June 9, 2009

Cromwell Dixon's Sky-Cycle #2

I was the guest blogger on the Penguin Blog a few weeks ago... so I thought I'd recycle these in the event anyone didn't see them.

Is this your first book of historical non-fiction?

Yes. I seem to be attracted to certain parts of history that captivate me. Sometimes history can seem like a big museum filled with amazing wonders... and it's entirely my own to freely wander around in. I think it all depends on how history is presented and whether one can feel any direct connection to the past.

I've always had a fascination with historical photographs. I'm a firm believer that a picture is worth a thousand words. Photographs from a century ago can seem almost magical to me. So many things in the world have altered completely... photographs from history seem like another world.

I remember my history class in high school was quite boring. Memorizing all the dry textbook dates for the exam was awful and I've forgotten everything. No doubt the Ken Burns approach to presenting history would be far more interesting.

I find that words and photographs of the past can be a source of reassurance against the precarious future.

What do you find so interesting about the period of 1907?

The time when Cromwell Dixon's Sky-Cycle took place was like today, a time of tremendous change. The changes might even have been faster than today's world. To imagine that there were still horse drawn carts and gas lamps in 1907. Electric lights were a rarity, refrigerators or telephones scarcely existed. The automobile was a novelty.

But electricity changed everything... in the same way that computers are changing everything today.

I guess the world seemed much more romantic and heroic 100 years ago. The excitment of big city skyscrapers climbing to the clouds... ocean liners racing across the Atlantic… it all seems so romantic. Edison was inventing machines that could talk and make photographs dance on a screen.

I'm always struck by how the first skyscrapers seem so tall, but really, compared to modern buildings they're almost tiny. Somehow the modern age leaves out the romanticism and clouds in the turrets completely. It's also interesting that many of the first cars from 100 years ago were electric.

You can see more about the history of 1907 at the book's web site.

What about the age of early aviators?

The dawn of the age of flight was probably the most amazing age of all. People could fly for the first time in history. It’s easy to be taken in by it all. I think that early flying machines made out of canvas and wood are aesthetic marvels. Their simple elegance of form seems so perfect.

I was thinking about the many similarities between flying airships and pirate ships. Pirate ships were dear to my heart as a child. I would draw sailing ships for hours on end as a child. The rigging, rope ladders, sails and all fascinated me. I hope that Cromwell Dixon's Sky-Cycle might capture some of that feeling.

Flight is taken 100% for granted now... but just consider how it scarcely existed just a century ago. It was a romantic, swashbuckling, daredevil time, for sure.

Do you like stories with a bit of danger?

I think (as a parent of two boys) that sometimes boys would rather climb a tree or escape beyond bounds than submit to another day confined in school. There's nothing quite like breaking out of bounds now and then for a little excitement and boy-type adventure. I'm sure Mark Twain would highly agree with this speculation.

I like that Cromwell Dixon's Sky-Cycle is a real 'boy's book'.

But this is a boy's book with daring, adventure, danger and amazing inventions... all built by a boy in his own backyard. I'm hoping the same audience that liked 'The Dangerous Book for Boys' might like it.

I'm always afraid that many kids might think old-fashioned stuff is a bore. I hope not, since I think the subject of the age of early aviation is fascinating. I tried to cast the whole book more along the lines of Jules Verne.

The theme of the flying bicycle is intriguing... what's that all about?

Bicycles lend themselves to a certain fantastic quality. Of course the movie E.T. had a flying bicycle, but Cromwell Dixon made his bicycle fly the old fashioned way... without any magic. I think children have a special relationship with bicycles. They are the one mode of transport available to children where they can almost fly, at least in their imaginations. But to actually build an airship, powered by a bicycle seems really extraordinary.

And of course kids love building things out in the backyard. Hopefully they still like to do that even in this digital age. I think some of the best childhood memories are times when kids build memorable things… rafts, tree-houses, soap-box derby racers… that sort of thing.

As a child we spent one summer building our own rafts that we would paddle in the lake in a city park. One day we were out paddling and discovered a stolen car at the bottom of the lake! Our discovery even got us a story in the newspaper.

There's no stopping the raw talent of children. My son used to build his own cars. He knew exactly what he wanted it to look like, so he'd start with the fender and then add more and more parts... until it was all done.

I take it you like bicycles?

Indeed I do. Bicycles are a fantastic invention if ever there was one and it was a revolutionary technology 100 years ago. I read that bicycles caused a huge social upheaval. For the first time in history, people who couldn't afford a horse could now get around on a bicycle. This made it possible for people to shop at new stores that were farther than they could walk before and work in new locations.

For me, a bike ride is usually the favorite part of any day. A bike ride with a notebook to a cafe is perfect. Bicycles are totally 'human scale' compared to cars. I can bicycle around on for errands a lot faster than in a car. No pollution and its great exercise.



Sue said...

Great article, John! And you're right....bikes rule! :-)

Liz said...

I love these illustrations -- the shading, the coloring, the detail. They're beautiful! And if yu have an interest in early aviation, I have a book suggestion. This isn't as early as 1907, but the post-WWII era, which is also important in the history of aviation. The book, "His Edge," is somewhat autobiographical on the part of author Wayne Harding, about his experiences as a civilian test pilot. (He even has dedicated the book to two test pilot heroes.) Lots of great scenes from the cockpit, and if you like history, you'll like the details of the end of WWII and the post-war period: the patriotism, and the optimism and opportunity.

John Nez said...

Thanks! Those look interesting.

I imagine my aeronatical days are now history... but it was fun while it lasted. Actually I think I'm afraid to fly in real life. Every time I go on a jet I set glued to the window, watching everything for hours on end. I've only been on two flights in the last 30 years... so I have to enjoy every second.

A balloon would be nice... but that will have to remain entirely to my imagination.