About the Author: Mark Vanhoenacker '96
Place of birth:
B.A. magna cum laude, History; M.Phil., University of Cambridge, and then about a third of a Ph.D. (the P?); Air Transport Pilot’s Licence, Oxford Aviation Training & British Airways Cadet Pilot Programme
Why did you choose to come to Amherst?
I grew up in western Massachusetts, and didn’t see a good reason to leave! I was also fascinated with Japan, after a formative high school summer homestay program there. Amherst’s venerable ties with Japan made my decision even easier.
I studied Japanese every semester at Amherst, but my major was History. At both Amherst and Cambridge, I studied East African colonial history.
Awards and Prizes:
Keasbey Memorial Scholar at Cambridge
Out of Africa
Herman Melville, who wrote Moby Dick in my hometown of Pittsfield
Tips for aspiring writers:
I made a very good friend at Amherst, the poet Kirun Kapur '96 (who will be featured in Amherst Reads next month). Kirun’s commitment to a life of writing has been an inspiration to me, in addition to the endless assistance she’s given on articles and the book itself. But before all that, in fact very early on at Amherst, we developed a habit of exchanging long paper letters during summer vacations and holiday breaks. It’s a fine habit that has continued (fitfully, at times!) to the present. Letter-writing is a great way to force yourself to think about what you mean, and then to put it down in words that you care deeply will be understood, and somehow doing so on paper is still much more impactful than on screen. So my top tip for aspiring writers: find the friend (at Amherst, or after) to whom you want to write pen-and-paper letters.
Tell us a bit about your path to becoming an author:
I have always enjoyed writing—diaries, letters, short pieces—but it didn’t occur to me that I might ever write more professionally than that. I’d always wanted to become a pilot, and after about five years flying on a busy, short routes on a smaller airliner (the Airbus A320 series) I switched to the Boeing 747. The required time off between the very long legs we fly on that airplane—sometimes leaving us with three or four free days in a distant city—and the views I was getting of the world somehow made it important to me to express what I was seeing. At first I didn’t write about flying, though. I concentrated on travel, culture and science pieces, bombarding editors with e-mails and building a portfolio of freelance work. Eventually an agent in London saw one of these articles and wrote to me to ask if I had any ideas for a book. By then I thought I would like to write about flying, and the result is Skyfaring.