PORTLAND – Dana Haynes has always had a preference for print journalism over the television variety.
“I think television news is dreadful,” he said. “I come out of print journalism, where you can spend 1,200 words to craft a story.”
A former journalist in the Portland metropolitan area, Haynes is now the public affairs manager for Portland Community College – and the author of the mystery thriller “Crashers,” published by St. Martin’s Press and the winner of the Spotted Owl Award as best mystery or thriller of 2010. Haynes said his experience in print journalism, rather than TV, gave him the skills to write a fiction book about airplane crashes and terrorism attacks. He called this skill “writing mystery books in a real world setting.”
It’s not always as easy as it sounds, he said.
“It’s paying attention to the world around you, asking what might happen,” he said. “But the other thing about being accurate but also writing a thriller is we don’t live in a thriller world. Most of the time things that happen are not thrilling. That’s what drives me crazy about CNN. Once the thrilling event is over, they still have to fill the air for 24 hours, so they say ‘Let’s show a photo of the president’s prostate,’ and they do that six or seven times until you’re ready to throw up.”
On Sunday, Haynes talked about his book and the challenge of writing realistic fiction in a program called “Political, Plausible and Just Plain Preposterous,” held at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Portland. Haynes said he felt the title of the program was appropriate, since “I realized there’s a lot more preposterous in my books than I first imagined.”
“Crashers” is a novel about the people who investigate airline crashes. He got the idea for the book from a magazine article – again, the rich details to be found in print journalism.
“I read about these people in The New Yorker in 1996, and I remember thinking ‘These people are fascinating,’ “ he said. “Sometimes they take a plane apart and put it back together to figure out what went wrong. Remarkable. I still can’t get my DVD to record.”
So Haynes decided to write a fictional story about a plane sabotaged by terrorists, but he also decided to make the book as true to life as possible.
“I wanted the big stuff to be big and thrilling, and the little stuff to be plausible and believable,” he said. “I had to spend a year to figure out how planes work.”
He did just that, contacting the National Transportation Safety Administration for help with his research. There was a whole lot of information available about planes that had crashed, he soon discovered.
“You can get the specs from the flight data recorders,” he said. “I did the research in 1999 and then I wrote the book in 2000. Then I got a really good agent who signed me to a two book deal. It was the dream come true. “
For a month, anyway. Then Haynes hit a huge roadblock on his path to literary success – reality intruded.
“This was August 2001” when the book was published, he said. “By September 2001, this book became a lot less marketable.”
What happened was the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington D.C.. Terrorists hijacked planes flying out of Boston and flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon Building, killing thousands. The topic of his book was suddenly too eerily and uncomfortable similar to the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.
“September 11 took place on a Tuesday,” he said. “I was the copy chief at my newspaper and we were working round the clock, and it wasn’t until that Friday that I realized ‘My book – I just got screwed.’ It took me that long to realize my book was dead.”
Haynes, who has also published three murder mysteries, would eventually republish the book last year, to great acclaim. He hopes the subject won’t be as sensitive this time around, a decade later.
“Airplanes fall from the sky. What can I say,” he said.
But he did note that in his efforts to learn everytnhing possible about how airplanes work, that research impacted his view of flying the friendly skies.
“People ask me, am I afraid to fly,” he said. “Before I wrote this, I said no, and after writing this, I said ‘Hell no!’ Writing this book has completely evaporated my fear of flying. I have no fear of flying, none whatsoever.”
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