Growing up under the drone of engines from Castle Bromwich aerodrome engendered a predictable fascination for flying machines in a Brummie lad growing up in the aftermath of the Second World War. In later years, fate was kind enough to place Jem Shaw in the cockpits of some of those iconic aircraft, and the time aloft was balm to a spirit jaded by writing compelling and frequently trite advertising copy. It's a sad indictment of Shaw's intellectual powers that he had to turn sixty before realising that writing and flying weren't mutually exclusive.
What prompted you to write a WW1 novel?
It's a period of history that fascinates me, especially the incredibly rapid development of aviation. At the start of the war pilots were staggering around the sky in fragile, wood and canvas dragonflies. The science of powered flight was barely a decade old, and few tacticians believed that they would ever constitute a major factor on the battlefield.
Within little more than a year, the concept of air superiority had been born and by 1916 aircraft were seen as a deciding factor in modern warfare. But there were no tried and proven formulae; nobody knew what worked and what didn't, and so every technological advance was a leap into the unknown. I'm astonished by the heroism and physical endurance of these young men, many of them still in their teens, who flew and fought daily in a bitter cold, airless world of constant danger.
You've done some flying yourself; how did this affect your writing?
I wanted to be accurate and believable. Most of my favourite books of the period are autobiographies of great pilots like Cecil Lewis or Arthur Gould Lee. I've tried to capture that same authenticity, while at the same time giving the reader a feel for just what it feels like to be in the open cockpit of a biplane in the thin, sub-zero atmosphere of high altitude. I've experienced it for a few brief minutes, with little likelihood of being shot down by the Hun in the Sun; these young men stayed in that perilous world for two hours at a time.