Interview with Black Wings author, Kathleen Toomey Jabs
How did you come up with the story for Black Wings?
Actually, it came to me: I had a vision of a female pilot crashing into the sea. I hate flying, but I’ve always been fascinated by aviators. I worked on this novel for almost ten years, with some breaks. Over time Audrey evolved as the mysterious central character, her astonishing career witnessed by her roommate, Bridget, who must investigate her death.
Can you say a little about the title and what it refers to?
The title is both a reference to a physical object and also a metaphor. In the Navy, people who are warfare qualified, such as aviators, wear a device on the pockets of their uniforms. In shorthand, the aviator device is referred to as “wings.” As Audrey pursues her dream of flying jets, sets of ominously black wings keep popping up in her path.
How did your experience at the Naval Academy add to the story? Did you draw from real life experiences?
I drew some of Bridget’s early adventures or mishaps from my own experiences. For example, she is originally from Boston and is not a particularly squared-away plebe when she arrives at the Academy. I’m also from Boston and I certainly had my share of culture shocks, especially during the first summer. Some found their way into the story, but I had to change them to fit with Bridget’s character, which is different from mine. As an officer, Bridget is part of the public affairs community. I’m also a public affairs officer or PAO. I know that world so I had lots of real-life material to draw on, but I wasn’t constrained by it. I used the Naval Academy grounds and the Pentagon, but I also took a lot of liberties. This is fiction!
What was the most difficult part of writing Black Wings?
It was hard for me to untangle the story. I wrote and rewrote the novel at least four times to get the sequencing and chronology right and to make sure the plot was coherent. I had so many things happening, and I wanted Audrey’s voice to be a part of it. I had to find a way to get her point of view across.
Can you say something about the role of women in the military—the difficulties, the triumphs—to which your book speaks?
The changes for women in the military have been pretty far-reaching since I first affiliated with the military. One of the reasons why I set the book in the early 1990’s was to capture the time of change, churn, and firsts. When I joined the Navy in 1984, many issues were still being worked out, many career fields were off limits, and there was a fair amount of resentment towards women. Today women are much more integrated and have more opportunities. Not everything is resolved now – there will always be some tension, but that’s not necessarily a negative thing. Right now, military women are deployed around the world, showing their competence and professionalism in incredibly difficult situations. It’s very inspiring.
How would you rate your experience as one of the first women midshipmen at Annapolis? Did it prepare you for life, how did it influence you?
I had a first-rate education at the Naval Academy. It wasn’t a fun place to be by any means, but I had some pretty amazing opportunities, such as a chance to study in Ireland, to become fluent in Russian, and to be in really small classrooms with amazing professors, particularly in the English department. I don’t know if I would’ve taken a creative writing class if I’d gone to a civilian college. Molly Tinsley (co-founder of FUZE) was my professor and advisor. She nurtured my writing then and is still doing it now – 25 years later! Another way the Academy influenced me was that I learned to be resilient, disciplined, and tenacious. That certainly helped me stay with the novel for so long!