Interview: June 5, 2009
June 5, 2009
In his memoir, CRAZY FOR THE STORM, Norman Ollestad chronicles his story of survival after a plane crash in the mountains leaves him the sole survivor at the age of 11, while giving credit entirely to his adventure-loving father's unusual parenting style. In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Norah Piehl, Ollestad explains how he was able to piece together his scattered 30-year-old memories in order to vividly describe that harrowing nine-hour ordeal, and reveals some of the difficulties he experienced revisiting those traumatic events. He also provides insight into his father's personality and outlook on life, discusses how their unique relationship has helped to shape the one he now shares with his own son, and names some of his biggest writing influences.
Bookreporter.com: The events in CRAZY FOR THE STORM happened more than 30 years ago. Did you always know that you wanted to write about them? If not, what motivated you to write this memoir now?
Norman Ollestad: When I was 21, ski bumming in Europe, I realized that I wanted to be a writer. The deeper I got into that state of mind, the more I understood that I would write the story of my father and myself, our crash, our life together. Then I sort of forgot about it, until my six-year-old son began to remind me of myself when I was young --- my son and I were doing the same things that I did with my dad, surfing and skiing together. On a long drive to Mammoth ski resort, I recounted to my son the crash and some of my adventures with my father. When I finished the story my son said, "You have to make that into a book." And so I did.
BRC: Tell us a little about the experience of writing the memoir. Were there any emotions or reactions that came up during the writing process that surprised you?
NO: I often got sore throats after a day of writing. I had to sleep a lot. My body was lethargic, but I forced myself to exercise, to keep my body and mind alert. Writing the book made me really appreciate how devoted my father was to me.
BRC: How about the actual events? Has everything remained as vivid in your own memory for the past 30 years as it comes across in your writing, or did you need to return to some locations to research and explore them again to fill in pieces?
NO: Returning to the locations, especially Baldy, helped link my scattered memories together, and the geography instigated a lot of buried memories. I have always had a strong geographical memory, so seeing those trees and rocks and touching the terrain again was very helpful. Then retracing the flight really brought it all home. I interviewed family, friends and witnesses, and reviewed the NTSB report, Sheriff’s report and news clips to fill in some of the gaps, or reinforce my recollections.
BRC: Tell us what it was like to grow up on Topanga Beach in Malibu in the heart of the 1970s. Is there any place like it now, or was that something that existed only in that time and place?
NO: There has never been anything quite like it, and I don’t think there ever will be again. It was a blend of many diverse types of people, all living together in a small cove, a tainted paradise, in a time of great upheaval and freedom.
BRC: Reading about life on Topanga Beach is not at all what we would picture as the world where an ex-FBI agent would live. FBI implies life with rules while Topanga was open and free. What did your dad do with the FBI? What were his impressions of his time there? And why did he leave?
NO: My father left the FBI because Hoover was corrupt and hypocritical. My father liked to swim in many different social oceans --- he sought out the unknown, loved to explore new environments, and Topanga Beach was a quintessentially spontaneous and unpredictable place, so he was attracted to it.
BRC: In some of the sections that take place both before and after the crash, you seem to contrast the ways your dad pushed you to be brave, to challenge yourself, with the very different ways your mom's boyfriend tried to control your behavior. What characteristics do you think go into being a good dad?
NO: Show your children that you are interested in them, devoted to them. Share your passions. Keep exposing them to what you believe will fulfill them. Then let them decide whether or not they want to indulge. And don’t be afraid to make mistakes --- everybody can learn from mistakes --- just try not to repeat them.
BRC: You have an eight-year-old son. What kinds of activities do you do together? How would you characterize your relationship?
NO: We do a lot of homework together. We surf and ski as much as we can. I believe my son knows that I am devoted to him. He’s not afraid to tell me how he feels about something I may be doing that he doesn’t like, and I allow him to speak his mind. But I’m still the head gorilla.
BRC: Near the end of the memoir, you return to the crash site for the first time since February 1979. What was it like to return to that spot? Have your thoughts about your dad evolved as you became a father yourself?
NO: Writing the book has made me realize how devoted my father was to me --- he instilled an attitude that has always enabled me to find the beauty in life, even when it seemed impossible to uncover. I’m impressed by his passion for life, his optimistic point of view. I try to pass that on to my son.
BRC: In the scenes that take place during the crash, you make it clear that the lessons your dad taught you directly or indirectly saved your life on the mountainside. In the years since, do you still feel your dad's lessons have been useful to you in other situations?
NO: Yes. In many ways his lessons have been even more useful in navigating what I call “regular life.” Which is more complicated, because life does not have laws that it follows like Nature does.
BRC: One of the most striking things about the narration is the shift between the harrowing events on the mountain and earlier events, including the road trip to Mexico with your father, in alternating chapters. Did you always plan to organize the memoir this way?
NO: I wrote a few drafts in chronological order, then realized it needed the juxtaposition to really come alive --- that took a few days to organize.
BRC: Some reviewers have been calling your writing style "Hemingwayesque." What novelists and memoirists have influenced you the most?
NO: Hemingway has always inspired me, and haunted me because of his seemingly effortless prose. Cutting to the bone is hard to do, but, I believe, easier and more fulfilling to read. There are so many great writers that I learn from that it’s impossible to list. However, Cormac McCarthy is certainly a writer I hold in the highest regard, as well as Jhumpa Lahiri.
BRC: Do you plan to do more writing? What else would you like to, or do you plan to, write about?
NO: Yes. I am a writer for life. I’m sketching out my next book and hope to get it underway in the fall. I can envision my next two books, and some short story/novellas I’d like to take a crack at. Meanwhile, I’m doing some pieces for Men’s Journal and other publications.
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