Birdie — the central character in An Impossible Distance to Fall, the new novel by former Ashevillean Miriam McNamara — is a privileged 16-year-old from Long Island who dreams of attending finishing school with her best friend, Izzy, and marrying David. But in this 1930s-set story, the stock market has crashed, along with Birdie’s father’s bank. Birdie’s mom says Dad is dead, but Birdie doesn’t believe it: She’s found a flyer for a traveling aerial circus and on it, she swears, is a picture of her father’s biplane.
McNamara, who is now based in Minneapolis, returns to Asheville for the launch of her second historical young adult book, which Kirkus Reviews calls “a thrilling coming-of-age story featuring queer girls challenging societal conventions.” McNamara will read and discuss the book at Malaprop’s on Friday, Aug. 2.
Born in Ireland and raised in Virginia, the author first came to the Asheville area (which she called home for 17 years) as an undergraduate at Warren Wilson College, where she received a degree in elementary education. After deciding she didn’t want to teach, she got a cosmetology license and worked at various hair salons in Asheville, making a name for herself as a curly-hair specialist.
McNamara’s first writing experience was with The Great Smokies Writing Program (a joint effort involving the UNC Asheville departments of literature and language, creative writing and the Office of Professional Education). “I love how you can take college-level classes and not have to enroll in college,” she says. There, she began work on her first novel, The Unbinding of Mary Reade, with instructor Joy Neaves. “It was Joy who said, ‘Have you ever thought about getting your MFA?’ That’s how I ended up going to Vermont College,” McNamara says.
After grad school and with publication scheduled for her first novel, McNamara returned to The Great Smokies Writing Program, and, over the course of two semesters, wrote a good portion of An Impossible Distance to Fall in Elizabeth Lutyens’ master fiction class. “I like that writing is a solitary project, but I also benefit from the collaborative process in a workshop,” she says.
The idea for the story came when a fellow writer penned a nonfiction piece about a woman who was a wing walker in the 1920s, McNamara says. “I had never heard of such a thing, and I kept thinking, ‘Who would be the type of person to do this?’” While The Unbinding of Mary Reade takes its cues from the life of a real person, An Impossible Distance to Fall is not about anyone specific, she explains. “When you base a story on a real person, there are limitations to the narrative. I didn’t want to do that again. This story is grounded in the history of many woman pilots, wing walkers and circus performers.” Phoebe Omlie, a woman pilot from the 1920s, she says, was a strong inspiration.
In the book, Birdie’s life is in a tailspin. Her home is being foreclosed upon, and her mother is leaving for Europe to get financial support from relatives. Determined to find her dad, Birdie heads to Coney Island. There, she discovers an enchanting cast of characters: fire spinners, stuntmen and lady pilots. Birdie is a skilled dancer and convinces the circus to take her on, earning her keep as a wing walker.
As the narrative unfolds, Birdie must find balance and courage as she confronts her romantic feelings for a girl pilot named June, as well as hard truths about her father.
“Things happened that were beyond their control,” McNamara writes in the novel of the circus cast. “Planes broke, banks closed, money disappeared, people disappointed. You could still put on one hell of a performance.”
WHAT: Miriam McNamara launches An Impossible Distance to Fall
WHERE: Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, 55 Haywood St., malaprops.com
WHEN: Friday, Aug. 2, 6 p.m. Free