The Only Living Lady Parachutist: interview with author Catherine Clarke

Image of Leila Adair during her tour of Aotearoa New Zealand in 1894,
courtesy of Palmerston North City Library

The Only Living Lady Parachutist is a remarkable novel by Catherine Clarke based in fact about aerial acrobat daredevil, Lillian (aka Leila Adair). Leila was a smoke balloonist who was billed on flyers of the time as ‘The Aerial Queen’; she toured New Zealand in 1894 and her performance included aerial acrobatics followed by death-defying parachute jumps from her balloon.  A risky endeavour at the best of times, and one that was often fraught with danger. Catherine’s book takes much of the historical information available about Leila and turns it into a compelling, fascinating, fictional page-turner of a read.

As well as being a compulsive read, the book is a fascinating insight into New Zealand and the wider world of the time, not to mention society’s perceptions of pioneering daredevil women who pushed the boundaries of what was perceived as acceptable for the time.

So, for your delight and edification, this is our exclusive, in-depth interview with Catherine Clarke, where she talks about her novel in detail, the fascinating historical and societal context behind aerial acrobats of the time, her research methods and a whole host of other topics. For anyone interested in New Zealand history, or how to create captivating historical based fiction, the interview is unmissable.

We wish to expend our heartfelt thanks to Catherine for her time her in-depth and insightful answers.  The Only Living Lady Parachutist is available to borrow, see the link at the end of the interview.

Lillian (aka Leila Adair) is a truly remarkable woman a brave, adventurous risk taker can you tell us how you first came across her and drew you into her work, world, and life?
I first read about her on Scott Hamilton’s blog ‘Reading the Maps’. Prompted by a reference to Leila Adair in a poem by Kendrick Smithyman, Scott had traced her trajectory from Steele Park in Hamilton. Once I’d done a bit of searching on Papers Past I was even more intrigued and could see the potential for a novel and got hooked into the research. Her story felt like a gift.

It seems like an obvious question but what was it about her character that made you want to write about her?
From the interviews Leila gave, I quickly got a sense that she was feisty and unconventional. There was also the question of whether she was brave or foolhardy. I wanted to find out what motivated her to do those crazy stunts.

The time period is very specific before aircraft were invented but during the period when going to hot smoke balloon, aerial daredevil displays were popular can you give us a brief overview of what New Zealand life was like at this time and the appeal of such displays?
I think that NZ society was more settled and craving entertainment. There was a regular touring circuit for acts – through India, Asia, Australia and onto New Zealand. Circuses, magicians, theatre and stunt performers – the weird and the wonderful. The development of the railway network and competition between steamship companies made travelling less arduous and relatively inexpensive for these troupes.

The balloons during Lillian’s time are very different from modern day hot air balloons can you tell us about the type of balloons Lillian would have used in 1894 the mechanics of how they worked, the dangers involved in their use etc.?
Technically they were called smoke balloons. They dug a trench, covered it with corrugated iron and lit a fire at one end. The hot smoky air was funnelled up a chimney into the mouth of the balloon rigged up with poles and guy wires to keep it above the flame. The inflation was more of an art than a science and sometimes the balloon would catch fire. The parachute and trapeze was clipped either to the side of the balloon or the ring below the mouth. It wasn’t an efficient process – cold or wet weather, windy conditions, and splits in the balloon fabric all played havoc with the inflation. It could be dangerous for the spectators too – there were a few incidents of helpers being injured by falling support poles.

Can you give us an idea of the research process you used when writing this book, did you for example heavily use libraries or other resources?
I spent a lot of time in the Alexander Turnbull and National Library ordering up obscure books and manuscripts. It’s a superb resource. The free digitised newspaper websites: Papers Past, Trove in Australia and Chronicling America were also invaluable. I found the transcript of her court case against the Manawatu Mounted Rifles in Archives NZ and letters written by her manager to the Wellington City Council. I read as many books as I could find set in the 1890s and books about circuses, theatre, balloons. I went to some of the places – Oamaru’s Victorian precinct is fantastic for atmosphere.

