Henry Biernacki has traveled to more than 120 countries and continues to travel as a pilot for Virgin American Airlines. A four-sport letterman in high school and a two-sport letterman in college, Biernacki holds a Bachelor of Arts in romance languages and international affairs. He lived in France, Germany, Taiwan, the West Indies and Mexico before settling in his current home in San Jose, California.
You have traveled all over the world. What is the most beautiful spot you have experienced on this planet. Why not wax poetic….give us a good taste of travel writing.
I have discovered this of traveling: no one place is any better and at some point, the more you travel, you are not a guest anymore! When is that? I do not think you know when that is, although you seamlessly stroll into that phase of travel as you do with other impressive portions of life. People around the world have invited me in their homes, making me feel like I am part of the family.
Many places could be anywhere, but this place could be nowhere-nowhere except here! Nepal and the Himalayas do have a way of seizing a human.
(No More Heroes, Chapter XXI, The Voices of Travelers)
It was a strange feeling to be a foreigner again in such an isolated world. Even Siberia was closer to most people’s imagination. Niklas felt closer to himself in such a foreign land. Funny, how so much solitude can make you understand yourself. Traveling cures isolation through intellectual hands-on education.
The air was as still as an animal waiting to catch its prey. Suddenly, there was no cool breeze in the orange sky. Besides the bus-park, the rest of Kathmandu slept as he drifted through the small streets to find Thamel. That was the best place to stay for cheap guesthouses with the best bed bugs he could find. That early in the morning he could feel the streets unwinding like a tired man does as he wakes from his deep sleep. The city’s alleys stretched with rickshaws, fruit and chai that vendors sold at wholesale prices, which would then be sold at market prices later in the day to hungry Nepali and travelers alike. He couldn’t see the bags of spices yet, but he could smell the fennel seeds, cumin powder and the anise seeds. Incense burned and smoke filled the narrow wet unpaved alleys.
A Nepali man walked around a Buddhist Temple. He spun the prayer wheel, then touched the middle of his forehead, then his heart. Iron prayer wheels continued to move all day while black soot rose from the burning candles. Women threw water on the ground and swept the dust outside their small shops. He began to think to himself as he saw a man eating with his right hand. The man scooped a hand full of curry-rice and shoved it in his mouth. Nothing in Nepal reminded him of anything familiar.
A traveler could see life in the morning of a new country when the locals are even sleeping. Everything could be closed and the smallest signs could reach out to grab his attention. The buildings could be seen because people are not cluttered in the streets. All Niklas saw were children sticking their heads out of small windows. One child had dark eyeliner, framing her eyes and one red tika mark on her forehead.
How did experiencing/writing about locations, scenery, and culture trigger the desire to write a novel?
Buried in the past, are the phases that have made us who we are today. Those ever so gentle, subtle influences guide me. When I began traveling, I wanted to see monuments, cities, and countries. I hastily realized people were my reason to be on the road while I constantly reminded myself to stay orientated on learning, not become fixated on one idea. I wanted to bring together the geographical setting with a unique form of writing. It flowed into more and more pages where some distinctive cities were the background of the story, woven between the dialogue of the characters. The result happened to be my first novel, No More Heroes.
How different is writing a novel from your job as a pilot? Are there any commonalities between them that work nicely together?
Those are excellent questions. On the surface writing and flying would appear to be as different as the humanities vs. science on a university campus. They have very similar qualities as well.
While I write, I do not care where I go with story or the outcome. I want it to adjust and evolve. When I fly, I go with a destination. I have to know everything along the route of flight and how to arrive there.
I travel the way I write: I never plan. I modestly go, allowing the path to unfold as I progress, taking in the surrounding experience, and then filling in details later. While traveling, I rarely know what day it is. When I am in the cockpit I rarely do not know how many seconds I am off on the flight plan. I want to be surprised when I travel, but I am paid to foresee things happening while flying and not be surprised.
The applicability through a given experience aids to help one understand the similarities in writing and in the cockpit. You do not need to know a lot of words to write, on the contrary, you may write with simple words and have a far more complex selection of experiences, which words shall describe in a novel. As in flying airplanes around the world: the more experiences you have, the far more safe you are going to be. It is going to help you be a much more safe and well-rounded pilot.
In the end, when you write an article or a novel, you expose yourself with words just as you do with every landing. People remember a merciless, poorly written novel as they can very well recall a dreadful landing. People will judge you harshly with how you write and how you land an aircraft.
Culture vs. scenery, which is quickest to catch your eye and heart?
The true poet sees the background of an experience, a situation if you will within a culture, occurring around him. Scenery is the forefront; it is easy to appreciate, taking photos and leaving to another area to take more photos. The art is obtaining culture, the moments of catching the most crucially subtle details, which gives writing a complete life, all its own. That comes from the people who make up the culture.
