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Jonathan Hobbs, author of The Catch, is what they used to call a man's man. At 6'4", the hearty and boyish 43-year-old writer exudes the kind of maleness associated with sports broadcasters and the people they talk about. Not that he is either. He does, however, have a pilot's license, three sons and a wife who doesn't work in order to avoid the potential erosion of family. When he isn't off flying commercial jets, Hobbs likes to cook, coach his children "in all their sports" and, in his spare time, write suspense novels.
Hobbs, the son of respected author and journalist Lisa Hobbs Birnie, is a bit of a rebel. "When I grew up I didn't know where my mother was for three months at one point during the Vietnam war," says Hobbs, "with her in the DMZ with a Green Beret unit. And I lived with this for years."
What's the son of a working reporter to do? In Jonathan Hobbs' case, you get a pilot's license straight out of high school, spend your university graduation day starting a job as a bush pilot, work hard until you land a job with the airlines and, in your spare time, you get married and start a family with a capital "F". And then, because there are hours left to fill and a story burning in your gut, you write a novel and then have it instantly optioned for film.
The Catch is set in Canada's remote and hostile Yukon, where Hobbs himself flew as a young man. Hobbs says that, "the story had been in my head for years. About this pristine environment up North: this virginal backdrop and this bloody torturous trapper being butchered. I thought: What a neat juxtaposition."
Hobbs tells his tale with the conviction of one who's been there and done that, at least from the perspective of the air. The novel's protagonist, Travis Banks, is himself a bush pilot who has left a cushy airline job to return to his northern roots. On a routine flight to deliver provisions to a trapper who lives on a lake near the Alaska-Yukon border, Banks arrives to discover that the trapper has died horribly and the pilot soon finds himself right in the middle of a murder case involving a girl who died two decades earlier and some trappers who are meeting with "some pretty untimely demises."
Banks brings his passion for the north and for flying to The Catch, making this debut novel a must-read for those who like their mysteries tangled with aviation.
A regular contributor to National Public Radio, Jonathan Hobbs lives in South Carolina -- though his backyard is in North Carolina -- with his wife Victoria and their three sons, Marshall, Cameron and Connor.
Linda Richards: You're a pilot who is also a writer. How do those things go together?
Jonathan Hobbs: [Being a pilot] is the best job in the world, if you've gotta work sorta nine-to-five. But I love writing and I've been doing it for 15 years. Everything else I've ever written -- all of my National Public Radio stuff: the commentaries that I read on the air -- are all humor. It's all family, you know: how to teach your 5-year-old how to pee on the lawn to save on your monthly water bill. Things like that. So The Catch was a total departure. Doing a thriller, a murder mystery, up north. But there's a little humor in it, and romance: it's not just some Stephen-King-meets-Hannibal-Lecter-on-a-ski-trip. I like to think there's some substance to it.
I know you came of age in Vancouver and went to the University of British Columbia [UBC]. But where did you go from there?
When everybody was walking down the aisle at UBC, I was already up North. I was flying for the four years that I was going to UBC. I got my private license the year I got out of high school and then my commercial and my first year multiengine float rig. I was doing all that and flying part-time, bartender at The Keg, I did all this stuff synonymous with my degree. So the day I graduated from UBC, I had enough flying experience to get a job and I was up North while they were all pomp and circumstance down the aisle. I was up North already flying.
What were you flying?
My first job I was flying a Beaver and a 185 on floats. That's what everybody does up there. And then within six months I'd gotten onto the DC-3 and then checked out as captain. The next spring on the DC-3 and then flew that for three years and with skis on them in the winter.
I understand you're one of last guys who ever flew them on skis.
Even back then we were the only ones flying them on skis.
It's a difficult plane to fly, isn't it?
Well, the airplane's not difficult to fly, it's actually a wonderfully forgiving airplane. But on skis it's like a controlled crash taking off and landing. You use almost all the takeoff power just to get moving. The first thing they teach you [when you fly] these things on skis is, you take the manual and open up the window and throw it out. You can't fly it by the numbers anymore. The airplane won't attain those speeds on take off. You've got to sort of milk it off the ground, then bring up the skis, then bring up the wheels then bring up flaps.
Yeah, I guess it's dangerous. I was 22. I was impenetrable. I was bulletproof. [Laughs] That's why the Army likes people like that: cut off their hair, give 'em green underwear and tell 'em to run screaming through the jungle and they'll do it.
How long were you a bush pilot?
