The Sky’s the Limit for a Small-Town Girl:
Q&A with Author Charlene Keel
Where are you from originally and how did you get into flying?
A small-town girl, I was born in the Florida panhandle (Panama City) and moved with my family to Tallahassee when I was fifteen. After I graduated from Leon High, I worked as a secretary at Florida State University, where I learned some coeds were paying their way through college as “working girls,” catering to local and state politicians.
I included that tidbit in one of my novels. After I appeared on a local TV show to promote it, the book was banned, until my publisher demanded the local distributor honor their contract. It was great! The book, Come Slowly, Eden (title comes from an Emily Dickenson poem) went into a third printing! It’s no longer in print, but I think it’s my favorite book that I wrote.
When did you start writing and realize this was the career path you wanted to go on?
When I was in third grade, I read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and I was hooked on the written word. That’s when I decided to become a writer like my favorite character, Josephine March. I was eight years old and started pecking out stories on my mom’s typewriter.
What is it like collaborating with other authors? A few of your books are shared, so I was wondering what the conversations are like. How do you deal with different writing styles/voices?
It’s great to have someone with whom to bounce ideas back and forth, and to figure out plot twists and fix plot holes. Some of my books, like the Tracks Trilogy: Dark Territory, Ghost Crown and Shadow Train, were partnerships from the beginning. My co-author and I lived in different cities, hundreds of miles apart, so we communicated by phone and email, sending the manuscripts back and forth for several drafts before the final one. We sold that trilogy to publisher HCI Books in a pitch meeting with just an outline.
Other books I have a co-author on started out as ghostwriting assignments. In my ghostwriting contract I have a provision that if the client wants me to help him submit the finished product to publishers, and I’m able to get one, then we become partners and my name goes on the book as well.
As for different styles, it’s important for co-authors to respect each other’s style, but to ultimately mesh them together in one voice. Reviewers of the Tracks Trilogy said we did that seamlessly. Writing can be a lonely endeavor, so I quite enjoy collaborating.
What was your apartment like in NYC, in your stewardess years?
It was crazy. While I was working at FSU, I applied to and interviewed with three different airlines: Delta, Eastern and TWA (Trans World Airlines), with my ultimate goal being a New York domicile. TWA accepted me first and I was already in training when Eastern also accepted me. After training, TWA assigned me to Newark, a 30-minute bus ride away from the Big Apple and the world of publishing.
The first apartment I had with four other flight attendants was in the Weequahic Towers, which locals referred to as a “Stew Zoo” because so many stewardesses lived there. With only two bedrooms and one bathroom, it was uncomfortable and inconvenient, and it was dangerous because my roomies were always leaving the door open as they went from party to party.
Within six months, I got my own place and started concentrating on my writing. I enjoyed traveling but I needed peace and quiet and my own little spot so I could be serious about becoming a writer.
Not long after, I met the publisher of Teen Magazine on a flight I was working. I’d already sent them a short story but they rejected it. I cornered the publisher and asked him why, and he told me to send it in again. Then he asked me to write a story about a stewardess because they were planning an entire issue on flight attendants. I accepted the assignment and got my story published. Teen also ended up publishing the first one I’d sent them. Turns out it was too long, so they serialized it.
What was it like traveling every day? Did you ever feel like you wanted to settle down?
The best thing about being a flight attendant, in addition to free travel and hotel discounts, is that it’s a part-time job. At least, that’s how I looked at it. I worked three or four days a week, which gave me time to write. After I sold my first book, I started taking my portable typewriter with me on layovers. Needless to say, if there were five stews on a trip, I usually got the single room since no one wanted to hear my typewriter going first thing in the morning.
You mention a lot of modeling on the side in your book; what was that like in the seventies? Did you enjoy it? Did you ever think of writing a book on that topic?
No, I would never write a book about modeling. I never thought of being a model until a passenger on one of my flights told me he was a photographer. He said I had great cheekbones and he’d love to do some pictures of me. I thought he was cute and someone I might want to know better. I didn’t think he was serious—I thought he was making a pass, so I said, “Sure! Why not?”
He actually was a professional photographer (and a perfect gentleman). He took lots of pictures which gave me my first portfolio and advised me to go for product and cosmetics modeling, since I’m way too short to do fashion. I never saw him after that.
I actually got a few gigs—I did a jewelry catalogue and some confession magazines, and I did the Revlon hair show for about three years. I also did one TV commercial for Heinz Pork and Beans. But I had no ambitions to be in front of the camera—I was only in it for the extra income.
One of the articles on your website mentioned running a “freakish modeling agency.” What was that?
After I quit flying, I ran my own modeling agency out of my home (by then it was in Brooklyn). It was called Freaks Unlimited and I represented character actors and unusual looking people. One of my clients was the late Herve Villechaize, who went on to become Tattoo on Fantasy Island.
We became friends and later, after I moved to Los Angeles, he escorted me to the Emmy Awards, which was great fun. We also worked together when I became a publicist for Columbia Pictures Television and was assigned to Fantasy Island. Of course, I let the producers know I wanted to write something besides press releases and they gave me a chance. I ended up doing six episodes of Fantasy Island and got to work with Ricardo Montalban, who was my champion.
When my Candy Kisses episode was shooting on the Columbia Ranch in Burbank, Ricardo came to me and said, “Miss Keel, thank you so much for writing such a beautiful script for us.”
“Thank you,” I replied. “But there’s only one problem. One of the producers changed one of Mr. Roarke’s lines, and it’s something Roarke would never say.”
“Please tell me what you wrote,” Ricardo responded. I told him my original line and he said, “But that’s perfect. I will go to them and have them change it back.”
And he did. And they did. And executive producer Arthur Rowe told me later that my Candy Kisses episode was probably the only script in television history that was shot exactly as the writer had written it.
What was it like writing about all the intimate details of your life? Did you know that you were going to pen a story about your experiences while flying?
Funny story about that. Although I wrote Sky’s the Limit in first person and presented it as my life story, most of the experiences I discussed were not mine. When I went into Dorchester Publishing to pitch a friend’s movie script as a novel, I mentioned I was a flight attendant. The editor promptly asked me to do another Coffee, Tea or Me.
I was leading a busy but quiet life flying, writing and modeling so I didn’t think that bestseller was an accurate account of stewardess life. But I was eager to get a book published, so I said I’d research it and get back to her.
It was back in the day before we all had computers and printers, so I memeographed 500 copies of a questionnaire and gave one to every flight attendant I ran into, telling them I was trying to do a book to disprove Coffee, Tea or Me. I promised them their answers would be anonymous. I got back over 300 questionnaires, and most of the events in Sky’s the Limit are those of other cabin attendants. Obviously, I couldn’t criticize Coffee, Tea or Me, since it was spot on.
I’m delighted that The Sky’s The Limit is now available from Red Sky Presents. It has been updated with new stories, which are all mine (especially the chapter about flying with celebrities), and an epilogue that lets readers know what’s happened to some of the crazier characters since the book was first released in the late 1970s.
Do you have pets and/or hobbies?
I’m a full-time freelance writer, editor, screenwriter and ghostwriter so I don’t have time for hobbies. Cooking is a necessity and I’m really good at it but I wouldn’t call it a hobby. I have two dogs (a Pekingese and a Chihuahua) and two cats who just sort of showed up at my door as hungry stray kittens. I didn’t have the heart to turn them away.
What’s your fantasy job, if you weren’t a writer?
I’d be singing Tom Waits songs at a piano bar in a hotel (and maybe a little Mahalia Jackson). I love Tom Waits. His music grabs me by my soul and won’t let go.