Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Landing Gear includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Kate Pullinger. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Spring 2010. A volcano unexpectedly erupts in Iceland and airspace is shut down over Europe. Harriet works in local radio in London, and with most of her colleagues abroad, she seizes a unique career opportunity. Her husband, Michael, stuck in New York on business, travels to visit an old flame, and their teenage son, Jack, feeling liberated from normal life, takes an unexpected risk only to find himself in trouble. Meanwhile Emily, a young TV researcher, loses her adoptive father to a heart attack, and half a world away, a Pakistani migrant worker named Yacub is stranded in a Dubai labor camp.
Two years later, Yacub, attempting to stow away, falls out of the landing gear of an airplane onto Harriet’s car in a London supermarket parking lot—and survives—while Emily accidentally captures it all on film. Yacub’s sudden arrival in the lives of Harriet, Jack, Michael, and Emily catapults these characters into a series of life-changing events, ultimately revealing the tenuous, often unexpected ties that bind us together.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. How did the eruption of the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, in 2010 mark a turning point in the lives of Harriet, Michael, Jack, and Emily? Was the eruption a catalyst for change in these characters’ lives, or a symbol of the changes to come?
2. Parenting is a complex theme in the novel. How does Harriet act as a mother figure to Emily before they actually meet? How is this different from the relationships between Harriet and Jack, and Emily and her adoptive father? How does the bond between Michael and Jack compare to the one between Michael and Yacub?
3. Consider characters aging in Landing Gear: how are Harriet and Michael feeling their age throughout the novel? How do Jack and Emily approach and/or achieve adulthood over the course of the book? How does Yacub?
4. Do you think it’s luck, coincidence, or fate that guides the characters of the novel, for example, as Jack narrowly avoids taking the drugs that killed David McDonald, and Yacub misses the airlift back to Pakistan? Explain your reasoning.
5. How does the use of technology, such as Facebook, email, and text messaging, advance the story?
6. Michael and Harriet each experience their own version of a midlife crisis. Why does Michael choose this time to take things further with Marina, when he’s had several opportunities over the years? Why does Harriet choose to contact George Sigo just as her life is falling apart?
7. What kind of man do you think Jack will grow up to be? How have the events of the novel have accelerated him into adulthood?
8. Who's the hero of this story? Does Yacub save this family, or do they save him? What about Emily?
9. How does friendship play a role in the novel’s events? Consider the different kinds of friendship: Barry and Harriet, Yacub and Jack, and Michael and Marina.
10. Yacub says during his first interview for Emily’s documentary: “The Smiths took me in. They have been so kind to me. It’s as though because they were at war with each other.” How did Yacub’s arrival provide relief to Harriet and her family?
11. Jack calls Ruby the “Essence of Girl.” What does Ruby represent to Jack? How does she change him?
12. How does Emily’s documentary affect each of the characters? How does the process provide closure for each of them?
13. One of the main themes of the novel is how we make our own families. Consider how Harriet denied herself her own family as Emily was denied hers: why does she do this? How does this change when Harriet builds her own family with Michael and Jack? How do you think Yacub would define his family?
14. Think about the title, Landing Gear: how have each of the characters “landed” in their own way?
Enhance Your Book Club
1.Explore FlightPaths.net with your book club, the original “networked novel” that was an early incarnation of Landing Gear. What has changed in the final novel? What is delivered in the digital platform that isn’t in the novel?
2. Visit KatePullinger.com to learn more about the author, her other projects, and her blog.
3. Consider what a documentary of your life’s major events might look like: what scenes would you include? Who would you interview? What would you consider for a title?
A Conversation with Kate Pullinger
You say in your author’s note that you “first came across the stories of landing gear stowaways in an article in The Guardian newspaper in 2001.” What was it about that article that stuck with you? What made you want to explore it further?
Sometimes I read something that really strikes a chord for me, and that chord reverberates for a long time—I’ve had this happen with the inspiration behind other novels and stories. The original article was so interesting; the journalists journeyed to Pakistan to attempt to figure out who the man was, they interviewed his family, they looked at the phenomenon of airplane stowaways. For me, it was the image of this man falling into the parking lot of an upscale supermarket in a wealthy part of London juxtaposed with his aspirations as a migrant—to fall to your death in the very place you long to be—that I found so tragic and compelling. Once I had the idea that my stowaway would survive, the story wouldn’t go away.
In doing research for the book, did you come across any facts or stories of particular importance to you that did not make it into the final draft? Would you share some with us?
The research into airplane stowaways led me on to research about the vast numbers of people who are attempting, often failing and, worse, dying in the process, to move around the globe in search of better lives, but none of that was suitable for the book. I was also invited to Pakistan while I was writing the book to run creative writing workshops in Karachi and Lahore. In Pakistan I found an amazing, large, vibrant, and sophisticated middle class that does not conform in any way to the stereotypes of Pakistanis that exist in our media, where they are most often depicted as either downtrodden or extremist. While Yacub is not a member of that well-educated, media-savvy Pakistan, I hope that my expanded understanding of what it means to be Pakistani in the twenty-first century helped with developing him as a character.