In one interview you said Leila like many other show people of the time was prone to exaggeration or lies about her feats and history could you give us an example to illustrate this point?
Firstly, she wasn’t an American as claimed but Leila still had the nerve to complain to the American Consul about her treatment at Palmerston North and demand compensation from the Government. On her arrival in Auckland she said she’d been ballooning for ten years and made 325 ascents which was a wildly inflated exaggeration.

Leila Adair and her aerial stunts are very much part of history was there any point in time you thought about writing a biography rather than a novel?
A few people suggested that to me, but it was always going to be a novel. I wanted to fill in the gaps with what I imagined to be a plausible truth. But it’s closely based on actual people and events – a fictional biography perhaps?

Leading on from the last question can I ask you about the balance between fact and fiction in the novel and how you went about deciding where the creative needs of the book lay?
Nearly all of the characters in the book invented personas that concealed their true origins and their newspaper interviews were full of shameless hype and downright lies. Some of the dialogue is based on what was said to the newspapers and in court, but I’ve imagined their motivations based on my research. But the story arc was there in her real life, it didn’t need much creative embellishment to make it dramatic.

In what ways are your fictional Lillian and the real-life Leila different?
It’s possible that Lillian (Leila) had a relationship with her manager, Arthur B. Adair, but maybe not. It’s something that evolved as I was writing the book.  One thing I discovered after I’d published the book was that Leila/Lillian did bring her two children with her on her tour of New Zealand – that must have been so hard with a 12-month old daughter and 3-year old son.

It’s a very unusual career choice, how did Lillian end up being a Lady Hot Smoke Balloon aerial acrobat and parachutist?
She was apparently an actress before following her sister into the business. Millie Viola made a short tour of Southland in 1892 and shipping records show that Lillian accompanied her. Leila gave a detailed resume of her acting career to the Taranaki Herald but I couldn’t trace any of the details back to Lillian. She may have used another stage name and probably exaggerated her stage experience.

Can I ask you about how you went about plotting the novel for example you relate all the events from Lillian’s old age had you decided on this as an approach before you started or did it evolve as you went along?
I think it was there from the start, but in one draft I took it out but that didn’t work so then it went back in. The structure was the most difficult part – I commissioned a report from The History Quill which advised that a scene near the end of the book needed to come much earlier (it’s now in Chapter 9) and it started to make sense once I’d made that change. When I was writing the first draft there was a point where the timeline from my research didn’t add up and – without giving away spoilers – I discovered something that completely changed the direction of the plot.

I love the fact that each of your chapters are Headlines from real newspapers of the time. Where did you source them, and did you use any other snippets from the papers in the rest of the novel?
I’m glad you liked them as I was resolute about including those. It was my mentor who first suggested it and they were all sourced from Papers Past, Trove and Chronicling America. I wanted them to be teasers for the chapter ahead as my initial plot outline was based around the newspaper reports which I used extensively in various scenes.

Were Lillian’s shows a big success? Was she a big draw?
Because she didn’t have an experienced crew with her, the ascents often failed and only once did she make a short parachute descent at Thames so New Zealand audiences were sceptical and tight-fisted with their shillings. I found this laconic diary entry from Nicholas Rowe of Feilding: Went to PN to have teeth attended to and see about a few other things. Saw a balloon ascend with a lady about a mile high and come down again. Got wet coming home. Her manager wrote to The Colonist to defend her reputation after several failed ascents at Nelson. The largest crowd in Dunedin was the “Scotsman’s grandstand” of several thousand non-paying spectators watching from the hill – Leila wrote a furious letter to the Otago Daily Times to complain about their appalling meanness.

In the novel you describe various ascents in the balloon some successful others not could you tell us just a little bit about some of those ascents?
Leila visited 22 towns throughout New Zealand but I’ve only used the more dramatic incidents in the book. Her balloon was blown out into the Rangitoto Channel at Takapuna and she was rescued from the sea. At Palmerston North the crowd almost rioted when her first ascent failed and the Manawatu Mounted Rifles intervened to confiscate the gate takings. Leila sued and the ensuing court case apparently provided just as good an entertainment as the ascent itself.

