I had the good luck of reading award-winning author Tony Taylor’s first book, Counters. Many of you are well acquainted by how much I love history, so it’s no wonder that I fell in love with the Vietnam war backdrop of the book. Tony’s background was also very intriguing and we ended up doing this interview.
Pilot, spacecraft navigator, author: Tony Taylor flew fighters in the Air Force and later navigated NASA spacecraft to all eight planets of the solar system. As insurance in claiming all the planets in case minor planet Pluto is promoted again, he added that one in 2015 as a member of the New Horizons Navigation Team. His first novel, Counters, drew on air combat experiences in Vietnam. The second, The Darkest Side of Saturn, reflects many of his NASA experiences.
Can you describe your books, Counters and The Darkest Side of Saturn, in one sentence each?
The Darkest Side of Saturn: A geek astronomer becomes a reluctant prophet of doom when he and a female colleague discover a dangerous asteroid and announce it to a skeptical world; he acquires a cult following of true believers and incurs the wrath of an unhinged preacher.
Counters: Warmones, hormones, and conscience compete for the souls of young pilots in the VietNam war—an air combat tale of whimsical intelligence and vivid realism.
Can you describe briefly what led up to the publication of your first book?
I was on the way to Vietnam from my assignment at RAF Woodbridge in England. I’d landed in New Jersey, and as I stepped aboard a bus to go into New York City to see the town (maybe for the last time!), I experienced an epiphany: I would keep a journal of my war experiences and write dispatches to my home-town newspaper in South Carolina.
And that’s just what I did, like my hero Steve Mylder (except he was from Arizona). Several years later, another epiphany led me to write the novel, embedding the dispatches in the narrative as a device to contrast the way it was versus the way it should have been according to the censored versions of Steve’s dispatches.
I finished the novel around 1995, keeping some of the real incidents and inventing others. The novel is about 50% true stories and 50% lies. I got an agent and shopped it around to publishers. No luck. I put it aside for a decade, then decided to self-publish. And that’s the truth.
You have had some very interesting professions. Can you tell us something about your work for NASA?
After Vietnam, I instructed student pilots for 3 years in the T-38 (the plane the astronauts fly). This was probably more dangerous than combat missions in Vietnam. Then I went to graduate school for a degree in physics. After taking a four year detour, I finally got a job at JPL (the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) near Pasadena, California.
The Voyager project was in full swing, and the two spacecraft had already flown past Jupiter. I got on the project as a spacecraft navigator just before Saturn, and stuck with it for that flyby and the next ones at Uranus and Neptune. (That took almost ten years. Space is BIG, and it takes a long, long time to get from planet A to planet B!)
After Voyager, I got on the Cassini mission and added suitcase travel stickers for Venus and Earth flybys (yes, I’ve also been to Earth!) on the way to Saturn again. I got off Cassini before Saturn, and hopped onto Galileo toward the end of that mission so I could claim Jupiter. We intentionally crashed Galileo into Jupiter at the end of the mission, and after that I jumped onto Mars Polar Lander for a short time so we could get that one accurately to Mars. (It crashed, but it wasn’t the fault of navigation; we hit our target dead-on!)
After the Mars misfortune, I left JPL and started working for KinetX, Inc., which was doing the navigation for mission MESSENGER going to Mercury. I was the lead navigator for that one.
So, this gave me all the “recognized” planets in the solar system, Pluto having been demoted to “minor planet” some years before. But it worried me that Pluto, having been once demoted, could be promoted again, leaving me one short of a full house of solar system planets. Couldn’t let that happen, so I joined the New Horizons Navigation Team for the Pluto flyby in July 2015. So there’s my insurance. I’m the first person in history to navigate spacecraft to all the planets (although there’s a scientist who’s had instruments on board that went to them all—but that’s not navigation! so we won’t go into that).
Of course I injected some of my NASA experiences into my last book, The Darkest Side of Saturn, which brings up an interesting story of how I got the title, but alas, time and space do not allow me to relate that here.