As soon as I graduated from UBC, I went up North, spent four years flying up there. Then I spent a winter in Honolulu. A buddy of mine put me up at his place. I got a job down there in about a month and then flew down there for that winter. Then I got hired by a corporation in Dallas, flying for a computer company. A headhunting outfit. But it was flying jets, small jets, business jets. And that was a huge step up for me. You know, I'd been in the DC-3 and then all of a sudden to get checked out on jets... and as soon as I get checked out on jets, the airlines started showing interest. And within two years I was on with the airlines, with US Airways, and I've been doing that ever since. Fifteen years now.
You're a commercial pilot?
Yes. US Airways is the largest domestic airline in the United States. We've got so many flights. Once you get to the East Coast you don't ever have to worry about your flight being canceled because, so what: there's another one coming in 30 minutes. So a lot of businessmen fly us because they know they're going to get home that night.
So you've been a commercial pilot for 15 years. And then all of a sudden you write a novel. How did that happen?
As soon as I got the job with the airline, that's when I started to write. My mother has written 10 books.
What's her name?
Lisa Hobbs Birnie. The movie that just came out, Scorned, was based on her book called Such A Good Boy. And she was an editor for The [Vancouver] Sun and wrote for them for years and years. I grew up seeing firsthand that having a wisdom tooth pulled is more enjoyable than writing for a living. I knew what I was getting into. So I went and got a real job, which is flying, and then as soon as I had established myself and gotten a job with the airlines, within about a year or two I started writing for local newspapers and that sort of mutated into op-ed and political pieces and then I went into humor. Then for 10 years I was writing humor for local newspapers and radio stations and then National Public Radio started letting me read my own commentaries on air.
During all this, at some point without telling anybody -- because you don't want to go telling anybody you're writing a book. Because they'll forget you owe them money before they forget you mentioned you're writing a book. And they'll bring it up every time you see them: How's the book? Because most people don't finish the book. Everybody's got this: I'm gonna write a book one day. I've got this idea for a book. I just said: You know what? I'm gonna go do it.
I didn't necessarily have any aspirations of having it published, but the story had been in my head for years. About this pristine environment up north: this virginal backdrop and this bloody torturous trapper being butchered. I thought: What a neat juxtaposition. In scenery. It had been eating away at me, so finally I started bidding specific trips; like to Las Vegas where we had a 30-hour layover. The crew would go out and gamble and have dinner and I'd just go straight to my room and start to write.
It was hard. I hated it. There were days I just wanted to shoot myself. It's like swimming across the English Channel, but once you get halfway there's no point in turning back. And I just said: Once I finish this stupid thing I'm never going to do it again. And so I finished it like two years ago, it's all been business since but using the analogy of swimming the English Channel: you finally get out the other side, exhausted, wanting to die and then you climb out of the water and you walk about 50 feet and you sit down and have a warm shower and something to eat and a couple of days later you're going: You know, that wasn't so bad. That's why I'm halfway through the sequel now.
You know, that's what giving birth is like. I'm sure your wife has told you that.
A doctor friend of mine told me that supposedly there are actual chemical synapses or something in the brain of the female that makes you forget a lot of it. Even though you know that it wasn't really fun, if you could actually remember each one of those contractions, you'd never do it again.
So maybe for you writing a book is firing those same synapses.
Yeah. Maybe I'm trying to give birth. Well, I wouldn't be so vain as to say that. I remember watching my wife and I wouldn't do that.
You don't forget what she went through.
[Laughs] There was no chemical thing going on in my head. I was sober as a judge.
You're halfway through a sequel.
Not half. About 130 pages into a 400-page book. So a little over 30 per cent. I haven't written a word in a year. It's interesting, I just took a year off. Worried about writing letters to agents and publishers and everything else. I kept writing for National Public Radio, but [not on the book]. And then all of a sudden about a year and maybe three or four months ago, I just sat down and wrote 100 pages of the sequel in a couple of months. And I was really on fire. Then The Catch got accepted and I went back to getting it published. But I'd never really said: Oh, I must get published.
Writing is like flying. If you sit down and say: I'm going to write this great read, you probably won't do it. And if you sit down and say: I want to be a pilot. I want to fly across the North Atlantic and have some pretty flight attendant feed me a steak somewhere near Ireland, that's unrealistic too. Ninety per cent of commercial pilots are killing mosquitos in a swamp near New Orleans, or flying commuter or putting brush fires out in Red Deer, Alberta or whatever. They don't end up in the airlines. A small percentage of them do, so if you want to be flying a seven-four  across the North Atlantic, you're getting into it for the wrong reason. You've got to get into it because you love it. And I say the same about writing. You've just got to really want to do it.
