By KATIE WATTS / Petaluma Towns Correspondent
“It’s amazing this ever got written,” says Nancy Wilson about her new book, ‘Queen of Speed.’” It was such a weird string of coincidences. First, I was obviously not a writer, I was an ER nurse.”
One Wednesday, in May, 1990, Wilson had time for a coffee break. “The one doctor who subscribed to the Chronicle would bring in his paper,” she said. “I happened to pick it up and my eye happened to fall on this obituary and I read it and—lost control. I ripped it out of his paper. I don’t do that.”
The obituary was for a British woman Wilson had never heard of. The opening paragraph read, “Mary Bruce, a daredevil pilot who broke land, air and speed records and was once arrested for flying circles around the Empire State Building, has died.”
“I was just thunderstruck,” Wilson recalled. “Gobsmacked as the British say. I had to find out about this woman. She was a daredevil pilot and a race car driver: why had no one ever heard of her?”
Four years later, Wilson enrolled at Sonoma State University. There she had access to Lexus Nexus, “like a search engine that searched newspaper articles,” she explained. There she read about some of Bruce’s possessions being auctioned off. Her husband Tom suggested she fly over and buy them. “I just snickered,” she said. “There was no way I could fly to England, and the stuff was expected to go for £5,000.”
But later she found the name and home town of the auction winner and wrote to her, care of the local postmaster, “I asked,” Wilson said, “if I ever got over there, could I come and see this stuff. And I enclosed my e-mail address. She e-mailed back and said sure, come on over.”
Wilson eventually went to England and visited the auction winner. “I saw a model of Mary Bruce’s airplane, her flying goggles, a log book,” she said. “I was like a pig in clover. And I was already starting to feel possessive.”
An independent television producer, working on a documentary about Bruce, was also there and Wilson learned about Bruce’s house, now a bed and breakfast, and that the new owner had found a box of clippings. So when Wilson returned home, she wrote the B&B owner, Carey Chapman. “But I still had no idea of writing a book, although I was an English student at SSU. I just had to know more about her.”
On her next visit to England, she booked a room at Bruce’s former house and the new owner, Chapman “pulled out an enormous box of newspaper clippings.” Bruce, she learned, had employed a clipping service during her “glory years.”
And finally, sitting on the floor, surrounded by yellowing scraps of newsprint, Nancy Wilson met Mary Bruce.
“She was an adrenaline junkie,” Wilson said. “Even when she was little, she couldn’t get a pony to pull her fast enough.”
Bruce’s obsession with speed began on her brother’s motorcycle. Next came cars. Then speed boats. And finally, airplanes.
What was it that so intrigued Wilson about this woman? “Her adventure, her determination,” Wilson said. “I was just fascinated. How could anyone do that—and a woman at that?
“She had a dream,” Wilson continued, “and she allowed nothing to come between herself and her goals.”
At what point did Wilson realize there was a book here, and she could write it? “I got a letter from Carey. He’d been asked to write an article, but said he couldn’t do it, could I?
“I was an English major,” Wilson said. “Of course I could write.”
But when she began the article she found out, she said, “there was too much information. So I wrote the article, or tried, but I still had to cut out a lot of things.”
Wilson, 82, estimates that between researching and writing, the book took 15 years. “And it was absolutely worth it.” The research fascinated her and she only stopped when she realized, “When you get to the point that you know more about your subject than they knew about themselves, it’s time to stop researching and start writing.”
At first, she said wryly, “My fear was, here was this fascinating story, but my early writing was so bad, one rejection letter used the dread word ‘encyclopedic.’” But she persisted and was rewarded when, “a writer friend of ours said it was ‘lively.’”
Will there be a second Nancy Wilson book? Wilson shakes her head. “Me and Margaret Mitchell: we’re one-book wonders.”
Author Nancy Wilson will be in the Sitting Room booth at the Sonoma County Book Festival in Santa Rosa from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 22. There also will be a meet and greet from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Sept. 29 at Copperfield’s Books in Petaluma, a conversation with Wilson from 3 to 5 p.m. Sept. 30 at the Sitting Room in Cotati ,and a meet the author event at 2 p.m. Dec. 8 at the Petaluma Regional Library.
For more information about the book, visit queen-of-speed.com.