By Donna Beth Weilenman
Special to the Herald
Two longtime friends have collaborated on a World War II novel with a twist that has been flying off Amazon’s shelves even before its formal release date.
The book is called “Fata Morgana,” named for both a specific type of mirage and a sorceress from the legends of King Arthur. The authors are Ken Mitchroney, of Martinez, and Steven R. Boyett, a former Benician who now lives in Vallejo.
It’s centered on the crew of a B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber that bears the name “Fata Morgana” and the image of a striking woman as the “nose art” some airmen painted on their warbirds.
The crew flies off on a mission to bomb a German site, but in the midst of combat they find themselves drawn into a conflict in a different time and place.
Their 1940s sensibilities and grass-roots technical knowledge contrast sharply with those of the people and the advanced practices in this strange war zone. But the crew must do its part in exchange for using the land’s meager resources until they can find a way back home to their own war.
The idea for the novel came as a single image of a bomber to Mitchroney, for whom this is a first novel. He’s better known for his work in illustration and the animation and motion picture industry.
He’s been an artist for “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures” and “Ren and Stimpy” comic books, operated his own animation studio in Florida, then moved to California to work on Pixar’s “Toy Story 2” and “Monsters, Inc.” and “Three Musketeers” for Disney.
Mitchroney also worked on such features as “Free Birds,” “Book of Life,” “The Ant Bully” for East Bay actor and producer Tom Hanks, “Storks” and “The LEGO Movie,” among many other live action and animated projects._
Currently he is supervising director of Cartoon Network’s series “Mighty Magiswords.” Visual storytelling has been his longtime forte.
In contrast, Boyett has a career record with the written word.
He launched his novel-writing career at 21 with “Ariel,” originally published in 1983, then re-released in 2009 by Ace Books in preparation for the next book in the series, “Elegy Beach.” He’s writing the third novel in that series, “Avalon Burning.”
In between, he wrote “The Architect of Sleep,” “The Gnole,” “Treks Not Taken” and “Mortality Bridge,” which has won the Emperor Norton Award for best novel by a San Francisco Bay Area writer, as well as dozens of shorter fictional works.
The two men collaborated initially on comic books Mitchroney was illustrating, including Mitchroney’s own title, “Space Ark.” Later, Boyett wrote a draft of “Toy Story 2” on which Mitchroney was a story artist. Boyett provided the structure the movie needed.
Mitchroney was a story artist on “Three Musketeers” at Disney Studios in 2001 when he first described his B-17 story idea to Chris Sanders, who had just completed the feature “Lilo and Stitch” for the studio.
Mitchroney was staying at Boyett’s apartment in Burbank while working in Southern California, and the two began discussing the plot. At the time, the two were considering the story as a movie screenplay rather than a novel.
Then the idea sat while the two men worked on other things. Mitchroney compared it to building a model kit that got started then was set aside._
Finally it was time to bring the idea off the shelf, dust it off and get back to work.
In 2013, after Boyett moved to Benicia, the two sat in the Starbucks at that city’s Solano Square and decided to tell the story in a novel.
“We had done comic books and movies. It was kind of nice to jump on the other side of the fence. He is words, I am pictures,” Mitchroney said.
_“He thinks of books as movies. I’m thinking James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses,’” Boyett said.
“The process wasn’t terribly different,” Boyett said, comparing this to their previous collaborations.
But for Boyett, it was an unusual thing to have someone help him with a novel. Usually he writes solo, and wasn’t used to asking anyone for help when he got stuck after writing himself in a corner. Finally, he’d make the call, and Mitchroney would break up the sticking point in seconds.
_“What he does for a living is to solve these problems,” Boyett said.
He saw that at Pixar. When he would get stuck there, Mitchroney and other story artists instantly provided multiple solutions.
“It’s a good thing I have been in so many story rooms when they develop the story,” Mitchroney said, explaining that it gives him a view of “the big picture.”
Mitchroney praised Boyett’s own “big picture” approach to the novel. “Steve laid it out perfectly. It needed a ticking clock.”
The pair knew their story presented other challenges they would have to meet. Mitchroney wanted a cast of strong characters who worked as a team, much like those in one of his favorite movies, “Air Force.”
To give the reader a different perspective and guide, they also introduced a new member of the crew, a ball turret gunner, an outsider who has to find his own place in the team.
He also tells a story of his own that entertains the crew as they fly the hours into their assigned mission.
“We needed a ghost story around the campfire,” Mitchroney said. “We needed a story to get them across the channel.”