You served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, which inspired your book, Counters. Tell us about one War incident that affected you the most.
Well, the most spectacular incident was probably the MiG encounter in Chapter 23 of Counters, which was pretty much exactly the way it happened one day when we, a flight of four Phantoms out for a Sunday stroll near Hanoi, encountered a gaggle of (technical term for about eight) MiG 17s. It was quite spectacular, and probably one of the most exciting events of my young pilot life. But a more meaningful and poignant event for me was reproduced in the book when young Steve Mylder volunteered to take the place in Vietnam of a pilot friend who had just gotten married and hadn’t even had his honeymoon yet. That pilor, James Hoskins in the book but Dave Rickle in real life, was tapped again for Vienam about a year later … and never returned.
When did you realise that you wanted to become a writer?
Sometime around the 4th grade, when I wrote an unbearably sentimental grammar school essay with all the big words and long sentences I could muster, and earned a big note of effusive praise in red pencil at the top of the page. For the first time I thought, “Well whaddaya know; I can write!” I’ll go out on a memory limb and say that my teacher who wrote the note was Ms. LeCroy. Thanks, Ms. LeCroy, I owe it to you, and it only took around 40 years after that for me to finish my first book.
Your books have won many awards and recognitions. How does that make you feel? Did you ever expect anything like this at the beginning?
I did not. I think my writing is good, but there’s always the little voice in the back of your head that says, “You just think you’re good, but it’s entirely possible that you’re deluding yourself, and in reality, you suck!” so it’s always great to hear praising reviews and get recognition in awards, so that you have a chance to finally throttle that nasty little voice and send it off to the hell it deserves.
What’s the best part of being an author?
At the risk of being flip, one of my favorite quotes, from Gloria Steinem, is “I do not like to write. I like to have written.”
Writing is hard work for me; I am not a natural, and perfectionism is one of my demons, driving me to edit, re-edit, re-re-edit, ad infinitum. I never met a paragraph of mine that I didn’t want to revise. It’s a very rare event when the words flow sweetly and gracefully out of my brain, through the spinal synapses, down the arms and out the fingertips, effortlessly coloring the pages with thoughts and emotions. When that happens, that’s great, but more often writing is waking up at 2 AM (always 2 AM for some reason) unable to sleep because a phrase is running around in your head, padding through the dark to your office and scribbling that phrase down as fast as possible, then returning to bed and blessed oblivion. In the morning that phrase (a word or two, maybe a sentence, and sometimes even a paragraph or so) may look like complete garbage, or it may be the key to break your most recent logjam and change the direction your story is going. There’s no accounting for 2 AM inspiration.
To sum it up, I’ll finally answer the question: The best part is to know … to know … that you wrote a damn fine piece and you done good! It lights your candle from within.
Do you have any advice for new writers trying to succeed in the literary world?
Very very simple and short advice: Write to please yourself, and have fun with the written word. I don’t think much comes out of your writing if you don’t play with it, goose it here and there, and go out on some limbs.
Is there something about you that people would be very surprised to know?
Hmm. You stumped me. Maybe it’s that I detest flying. As a passenger. On airlines. When I’m not in control. You’d be amazed how much confidence a stick in your hand and a parachute on your back gives you.
Or maybe … No. Never mind.
Can you describe a typical day in your life?
Get up, drink coffee, read the online news (Trump, Trump, and more Trump), think about writing, read the online comics, drink more coffee, think about writing, sharpen pencils (metaphorically; I don’t do pencils), make a list of things to do and check it twice, balance the checkbook, think about writing, make a run to the grocery store, think about writing … Oops. Time for lunch!
After lunch: Drink more coffee. Write.
Are you a dog person or a cat person?
I like some dogs, but little kitties own my heart.
Lastly, can we expect more books from you soon?
Short answer: No. I don’t write well on demand, I have to ease my way into it and think a lot about it. It takes me a long time to write a book, and at my age I’m not sure that’s on the horizon.
Many thanks for the interview, Tony! You truly are a great writer and one of the finest people I’ve ever had the opportunity to interact with.