We recently interviewed Laya Rose who created the fabulous cover for your book did you have much input into this process?
I’m thrilled with the cover. Laya was fantastic to work with – nothing was too much trouble. I sent her images of balloon ascents, advertising posters and paintings of trapeze artists and she came back with several concept designs. She even recreated the font from one of Leila’s advertising posters and the costume Lillian is wearing is based on a photograph taken at Palmerston North. The hard part was choosing which design as I liked bits of all of them – so the final cover was a pic’n’mix from different concepts.

Do you get the impression that some sections of New Zealand society were scandalised by some aspects of what Lillian did as a profession?
Women parachutists drew bigger crowds partly because of their skimpy costumes (which for the times were little more than undergarments) and also the idea of a women risking her life seemed to hold a morbid fascination for some. When Leila met with an accident in Christchurch, the Lyttelton Times described it as scandalous and disgusting. She was unique in that she employed her manager rather than the other way round and her being an unmarried mother must have met with disapproval.

From researching Leila did you for the impression that she did these aerial acrobatics from financial necessity or was she a bit of an adrenalin junky?
In the book I’ve portrayed it as a mixture of both, but it’s difficult to know how financially successful her tour was. I think she may have downplayed the profits to some extent as she seemed to be financially secure later in life. Her unconventional career gave her some independence which I assume she found liberating.

Did your degree in English and history help you in the creation of the book?
I did my degree as extramural study while working full-time so I’d taken the creative writing papers because they didn’t have an exam – and discovered that writing brought together my love of reading, research and history. I’ve been researching my family tree for about 20 years and this experience helped me immensely in untangling the true origins of these characters.

Do you have any idea what the real-life Leila did after her tour of Australia and NZ?
I’ve made contact with one family descendant but they didn’t have a lot of information about her later life. She emigrated with her mother, sisters and children to San Francisco in 1896, remained unmarried and died of lung cancer in 1933.

Growing up which writers did you like to read?
I read all of the Willard Price Adventure series and I’ve always loved historical fiction. As a teenager, I devoured those gothic historical romances by Victoria Holt and royal intrigues by Jean Plaidy. Daphne du Maurier was another author I liked, but my all-time favourite book was Katherine by Anya Seton.

You completed a New Zealand Society of Authors’ Mentorship with an experienced author, whilst working on this book can you tell us a little bit about that how it was what it entailed and how it helped?
I’d written 20,000 words for NaNoWriMo and had polished that jumble of scenes into something slightly more coherent before I applied for the NZSA Mentorship. My submission of a 300 word synopsis and ten page sample of the work in progress was successful and I received 20 hours of mentoring advice from Shirley Corlett. I sent her 3-4 chapters at a time and over that year and she provided feedback and encouragement. Shirley helped me with point of view, the framing narrative and how to deal with all the different aliases the characters used. By the end of the mentorship I knew where the story was going and how it ended. After that I was shortlisted for the Lilian Ida Smith Award and received an NZSA Manuscript Assessment from Tina Shaw. I recommend that for anyone serious about their writing, a mentorship can give you the skills, encouragement, advice and motivation to bring your project up to a publishable quality.

What do you think Lillian would be doing if she was alive today?
Ah, that’s a hard question. Probably something outrageous on social media. She would definitely want the fame and attention. Activist, actress, astronaut…

Wondering if you are working on any other projects now you would like to tell us about?
My writing has been on a bit of a hiatus lately. I’d like to write some stories based on my own family history but it might have to wait until I’m retired and I have more time and mental energy.

The only living lady parachutist / Clarke, Catherine
“To test her courage, daredevil Lillian risks her life for fame and fortune by parachuting from a hot air balloon throughout Australia and New Zealand. But in the competitive 1890s era of charlatans, showmen, and theatrical hucksters, is she brave enough to confront the truth about her past?” (Adapted from Catalogue)