was younger. And Stephen King.”
Debbi [00:12:51]: Interesting. You’ve also adapted your novel into the screenplay for a TV pilot. Now, she says, with a knowing smirk, as one who also writes screenplays (and those aren’t produced yet), I must ask whatever on earth possessed you to do that? (laughs)
Les [00:13:14]: (chuckles) Well, it was always sort of written, you know, as a potential movie. We all have that dream as aspiring authors, but I had a friend of mine that’s semi-connected in Hollywood and he read it and he was very enthusiastic, and he happened to be … we hadn’t crossed paths in many, many years. And he went on to the entertainment industry beyond just being a pilot. And so, he said, “You know, you wrote a screenplay”, I said, “Well possibly.” And so, he started to get me enthusiastic about it and we started to collaborate a little bit with other folks. And we were trying to come up with who could write the screenplay and I had never had experience in it. And you know it’s a whole different jargon. It’s a whole different way of writing. It’s novel shorthand, as you well know. And I took it as another challenge like I would with flying, like I would with the columns, and I said, “Let me try to do this,” and I really started to enjoy it. So, it’s not a completed work yet. I do have the pilot done but that’s about as far as I’ve gotten at this point in time.
On writing the TV pilot based on his book: “[I]t was always sort of written, you know, as a potential movie. We all have that dream as aspiring authors, but I had a friend of mine that’s semi-connected in Hollywood and he read it and he was very enthusiastic …”
Debbi [00:14:30]: Hmm, I could talk probably about all sorts of things related to that. I was going to ask you if you had any idea of what the series bible would look like or where the episode would ultimately lead? Do you have like a story engine for the series?
Les [00:14:53]: Yeah, I do. I mean, I have a protagonist that I always want to maintain. And you may not have got to the point where you’ve met sort of the, um, I wouldn’t call him an antagonist but he’s a good part of the story. So, they’ll be recurring characters but at the end of the day, I want people to, you know, just because he’s an airline pilot—the protagonist—I want people to be able to relate and understand that there’s flaws, like all of us, and relationships, whatever it is. But I also want to provide that insight, like I mentioned before, to our profession in a way that that makes it fun and entertaining. You know, I want you to go to Florida, go to the beach and put the book down and maybe get a little bit of something out of it in addition to just having fun and being entertained. But at the end of the day, like for instance, my next novel is gonna be called, unless I change it slightly, it’s gonna be called, Tarnished Wings. And it’s gonna be about a pilot that’d be very relatable to some folks and to try to bring that forward possibly as a book series for sure, but as a screenplay forward more in a series part, if that makes sense.
Debbi [00:16:26]: Is that book that you just mentioned, the Tarnished Wings, is that part of a series that starts with Paper Wings?
Les [00:16:34]: Yes.
Debbi [00:16:35]: Okay, so you have those characters, okay.
Les [00:16:40]: Yeah, I don’t have enough—yeah, I’ve been chasing some squirrels, so you know, like most careers, but I have the outline. And the way I craft a story, whether it’s a column, whether it’s the book is, I know what the beginning is and I know what I want in the end too, and I like to work and have fun. And as probably you do as well, Debbi, sometimes it starts to write itself, especially the characters and that’s kind of the way I like to work. And I start with the structure and then sometimes, we do away with that structure.
Debbi [00:17:18]: Exactly, yeah. I am very big on structure but I’m also very big on deviating from it, where I need to.
Les [00:17:25]: Absolutely.
Debbi [00:17:26]: So, let’s see. Do you think you’ll continue to do both books and screenplays?
Les [00:17:35]: I do. You know, by theory, I should have the time being retired, but I do really want to get back into it because I enjoy it. And yeah, absolutely.
Debbi [00:17:47]: Fantastic. I think everyone has at least one horror story about air travel in them. I’d like to hear your side of this; do you have any kind of travel “horror story”, so to speak?
Les [00:18:04]: Well, you know, pilots are strange people to ask that question, especially airline pilots because, you know, we’ve all had some moments where we got to pay attention to what’s going on and we’ve had some emergencies and so on and so forth, but that’s part of our job. Your husband’s a firefighter, you said. Same with him. I’m sure he doesn’t come home with his stories all the time. For me, the stories that are annoying and uncomfortable are making passengers uncomfortable, whether it be turbulence, whether it be inconvenience as far as getting them to their destinations, you know, or the fact that I can’t get a first-class passenger that paid good money their espresso because the machine is down in the airplane. You know, those are things that make us feel that we’re not doing the job for our customers. So, I don’t know if that really answers your question, but that’s sort of where I’m at with that.
Debbi [00:19:09]: Well, that’s a good enough answer as far as I’m concerned. I mean, doing your job well is something that always feels good and being a good pilot sounds like it involves a lot in terms of keeping track of things.
Les [00:19:26]: I had the privilege of working with some very, very consummate professionals that took a lot of pride in their work. And you know, that’s the environment that I spent almost four decades with and it’s a gratifying experience. You know, even if you didn’t get along personality wise with a particular pilot, because you spend a lot of time in a tight little area with these folks, they wanted to be polished. And one of our big things was, we knew there were people behind us, and that was the most important thing to us. You know, even though it may not sound like it, you know, that we’re just taking passengers along for the ride, we are very conscious of our customers back there. And I can say that for the vast majority of the colleagues I spent time with.
Debbi [00:20:23]: Well, as someone who has been on many a plane, I appreciate people who can fly them and who can take care of us while you guys are flying them, because that must be real tough work for everybody sometimes. In any case, is there anything else that I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to mention?
Les [00:20:46]: No. I just I hope that people come more to your podcast and I hope that my being here can kind of help that, and you know, for myself personally, it would be great if folks would take a look at Paper Wings and don’t get scared away from the standpoint that it’s an airline pilot writing about a potentially technical subject matter. I smooth that out. I want people to have fun with it and identify with some of the characters and enjoy some of the, sort of the dark humor or the dry humor that I’ve been exposed to for all the years that I’ve been a pilot.
Debbi [00:21:32]: (chuckles) Well, as somebody who used to practice law and wrote a mystery that involved zoning law, I didn’t get very technical but I wrote about it in the ways that emphasized the conflicts. So, I can appreciate what you’re saying, totally.
Les [00:21:51]: Thank you, thank you.
Debbi [00:21:53]: But thank you very much for being on, Les. I really appreciate your being here.
Les [00:21:59]: Well, I appreciate the invitation, Debbi, thank you.
Debbi [00:22:01]: It’s my pleasure. And everyone out there, don’t forget. Please check out the Crime Cafe ebooks. The nine-book set and the short story anthology, which along with my Patreon page, you can find on my website www.DebbiMack.com. I have another special offer running for the Patreon page. Part of it involves giving a free copy of my own box set, Law Can Be Murder, which is three novels in one ebook. So, when you take advantage of special offers you get access to the special offer, plus anything that comes at the tier at which you became a contributor. So, that includes free copies of the Crime Cafe books and lots of other perks. So, don’t miss it. And with that, I’ll just say thanks for listening. Our next guest will be Denny Griffin, and I’ll see you in two weeks. In the meantime, happy reading.
Don’t miss the special offer, which you can find right here! 🙂 Runs until Nov. 19, 2019!