Travel, security, death, the mundane, strangers, boredom, home, geography: A talk about airports and air travel with Christopher Schaberg and Mark Yakich

Event: Sep 12, 2011

Mark Yakich, right, indicates to Christopher Schaberg the angle at which airplanes approach Louis Armstrong Airport.
Mark Yakich, right, indicates to Christopher Schaberg the angle at which airplanes approach Louis Armstrong Airport.

By Nathan C. Martin

Mutual obsession can make strange bedfellows. For Christopher Schaberg and Mark Yakich, it made a multimedia publishing project. The two professors of English at Loyola University New Orleans share a common infatuation with flight and its cultural and psychological accoutrements. Yakich, an accomplished poet (and previous Room 220 interviewee), possesses a profound fear of flying that compels him to fixate on airplane crashes wherever he finds them—in the news, in history books, in movies—and to spend hours alone in the airport cell phone lot, drinking bourbon and watching planes land. Schaberg, a former employee of the Bozeman, Montana, airport, wrote his doctoral thesis on the ways in which we “read” airports. He recently published a book of critical theory, The Textual Life of Airports, which is a combined study of airports as they’re presented in literature and of the interpretive demands airports impose upon those who navigate them.

The two writers’ combined neuroses encouraged them to launch a website, Airplane Reading, which collects stories of airports and air travel from amateur and professional writers. The site is a locus for highly readable and utterly relatable stories, as well as a database of narratives that explore our collective experiences with flight. Schaberg and Yakich also published a book, Checking In/Checking Out, an elegant, reversible pocket-sized volume to which each author contributed half about his respective flight-related urgencies.

Yakich will read from Checking In/Checking Out along with several contributors to Airplane Reading at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, December 16, at the New Orleans Museum of Art, as part of the museum’s centennial celebrations. Schaberg, sadly, will be out of town.

The three of us met on an unseasonably brisk yet bright day in October at the Louis Armstrong International Airport’s cell phone lot, where we shared a few swigs of bourbon, befriended the taxi line manager, and talked about the book and the website.

Room 220: How did this project start?

Christopher Schaberg: When I was interviewing for my job at Loyola in 2009, Mark picked me up at the airport and I started telling him about my dissertation, which was about airports in American literature. He was immediately interested in what flying has to do with writing and reading. After I got the job, we started emailing back and forth,  and it was this weird time when there were like three different airplane crashes—the water landing; the Buffalo crash where the plane hit the house and the three family members were watching TV in three separate rooms, and two of them crawled out of the rubble and the third one died; and there was a plane that slid off the runway in Denver.

Mark Yakich: And Air France was that June.

CS: Right. And then there was that Montana crash, with all the little skiers. They found all those little plastic ski boots on the ground.

MY: It crashed into a cemetery.

CS: In Butte. We started really tracking coverage of crashes and emailing back and forth about them. We’d pull quotes from the articles and add our own commentary and anecdotes. We noticed they had a particular penchant for having like 200 comments, and the comments for stories about crashes and airports were like, “Oh, this almost happened to me once.” All of these people wanted to tell their own stories about flight. So we flipped it around and made a website entirely devoted to people’s stories of air travel—from big writers to everyday travelers.

MY: It’s very curious. We launched the site about a month ago, and we’ve got about 60 stories already. We’re offering edits, but at the same time there’s no literary bar. It’s not a literary journal and you don’t have to be a writer. If you’ve got a story to tell about flying that’s nonfiction and 1,000 words or less, you’re there. We have a section called “Featured Writer” every week on Monday, and it’s usually a novelist or a professional writer, but then we have daily stories by bartenders, college students, flight attendants. You realize, when people are telling their stories, that airports and flying kind of tap into a real nexus—there’s travel, obviously, but also security, death, the mundane, strangers, boredom, home, geography. It’s a really interesting place for the human condition to play out.

CS: One of the interesting things to me, from a critical theoretical standpoint, is how airports or the culture of flight demands a lot of interpretation or navigating through an airport, but there are also very clear lines where you’re not supposed to think about it—be distracted, don’t think about the fact that you’re up in the air, don’t think about the fact that you’ve been delayed for nine hours, that this person can’t tell you where your bag is. There are demands to turn off your attention and, a moment later, to be really attentive. I like looking at how travelers are supposed to balance that.

MY: We knew we were tapped into something when Chris sent an email to Hemispheres, the in-flight magazine for United Airlines.

CS: I tried to pitch a story. I said, you know, we wrote this book, we’ve got this website, it seems like it could be this great little story in the magazine—two English professors are working on this project about air travel. The editor-in-chief writes back: “Oh, you know, actually, our magazine is just for general readers. We don’t want our readers to think about the fact that they’re traveling.” I was like, Wow. This proves the point! We’re creating a space for these stories you’re not supposed to tell—or, you’re supposed to tell them and then forget about them immediately. You bitch about losing your bag and then you book your next flight.