Then there is the plane itself. The pair know there are World War II historians and airplane aficionados who would call them down on any error they made.
B-17s are Mitchroney’s favorite type of plane.
“I thought they were beautiful machines,” he said.
Ironically, they got a little help that first meeting at the Benicia coffee shop. Bob Hitchcock, who had been a radio operator on multiple missions, including those on B-17s, was sitting at a nearby table and had books and pictures of his wartime missions. He willingly chatted with Boyett and Mitchroney.
The two took that as a sign to keep moving forward with the novel.
“Ken knew the period so well,” Boyett said, explaining that Mitchroney is familiar with the music, the old radio shows and other popular culture references and even period dialogue and anecdotes of the era.
Plus, Mitchroney likes “ensemble” stories, from episodes of the old “Jack Benny” radio and television programs to the more contemporary “Frasier” series. Making them a B-17 crew “is a great way to take 10 guys, put them in something and take them somewhere.”
So Boyett focused on the Eighth Air Force, the European Theater and the construction and operations of a B-17 and bombing missions.
“We didn’t want anyone to feel we never piloted a plane,” he said.
Neither has – but both have flown aboard some of the restored B-17s owned by aviation foundations.
The pair also invoked the images of what has been called “the greatest generation” – the everyday folk who went to war to stop the Nazi aggression that was overtaking Europe.
“This book is about duty and the sacrifice that duty requires,” Boyett said. After studying bombing missions, he said, “I couldn’t imagine being in their shoes.”
His research has given him even more respect for the young men – some barely in their 20s – who defeated Hitler’s mighty forces, and a nation that launched the biggest mobilization the world had seen.
The two put what might have been a softer side to their story – a woman who catches the eye of the B-17’s pilot. But the woman is a soldier and has her own duty and obligations. She and others who are surviving in the place the Fata Morgana has landed give the bomber crew “a glimpse into their future,” Mitchroney said.
They’ve put other twists into their story aside from taking the crew and plane into an unfamiliar world. First off, the original crew hates its first bomber and is glad to see it go.
“You don’t want to see the same old thing,” Mitchroney said.
The two also dispense with the usual pre-flight briefings that they believe have become clichés.
But then, Boyett is known for breaking clichés. His “Ariel” takes its name from the unicorn that shows up in the novel. But this is no elegant woodland creature. It’s a wise-cracking character with a foul mouth that plays against the usual presumptions. “The Architect of Sleep” takes readers into a world dominated by intelligent raccoons that use sign language and tools.
Once the book was finished, Boyett’s New York agent marketed it. Blackstone, a publisher best known for audio books that had expanded into print, snapped it up.
To their delight, Blackstone’s staff has given them much more control than most authors get in the marketing of their first novel collaboration. They were instrumental in the cover design, in internal art, even the type font.
“We’re really happy with how the publisher works with you to make it an appealing object,” Boyett said.
“They let us be hands-on,” Mitchroney added.
And, given that Blackstone started in the audio book field, the company is releasing “Fata Morgana” in that format, with MacLeod Andrews as the voice and the recording at Deyan Audio Services, owned by Bob and Debra Deyan.
That was another pleasant surprise – Boyett is friends with the Deyans. In an unusual move, Blackstone allowed Boyett and Mitchroney to sit in on part of a recording session.
Boyett said he is expecting readers will enjoy joining the crew of the Fata Morgana on the adventure. “The ending is most cinematic,” he said. The pair revised the ending multiple times, finding themselves down blind alleys until they got the story perfected.
“I’m proud of the end of ‘Mortality Bridge,’” Boyett said, “but this is the best ending I’ve ever written.”
Mitchroney and Boyett will be signing books in California this month and in July, starting at 3 p.m. Saturday at Borderlands Books, 866 Valencia St., San Francisco.
The Borderlands Bookstore appearance Saturday is the book’s official launch party, although it formally isn’t released until Tuesday, June 13._
They also will be speaking and signing at the American Bookbinders Museum, 355 Clementina St., San Francisco, as part of its “SF In SF” series. That starts at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, when author Terry Bisson will be host of the pair’s reading and discussion of “Fata Morgana.” Admission to that program is $10.
The book tour switches to Southern California for appearances at the Burbank Public Library at 7 p.m. June 15, the Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in San Diego at 2 p.m. June 17, Dark Delicacies Bookstore in Burbank at 4 p.m. June 18 and at San Diego Comic-Con International July 20-22.