Walter Kirn: Living, Or Something, In The 'Air World' Author Walter Kirn has seen two of his seven books make it to the big screen, including a recent adaptation of his 2005 novel Up In The Air. Kirn joins host Terry Gross to reflect on his book and the great American airplane culture.
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Walter Kirn: Living, Or Something, In The 'Air World'

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Walter Kirn: Living, Or Something, In The 'Air World'

Walter Kirn: Living, Or Something, In The 'Air World'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of film, "Up in the Air")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr.�GEORGE CLOONEY (Actor): (As Ryan Bingham) To know me is to fly with me. This is where I live. When I run my card, the system automatically prompts the desk clerk to greet me with this exact statement.

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) Pleasure to see you again, Mr.�Bingham.

Mr.�CLOONEY: It's these kinds of systemized, friendly touches that keep my world in orbit.

GROSS: That's George Clooney in a scene from the new film "Up in the Air." He's playing a business traveler who loves what most people find most alienating and irritating about travel: airports and plane rides. In a few minutes, we'll meet the director of the film, Jason Reitman, who also directed "Juno" and "Thank You for Smoking."

"Up in the Air" is adapted from the satirical novel by Walter Kirn, who we're going to hear from first. The novel is about a business traveler who virtually lives in what he describes as air world and has come to feel most at home there. His ambition is to earn one million frequent flyer miles, and he's close to achieving it. His job keeps him in the air. Companies around the country bring him in to deliver the bad news to their employees that they're being downsized out of a job.

I spoke to Walter Kirn in July, 2001, when the book was published, just two months before 9/11 changed air travel, but Kirn's descriptions still ring true. Our interview started with a reading.

Mr.�WALTER KIRN (Author, "Up in the Air"): (Reading) Planes and airports are where I feel at home. Everything fellows like you dislike about them: the dry, recycled air alive with viruses, the salty food that seems drizzled with warm mineral oil, the aura-sapping artificial lighting, has grown dear to me over the years - familiar, sweet. I love the Compass Club lounges in the terminals, especially the flagship Denver club, with its digital juice dispenser and deep suede sofas and floor-to-ceiling views of taxiing aircraft. I love the restaurants and snack nooks near the gates, stacked to their heat lamps with whole-wheat mini-pizzas and gourmet caramel rolls. I even enjoy the suite hotels built within sight of the runways, on the ring roads, which are sometimes as close as I get to the cities that my job requires me to visit.

I favor rooms with kitchenettes and conference tables, and once I cooked a Christmas feast in one, serving glazed ham and sweet potato pie to a dozen janitors and maids. They ate with me in rotation, on their breaks, one or two at a time so I really got to know them, even though most spoke no English. I have a gift that way. If you and I hadn't hit it off like this, if the only words we'd passed were "that's my seat" or "done with that Business Week?" or just "excuse me," I'd still regard us as close acquaintances and hope that if we met again up here, we wouldn't be starting from zero as just two suits.

Twice last October, I sat in the same row, on different routes, as 1989's Miss USA, the one who remade herself as a Washington hostess and supposedly works nonstop for voting rights. In person, she's tiny, barely over five feet. I put her carry-on in the overhead. But you know some of this already. You fly, too. It just hasn't hooked you. You just don't study it. Hey, you're probably the normal one.

GROSS: That's Walter Kirn, reading from his novel "Up in the Air." Walter Kirn, how did you start studying airline culture?

Mr.�KIRN: A few years ago, I was on a plane, upgraded to first class for some unknown reason, and I sat down next to a businessman. And to make conversation, I asked him where he lived, and he said, well, right here. And I said, well, what do you mean by that? And it came out that the man had no home. He traveled on business and lived from hotel to hotel, and airplanes and airports, as in the book, were really his turf. And I asked him after a while how he managed to live like this, wasn't it depressing and so on, and no, he seemed satisfied and even happy with his life. And after I got off the plane, I thought, now, what kind of life would that be? And over the years, I sort of filled in the blanks, and the result was this book.

GROSS: Well, you've kind of defined a whole culture as air world. Describe the culture to us.

Mr.�KIRN: Well, air world is that conglomeration of places that are no place, including airports, the hotels that are just off the runways that serve them, the rental-car counter, the whole sort of attempt to satisfy the flyers' needs without any particular offense or any particular flavor. I mean, in air world, you can come from Dallas, Minneapolis, Philadelphia or New York and know where you are, know what's on offer, know how to get it and what you're going to get.

GROSS: And you write that the hometown papers of air world are USA Today and the Wall Street Journal.