Checking In/Checking Out is reversible, with two sections that converge in the middle

Rm220: There are a lot of adventure stories about flight, where something going wrong is the story, but the mere weirdness of airports and all these minute oddities that happen there are interesting in and of themselves, without much plot. Chris, it seems like that’s what you were trying to show with your half of the book.

CS: Definitely. I wanted to think about the banalities of working at the airport. But there are also so many tropes of the airline worker in movies—the airline worker behind the counter tapping away. I also wanted to expose a job that already has a lot of exposure in the cultural realm, and a lot of negative connotations, too. The figure of the airline worker is always this kind of indiscernible and annoying figure, but you need them to get on the plane. But then, I was that person.

MY: That’s what this book, Checking In/Checking Out, does that you don’t see in other places. You see flight attendant memoirs, pilot memoirs, and you get these crazy stories—Snakes on a Plane, for instance. You never get the ones that Chris is telling. The banal. The day-to-day. On my side, I talk about my fear of flying, and this never gets air time either. People don’t talk about it. I had one agent say when we sent her our book, “I don’t want to read about that stuff. I don’t want to think about those kinds of things.” Tupelo Press, who published a chapbook of mine, read that manuscript and said, “We enjoy the experience of flying, and we thought that reading your book would make us not enjoy it anymore.” So, on both sides, we’re doing something people haven’t wanted to do.

Rm220: I was trying to think of good descriptors for airports and I kept coming back to the word “surgical.” Everything is presented with precision and efficiency, yet—as you wrote in your side, Chris—”The whole operation seem[s] held together by thin threads of time and tenuously maintained spaces.” You have these planes that are pocked with hail and covered with bird guts, and then you come back with your side, Mark, with this fear of crashing. If something goes wrong, it’s not like you’re washing machine breaks—the airplane falls out of the sky and everyone dies. So it seems to me that the idea of air travel being “surgical” works well, because surgery is this very clean, precise, controlled thing, but if you fuck up in surgery—and, really, it’s a bloody mess to begin with—a person can lose a limb or an organ or something. The ratio between pains taken to present the processes as efficient and controlled and the direness of the consequences of a mistake seems about one-to-one.

MY: That’s interesting. I remember when we first started writing about airports, I wrote a line that was something like, “Part hospital, part Cathedral.” Because I thought about the whiteness and the cleanness. They’re always super clean.

CS: And the technical lingo of before security and after is actually called “the non-sterile zone” and “the sterile zone.”

MY: Pilots seem like surgeons. You trust them with everything. They have to remain cool and calm.

It was such a welcome coincidence that this plane happened to fly over just as I snapped the picture! We didn't even have to stand there for 20 minutes waiting or anything!

Rm220: Mark, you’re a poet, and, Chris, you write critical theory. Why make this a nonfiction book instead of something else? Why is nonfiction an effective form for talking about these kinds of things?

MY: People seem to be interested in memoir these day, “real” things that “really happened,” even though every memoir is a fiction—no matter how close you try to stick to the facts, you’ve got memory to deal with, narrative artifice, and so forth. I guess with nonfiction I wanted to reach an audience that would take it seriously, and I wanted to reach a big audience. Poetry readers are a small little subculture and it gets a little incestuous and boring to always talk to them.

CS: For me, the divergence from critical theory proper is very much in the spirit of the public intellectual. This is a subject with philosophical dimensions, but they need to be written about and talked about in such a way that anyone who’s flying or thinking about the airplane could be like, “Oh yeah, there’s something profoundly weird there,” rather than just taking it for granted.

Rm220: Mark, the first scene in your half of the book is striking. You’re sitting out in the airport cell phone lot in your car, where we are now, watching airplanes through binoculars. Your palms are sweating cold and you have a flask of bourbon you’re drinking, and it all relates to you trying to confront your fear of flying. How often does this happen and how long have you been doing this?

MY: It probably should happen more often than it does. For a time I’d regularly come out here, just because I didn’t know where else to go. If you keep watching all those planes take off, and nothing’s happening, that’s somehow reassuring. Julian Barnes has a book Nothing to be Frightened Of, which is all about his fear of death. He said he got over his fear of flying when he was younger when he got to the airport in Greece a day early by accident. He was young and had no money, so he had to sit there all day and watch the planes, and that just kind of dispelled him of his fear. He watched so many planes take off and there wasn’t one small incident, so he was like, “What the fuck? Why am I upset?” So that was my logic at first, but at a certain point you start to get addicted. It’s solitary. You sit in your car, and watching something that invokes fear in you—you kind of get off on it a little bit. It sounds odd, but no one’s out in the cell phone lot. There are taxis at certain points in the day. Otherwise, there’s like four cars. It’s like being in a bathroom at a baseball stadium with 40 urinals. You can piss anywhere. No one gives a shit. You can park anywhere in the cell phone lot. No one’s going to see you do anything.