You and the main character in The Catch, have some things in common. He's a pilot, around your age and some common elements from your background. How much of him is you?
Everybody asks me that: Is that character me? No. He's cooler under pressure. He's better looking, gets all the girls. It's all that stuff, right?
It's an idealized you?
Some of it. But a lot of it's not me. Some of it is, certainly. But he really is, I think, much more well rounded than I am. I know my wife would say that [Laughs].
How long have you been married?
Forever. If you believe Shirley MacLaine this is probably my third life of being married [to my wife]. But 18 years.
She's a Southerner?
No, she was born in Toronto. I met her in Old Crow, north of the Arctic Circle on a charter when I was flying up there.
How did you end up in the Tar Heel State?
Well, I'm based in Charlotte, North Carolina. My house is actually in South Carolina, but my backyard is in North Carolina. I'm right on the state line. The city of Charlotte is like five minutes from the state line. Half the working population of Charlotte lives in South Carolina.
How old are your sons?
Marshall is 15, Cameron is 13 and Connor is nine.
Those are fun ages. They're real people by then.
Oh yeah: I love 'em. That's the hardest thing about writing. I never allowed the writing of the book interfere with cooking. I love cooking. And I didn't want it to interfere with me coaching. I coach them in all their sports. So I had to write it on the road. That's why I wrote it on the road. Because I can't do it at home. I found that out. Between wanting to make dinner and coach the kids and everything and my wife saying: Do you want peas or carrots for dinner, dear? If you don't write, you don't understand how hard it is. It's like sucking blood out of a rock. People think that you're born with some gift. That you just sit down and the paper flies out of the printer. It just doesn't work that way. It's one word after the other after the other.
So what happens if this book goes through the roof. Do you stop flying?
I'd be too terrified to stop right now. I'd be more interested in what the second one did, when the sequel comes out. The film rights [to The Catch] have been sold, which would help to that end. They were sold a couple of months ago and the guy who owns the production company, as of this point -- so far -- nothing he's said has not come true. And he's willing to invest an awful lot of money in a screenplay. So I'm thinking it will happen. I don't know if it'll be in the form of a major Hollywood picture or a cable program or a TV movie: I have no idea of the format, but...
And Mom says it's OK? Mom who knows about this stuff.
It's funny, my Dad writes as well. He writes poetry and my mother has been very successful in non-fiction. They're both highly educated, well-read people and they don't read popular fiction. Well, I do. So when they read it, they said: I guess it's fine. It's interesting.
Like: Good boy, son. It has complete sentences.
Yeah, right. [Laughs] But everyone else who's read it -- although I hate sounding boastful -- they all seem to love it, for whatever reason. But my parents, I still don't think that they accept the fact that it's published and appears to be doing well.
Would you define The Catch as a mystery?
I would call it a suspense thriller. I think there's more edge to it than a mystery, per se. But certainly, the last three-quarters you could say is a mystery. But a couple of these trappers meet some pretty untimely demises, but you don't see it. You don't live it. You see the end result.
Is your wife in aviation or a writer?
No. She's a high school educated mother of three. When I grew up I didn't know where my mother was for three months at one point during the Vietnam war with her in the DMZ with a Green Beret unit. I lived with this for years. She snuck into China in 1965 and was out of communication for a couple of months when she wrote her first book, which was a bestseller: I Saw Red China.
I suppose in the back of my mind when I grew up I said: I'd sort of like to have the mother of my children at home. It doesn't mean my wife is not very intelligent or doesn't want to work, I just believe that part of the erosion of our social fabric in the past 20 years is the fact that you don't have any parent home. I agree with the women's movement, doesn't have to be a woman: but somebody ought to be home. You know, if you're going to have a pet, you don't put it in a three-by-three cage and leave it there for six months. We're raising children now by pulling up in a BMW and throwing a three-week-old and saying: I'll be back at six.
I don't know. I just felt that I really wanted somebody to be at home. And when I got hired by the airlines, she worked for American Airlines as a ticket agent and I said: Who's going to quit? And she said: Well, you're making three times what I'm making, why don't I quit? And I said: OK. But along with that comes the responsibility of saying: I'm going to look after you. And if you fall in love with your tennis instructor and run off I'll still have to look after you, because you sacrificed your career. | May 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of Death was the Other Woman.