Mr.�KIRN: Exactly. Everything is standardized. Everything goes down easily. It's as though the only restaurant in the world were McDonald's, and the only hotel in the world was a Holiday Inn, and you know, people have to be able to rest and feel comfortable and feel at home at any moment, at any time. And the result has been this kind of placeless place that I call air world.

GROSS: One of the things I found interesting of your whole description of air world is that in defining this culture of air world, you've taken one of the more alienating contemporary experiences, flying, an experience in which everyone is a stranger to each other on the plane and everyone is uncomfortable, and you've turned it into this community. I mean, it's not really a community, but you know, for the purposes of this novel, it's become this, like, anti-community community.

Mr.�KIRN: Well, it is a community. I mean, human beings are amazingly adaptable. You bring in a new technology, or you force people to live in a new environment, and they find ways to do it. And my character has made friends with the people who, you know, sell the juice at the counter, the person who gives the little chair massages in the terminal. He knows the flight attendants by name. I talked to a traveler once who said: I knew I was in trouble, I knew I was flying too much, when I walked through the Minneapolis airport and found myself waving to everyone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I managed to read your novel "Up in the Air" while in the air.

In my air-flight magazine on the same day I was reading your book, the back page - I was shocked. It had an ad for enhancing your breast size and another one for male virility enhanced guaranteed. I thought that was - were kind of shocking for airline magazines.

Mr.�KIRN: Well, that's an odd syndrome. I think when people get on planes, they start to think about improving themselves. They start to think about and get reflective and meditative about where are they going in life, what are they doing in life, and they're prey to these ads for, like you say, you know, breast-enhancing creams and vocabulary-enhancing tape courses. And you'll see those magazines are often aimed at businessmen who are insecure about their negotiating skills. And there'll be an ad for a seminar on negotiating or whatever. I think people get a sense of possibility when they're on a plane, even romantic possibility, wondering if the perfect person is going to sit down next to them or something.

GROSS: Because your character is surrounded by this culture of advertising and franchise food and how-to cassettes and self-improvement stuff, did you have to immerse yourself in some of that, too, just so you could get all the language right?

Mr.�KIRN: Yeah, I did. I mean, we're immersed in it anyway. Really, all I had to do was notice how immersed I already am. Once you're alert to it and not filtering it out, it's sort of the air you breathe. And this was a book that really came about not through doing research or digging, but through waking up to the fact that I lived in this - lived in this sort of miasma of messages and images, which I often felt superior to and ignored, but suddenly I decided to wake up to it, sort of like Andy Warhol became...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KIRN: ...comfortable with the Campbell's Soup can. You know, it wasn't as though he'd never been to a supermarket. He just suddenly looked at a supermarket and went wait, art can happen here, too.

GROSS: So what were some of the things that started to strike you as interesting instead of filtering them out?

Mr.�KIRN: Well, one thing that struck me about air world is that it's a class system in a way that most of America isn't. We like to think of ourselves as a democracy and egalitarian, but you get to air world, and there is a rating and a level for everyone. You know, you see the cards they whip out at the ticket counter. I'm a gold medallion member.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KIRN: Or I'm a gold medallion member plus, and that entitles me to X, Y, Z. And there are all these distinctions being made out there between types of people and better and better customers, and you know, the kind of pillow you're going to get or whether you'll get your glass cup or your plastic cup. And that class system in air world I found interesting.

GROSS: That's so true, and they even call it class. I mean, it's like first class or coach class. I mean, you know what class you're in and what privileges that class allows you or what miseries you're in store for.

Mr.�KIRN: Exactly. Well, I mean, the higher classes sort of allow the miseries to abate somewhat, though not disappear.

GROSS: Well, shrimp cocktail will do a lot to abate misery, yeah.

Mr.�KIRN: Exactly, and people cling to those little perks when...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right.

Mr. KIRN: ...they're traveling in a sort of horribly pathetic way. You know, I've noticed that the few times I've traveled first class myself, you've already got your drink, and your coat has been taken by the time the rest of the passengers file on, and it's hard not to feel sorry for them. They're sort of trooping past you like cows to slaughter...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KIRN: ...and you're sitting there in your, you know, wide-body seat. And the funny thing about that class system is it's not really based on money. You know, some of these guys don't make more money who ride in first class. They just fly a lot, and so the airplane - you know, the airline puts them up. And so it's the one time in their life they get to feel on top of the heap, and they take it for all it's worth.

GROSS: Walter Kirn, recorded in July, 2001, after the publication of his novel, "Up in the Air." A new paperback edition has just been published.

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