William Langewiesche, Photo by Wendy Murray, All rights reserved.

William Langewiesche, best-selling author, international correspondent for Vanity Fair, and (it so happens) a pilot, won the rare honor of being chosen by the editors of Penguin Modern Classics (U.K.) to publish a volume of his writings about flight, thus joining the ranks of George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Albert Camus, Italo Calvino, Capote, Steinbeck and Gandhi.

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Titled Aloft (Feb 2010), Penguin chose the topic of flight from Langewiesche’s writing corpus because, says PMC-U.K. editor Helen Conford, “William possesses a unique perspective on flight and his writing is almost poetic in the way it captures the first century of flight.” It is “a rare event” that a living writer should be numbered among other classic (deceased) authors. “PMC publishes only those authors whose writing they believe will be recognized in a hundred years’ time,” says Conford.

During a visit with Langewiesche for a story I was writing, I sat with him in a cafe and overheard him giving writing advice to his assistant by phone:

 

On using the first person:

“If first person relates to what you are feeling, drop it out. No one’s concerned about you. Use the first person naturally, but never about yourself.”

On length:
“You’re not going too long. Go long. Make it 30,000 words. We’ll cut it later. Go long. Go long. Just tell the story. Grab the reader by the balls.”

On fact-checkers:
“Forget the brackets. Why burden the reader with the fact-checker neurosis? I don’t write for fact-checkers.”

About his writing process:
I’m a writer. Even when I was a pilot I was a writer. I read an enormous amount of material on what I’m working on but I never take notes on what I read. I don’t even underline anymore. I just read and allow myself to forget what is naturally forgotten and remember what I remember. I feel no obligation to cite anything. I like my prose unburdened with apparatus. I take relatively few notes. I listen carefully. I like to use a recorder because it adds the ability to revisit things in a way taking notes doesn’t. It’s not a crutch, though it’s a pain in the ass. I also prefer to do my own research. It makes my work less encyclopedic.

I see writing as highly tactile, like sculpting, forming something, smoothing it with hand strokes. Where before there was nothing, in the end there is a sculpture, an object. Occasionally it doesn’t happen that way, either because of my own inability or because I don’t have the right subject matter. You can get stuck with an overly linear, overly complex, overly generalized text—all kinds of overlys—that can screw up the aesthetic of a piece. At the same time, I hate

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