f first novels are supposed to be autobiographical, second novels are supposed to be the trickiest. And all cliches carry some kind of truth in them. This novel certainly took a long time to write, in comparison to Messages From Chaos and there were moments, especially at the beginning, when I was plagued by an invisible audience. I was aware now of critics, of readers thinking absolutely every word was autobiographical, and this sometimes interfered with the writing.
Basically, with this book, I started out with the idea of investigating the inchoate longings I had sensed in some bewildered men and women I had once interviewed for The Sydney Morning Herald. They were all devotees of the Baghwan Shree Rajneesh, who is dead now and his devotees mostly dispersed, but in the early ’80s, Orange People, as they were called, were everywhere. I wanted to know where such unhappiness came from, or rather this unhappiness seeking happiness, this search for meaning, for a kind of faith to restore value to life.
It seemed to me that at the fag end of the 20th century, faith in the old absolutes was dying or already dead (belief in the existence of God, for example; in the intrinsic worth of the work ethic, in marriage, family) but there was pain in the flounderings of people dispossessed by these changes. I wanted to contrast this floundering, this sad groping after absolutes, with the birth of the new century, when everything was innocent and hopeful. Modern technology, medicine, science, art: the whole world at the turn of the twentieth century seemed fresh and growing. Then came the First World War, ushering in the Fall. Anyway, these were the ideas I began with.
And, it is probably worth pointing out at this point that in my own small, late twentieth century life I had gradually begun to realize the full implications of leaving the world of regular employment for the vagaries of novel writing. The rent on my flat in Bondi, Sydney, kept going up and up and there came a moment when I realized that I could no longer afford it. I should put on the record that without the money from the Literature Board of the Australia Council I would not have been able to continue writing full-time at all.
In my early thirties by this stage, I realized that in order to conserve my money, and finish the book, I would have to give up my flat. I moved back to Queensland and my parents’ house. I remember being terribly depressed. Secretly, like all writers starting out, I believed that I would make money from my writing. I knew all the statistics about writers of literary fiction only making between $5,000 and $20,000 a year from their fiction but with the arrogance of beginners, I somehow managed to convince myself that things would be different for me. I had just begun to realize they might not.
But then I had a moment of radiance: the character of Emma Lubrano suddenly came alive. I was in love with her, with the story, and suddenly I had everything I needed. Not long after this transcendent moment, I heard I had won a six month residency at the Cite Internationale des Arts in Paris. I thought: I am not rich, I do not own a house, but I have food in my mouth and I am happy. I am traveling, and alive.
Flying Lessons is not a book to skim, wrote Nicolette Jones in The Sunday Times (July 1, 1990). Rather, ”one feature of its density is that important moments and plot twists are packed in tight alongside all the other precisely expressed details. Death and sex are condensed into succinct utterances that bear the same weight as imaginatively described marginalia. All the words count . . . The story has its unexpected turns and ironies, which match up disparate ideas and offer a lurching satisfaction, as when a lift reaches a floor”.
The book, set in Australia, has two heroines, modern-day Ria Lubrano and her Edwardian grandmother Emma James. Ria Lubrano, who “came into the world with bones plotting mutiny”, suffering from a literal and metaphorical film over her eyes, is vegetating as a jingle-singer, a voice without an identity or even a complete song, her sense that life is just “a series of disengagements”. She is preoccupied with the loss of her brother Scott, who has drifted out of touch with his family and turned by degree into a missing person. She is also engrossed by the story of Emma, who married a Catholic boy and was renounced by her archetypal disciplinarian father.
On a bus home from a family wedding, Ria decides to rebels against her “curiously empty” life in Sydney by escaping to northern Queensland, in search of her brother and grandmother. She never knows her grandmother’s tale, only hearing fragments of the past, finally to reject them for her messy present, wrote Professor Stephen Knight in The Sydney Morning Herald (May 5, 1990). ”What she does confront though, foregrounded for us through Emma’s story, is the impact of consistent separations. Brought up in new city, a new suburb, with a father who sought, in Johnson’s pungent phrase, “a success that might be impenetrable”, Ria’s loneliness distills modern anomie, just as her journeys in time and place recreate the falsely hopeful swarming of many in our period”.
Her quest takes her to the Tableland of northern Australia, where her father was born, where Emma lived, and where she knows that Scott, like herself, is bound to be drawn. She settles into a hippy community, learning to shovel chicken shit and get her white ankle socks dirty, and comes into contact with a neighboring commune run by mesmeric ex-Yorkshire man Arthur Stein. It all seems perfect – its apparent honesty contrasting with the fakeness of outside society.
Intercut with Ria’s travel, meetings and musings is the story of Emma, the beautiful songstress and schoolteacher whose impulsiveness wrestles with her sense of duty. With an earthbound life, Emma dreamed of flying but never took off. She married for sudden love, sang for surprised pleasure, and died early after bearing Ria’s father.
This tale catches you up as it caught Ria up, and as romantic Italian Sam Lubrano swept up his schoolteacher bride. Full of details of dresses and dances, it encapsulates period and place. Nicolette Jones wrote that: “The place, in remote northern Queensland, is not yet obscured by literary cliché, like Edwardian England, and therefore becomes territory of Johnson’s own making”.
Professor Stephen Knight: “Flying Lessons is altogether ambitious, big, rich in plotting, and boldly presented with the most striking point of all, written to reveal a knowing and feeling author whose text sweeps along, intriguing and engaging the readers but never cradling them, a text equally capable of the affectionate phrase and the swinging insight. Along with an eye for the rich detail of context and behavior, Johnson has a style both firm and mobile and a strong sense of authorial control. In Flying Lessons, the novelist’s craft is so well involved with overall enigma. She writes of her own context with appealing strength and searching critique”. Professor Knight continued: “Messages From Chaos was a novel better than good, a sprightly, searching account of a young woman on the plateau of daily life in Brisbane. It drew unfairly little notice, being published at a time when most of the major local writers had a strong book out for the Bicentennial market”.
Robert Carver in The Observer (July 8, 1990): ”Susan Johnson has a clear, attractive authorial voice, and a deep sensitivity for character as well as place. She evokes the airy, vast empty North Queensland of today and yesterday with fine brushstrokes”.
Andy Solomon in The New York Times Book Review (November 17, 1991): “Ms Johnson’s prose is charged with feeling, insight and rambunctious wit”.