Flight of Fancy
So much so that on Monday he raved on-air about the 146-page book, a first novel by Jane Mendelsohn that imagines Earhart living on a tropical island after her twin-engine Lockheed Electra has gone down in the Pacific. He raved some more on Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday about the story's lyricism, its great romantic pull. By the time the literary tastemaker was done, I Was Amelia Earhart had made a tidy three-point landing on the bestseller list. And Mendelsohn, who never used to listen to the radio, is now, she says with a grin, "a big Imus fan."
These days, though, the author, 30, has little time to stay tuned. The phone in the one-bedroom apartment in New York City that she shares with her filmmaker husband, Nick Davis, 31, has been ringing with requests for readings. There are congratulations from long-lost relatives and friends, and informal sales reports from her proud father, who periodically does spying missions at the bookstore near his office.
Staying down-to-earth may be a challenge for Mendelsohn, considering that Earhart has sold more than 150,000 copies to date—exceptional for a literary first novel—and reviewers other than the I-man have also been generous. Remarkably, Earhart almost didn't get published. Conceived as a straightforward historical novel told in the third person, then redone as an elliptical first-person narrative, the book was 2½ years in the making and didn't immediately wow literary agents. "They said different things, but they didn't want it," Mendelsohn says. "A lot of people said, 'I like it but it isn't commercial' or 'It's inaccessible' or 'It's too short.' "
Fortunately, she found an editor at Knopf who had no fear of taking a flier, and Mendelsohn's new agent is busy fielding movie offers. Says Davis: "It's nice to know where the rent is coming from. Jane worked so hard for so long. It's great for people who love her to see her happy."
The author grew up in Manhattan, the daughter of Frederick Mendelsohn, a psychiatrist, and Leatrice, an art historian, who divorced when she was 7. "I was a very bookish little kid," she says. "I wrote these mock Agatha Christie murder mysteries where there were always characters bursting through French doors." She majored in English at Yale and briefly attended law school there before giving in to her childhood dream of becoming a writer.
Her inspiration for the novel was a newspaper story about a man who thought (mistakenly) that he'd found a piece of Earhart's plane on an island. "The article mentioned she had a navigator, which I'd never known, and the idea of two people flying around the world together immediately struck me as dramatic," says Mendelsohn, who portrays the pair as lovers. "Then I started reading about Earhart. She was so in love with her work. She is the American heroine."
Once fixed on her course, Mendelsohn taped photos of Earhart to her computer, hung newspaper reports about her flights on the wall and listened to tapes of her voice. "Maybe this sounds too mystical," says Mendelsohn, "but Earhart was showing me how to tell her story. I think she would have liked it."
Though Mendelsohn is no pilot, she believes she has a sense of what Earhart felt. "Flying is a lot like writing," she says. "The solitude, the adventure and the physical aspect of it. Sitting in front of my computer I sort of felt like I was in the cockpit. And there's the element of the unknown: the blank page and empty sky."
Mendelsohn, who has just completed a treatment for a horror film, is currently sketching out her next novel, which won't be historical, and contemplating a change in home decor: Her apartment is still crammed with plane mobiles, toy planes, postcards of planes and other airaphernalia. Children are a few years down the road, but Davis already has the name picked out. "Jane thinks I'm kidding," he says. "But boy or girl, we're going to name our firstborn 'Imus.' "