Framing the novel through the lens of Emily’s film gave the story a sense of completeness and harmony. How did you decide to give Emily this obsession with her documentary and filming? Did you know how central it would become to the story?
Initially, my idea was that someone filmed Yacub’s fall accidentally, because we capture so much of life on film now—usually on our phones. The character of Emily developed from that—the moment where Harriet finds the still image that Emily has tweeted of Yacub falling was one of the first scenes I wrote in the novel. So, no, I didn’t know how central it would become, but one thing led to another.
With your background in both digital and traditional print platforms, why did you want to turn Flights Paths into a novel? What could you express in these pages that you couldn’t in the previous life of this project?
From when I first started working on Flight Paths I knew I would also write a novel. I felt that the story was bigger than what we were able to do in Flight Paths. Although I love working in digital media, I love the novel and the way that the novel has room for layers of psychological depth and insight—the way people think. No other art form can do that.
How do you think American readers may approach the story differently from British readers? What might be lost on them? What about the story is universal?
I hope that the story is universal. Apart from UK vs. Canadian vs. US spelling, there were only a few very minor changes that I made for the American edition. There was one instance where the word “jumper,” meaning sweater or pullover, was confusing. And then there is the joke that Michael makes to himself about the phrase “dress pants” which is truly hilarious to an English person—“snazzy underwear” is probably the nearest translation. I also had to do a fair amount of work to clarify the scenario of a typical constituency ballot count on an election night in Britain—there really is a Monster Raving Loony Party that fields candidates across the country in the same way that the Conservative Party does! But I’d be very interested to hear the views of American readers on the story in the larger sense, if there is anything that really does not make sense.
Emily’s day job is in the mildly ridiculous world of reality television: what interests you about reality television? How do you think this phenomenon has changed our expectations of real life, as Jack experiences in his expectations for dating Ruby compared to the real thing?
One of the things that amazes me about reality TV is that so many people agree to take part in it! I also think that it is tough in television now for documentary-makers, in the old-school sense, to survive in the face of the plethora of reality TV formats. The best reality TV does function as documentary (in the UK there is a reality TV series set in an Emergency department in a large London hospital that is a truly extraordinary view into life and death) while the worst . . . well, we all know what that kind of TV does, and why we watch it. I think reality TV might have an effect on the expectations of young people—teenagers in particular—but that once you’ve lived a little you soon realize that life is not like it is on TV, and that reality TV is a crafted and edited narrative.
With such a wide cast of characters in this novel, how did you start to develop each character? Do you start with their background stories, or is there another entry point for you?
I had Yacub and Harriet pretty firmly developed because of Flight Paths. If Harriet was at the supermarket shopping, she needed to have a family to shop for. Why was she shopping in the middle of the day—was she unemployed? And Yacub, tucked up in the wheel well—why would anyone think that was a good idea? So with Landing Gear, having these two characters already in place allowed me entry into their worlds, their families, their backstories.
You’ve created a lovely, diverse cast of characters in Landing Gear. Which character was the most challenging to write? Which was your favorite?
Jack was challenging because he’s a teenager and it is very easy to get teen culture badly wrong. However, my secret weapon there was my own teenage son: if I begged him, he’d give me snippets of info. Yacub was challenging, of course, because his experience is so far from my own. I don’t have a favorite, but I really enjoyed writing the scenes where Jack and Yacub are together: they are like mirrors of each other, really, from their names to their differing heights—Jack is too tall, Yacub is smaller than the average Swati—to their family circumstances.
As you say in your author’s note, this novel started from something that you had read about in the news: why did you choose to interweave the story of Harriet and Emily and Jack with the falling man? Why not just tell Yacub’s story?
If you fall out of a plane onto a car, that car belongs to somebody. If you witness a man falling out of the sky, your life will be altered in some fundamental way. One story leads to another.
Your last novel, The Mistress of Nothing, was based on historical figures. How was writing this contemporary family novel different from writing historical fiction? What are the challenges of each?
While I never find writing a novel a straightforward task, Landing Gear was much easier to write than The Mistress of Nothing. The latter required a huge amount of historical research into areas I knew nothing about—Egypt in the nineteenth century, Egyptian Islam in the nineteenth century, English domestic servants. I even attempted to learn some Arabic. And when you are writing a novel based on historical figures, it is important to make the details of their lives as accurate as possible. For Landing Gear there was very little research in comparison. As well as that, because I’d been developing the story for many years, I knew the characters well. Landing Gear was a walk in the park compared to The Mistress of Nothing.
It seems that you always have several projects going at once. What are you working on next?
I’m writing a new novel. It’s the story of two siblings; it begins in the early 2000s and works back to 1915. A novel told backward—let no one say I’m afraid of a challenge!