By traveling solo, I orient myself around infrequently regarded sights, smells, tastes, and sounds involved with the local daily action. I grasp at a variety of widening experiences: not meant to take away from me, the individual, but moreover, a dramatically important immersion in my own fundamentals, adding towards ultimately understanding another culture.
Many of our readers do research that requires travel. What are some important details for them to keep in mind?
By far, the best outcomes from my travels seem to have simply arrived by doing non-standard notions and rarely researching where I am going. If you are going to be travel writing, an important thought is making sure your shot record (immunization) is up-to-date, and if you need a visa to enter the country? Beyond those two easy-to-find-out-questions, I believe in going to explore, not having a map, not having a clue, and certainly not having an idea what you want to do except create an experience, one which you may be writing about for several others to enjoy when you return.
The more I research something, the more I find out how different the place is when I end up going to a particular spot in the world. Just as each day is different and our lives change, the cities around the world also change. Why would I need to research something when the experience I am going to have is going to be rightly unique?
If your work does require you to travel, spend more time on the flight working on what you need to, so when you land you do not have to be in the office. If you are traveling for research in writing, you could also take the books you need. By being in the location, you are going to understand far more by reading about, it as well as being right there. I believe in the surprise effect, adapting to a new experience, which equips oneself with the skills to learn far more than if the person never extended beyond the already known-safety-normal-existence.
Finally, while you are in a city somewhere in this world, find a unimportant cozy café where you may sit to slowly take in the surroundings. Those cafes have the local people and the ones who slowed down their day to enjoy it. They will sit and talk to you rather than rush off to work.
Give us a “snapshot” of your path from pilot to travel writer to novelist…hit the high or low points of your journey.
After I graduated university, I went traveling around the world, sleeping in the streets, hitchhiking, taking trains, buses and any way I could travel, I would go. I spent 3700USD that year. When I returned to the United States, I decided to go to flight school.
The deciding factor for this way of life was I wanted to be paid for my hobbies. Why work to have a way of life, but rather be paid for my way of life? I had been writing for a few years before I began flying. I unhurriedly progressed with my writing as I went to flight school.
I began taking flight lessons at Sunrise Aviation at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, CA. There were times I slept in my van outside a hotel. I woke up to use their pool as my shower. When I had my commercial multi engine: I went to the West Indies; from island to island to see if I could get hired to fly. I met Tony Ottley in St. Kitt’s. I made absolutely nothing, maybe 1000USD a year. Yes, a year! I flew vegetables around the islands. At the end of the day I took vegetables out of the boxes so I could eat. It was not about the money. I wanted to fly for the love of flying and not to make money yet. There is a time to make money and a time to earn my way and that was one of those times to earn my path.
During the entire process, I continued to take my journal with me, taking notes after notes, filling journals after journals and trying to grasp the elusive details behind the actual experience going on around me. I never really had a “low point” in my pilot to travel writer to novelist, yet I can say there were times I asked, “Is this worth it? What is the outcome going to be?” I simply had to respond to myself, “Is it not about the outcome, but rather the process, the manner with which I am doing it.”
I flew in St. Kitt’s a few years. If I did not fly there, I was going to Africa to fly. From there, I continued to get job after job after job to gather more experience. My big break was when Omni Air International hired me to fly all over the world. Bob Zeng and Jeff Nauman gave me a perfect opportunity to step into a new world of flying ETOPS.1
Today, I have Airbus319/320, Boeing747-400/757/767 type ratings. Out of my 8000 plus hours more than half have been flown internationally. Currently, I am a captain flying for Virgin America (Airbus 320). Before Virgin America I flew with China Airlines (Boeing 747-400), then Omni Air International (Boeing 757), Air Wisconsin (CL-65), Shuttle America (SF340), Ottley’s Enterprise (PA23-250).
If readers were interested in looking into travel writing what resources do you recommend?
Select a location, around the world, that lacks charm or where many people do not go, and then go. Going to places, already discovered by the masses is the quickest way never to have an article released. The boundless frustration of enduring those episodes of being lost in a new part of the world justly gives life to writing. For travel writers, they must build credibility and maintain validity with an audience.
Write as many articles about various topics. When you complete one, begin another. That was the best advice I received from Nancy and Lisa at Big Blend Magazine several months ago. Take notes on absolutely everything. Use those ideas in your articles. Most ideas come from the small notes I took before and then I expand on them. Write an article a month or two articles, sending them out to multiple sites. The more your name comes in front of them, the more likely they will finally ask you to write something for them. If nobody picks up the article, place it on your website.
The title of the article should have the key words that can be picked up by the internet and publications. Also, have a unique spin on the subject. For example, if you are going to write about Buenos Aires, write about how you got lost, taking a bus from the airport to the city center. Describe the scene on the bus and how you felt being lost and how much you saved by taking the bus. That is going to make people read and want to seek your name out for more articles.
In the end, I do believe in taking a philosophy book. Take several books with you on your travels. You are going to be going through several moments alone and thinking about what you are going through is a must. I do think having those sorts of books you have are crucial to describe some of your viewpoints.