Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Kristen's Echat With... Michael Molkentin

In his 2010 review of Fire in the Sky. The Australian Flying Corps in the First World War, historian Michael McKernan stated that ‘Michael Molkentin is a young historian with an impressive future’ (see the review at and iterated his initial impression in his 2012 review of Flying the Southern Cross: Aviators Charles Ulm and Charles Kingsford Smith. As well as a historian awaiting final assessment of his PhD thesis, Michael Molkentin is a teacher, battlefield guide, contributor to key military documentaries, compiler of on-line teaching resources and acclaimed author of Fire in the Sky (Allen & Unwin 2010) and Flying the Southern Cross (National Library of Australia 2012).
Of Fire in the Sky, Michael McKernan praised Michael Molkentin for presenting a range of stories in a ‘manner that is accessible and unfailingly interesting, not to say exciting’. The research is evident but there is nothing ponderously dry about either of Michael Molkentin’s books. In previous Echats I have spoken with aviation writers of diverse background and experience but none are professional historians. All bring special qualities to their writing but I was keen to discover more about the historian as popular (as opposed to academic) writer. I wondered about how Michael made the leap from historian to engaging recorder of key aspects of Australian aviation history and whether he had set out to be a writer or whether he just fell into it. Needless to say, I was pleased when he agreed to be pestered by questions for the fourth in my Echat With… series.
Michael grew up in Wollongong, NSW where he went to the local high school and completed a BA (Hons) in English and History at University of Wollongong in 2004. He followed that with a Graduate Diploma of Education while he thought about what he wanted to research for a PhD project. He became one of the rare people to score a teaching job in his home town and discovered that he enjoyed working with students and infusing them with a keen appreciation of history. Before he knew it, four years had passed in the classroom.
For some reason, I had got it into my head that Fire in the Sky was based on Michael’s thesis but he set me straight. ‘In 2004 I wrote my BA Hons thesis on the AFC—I’d always been interested in WWI aviation (I grew up reading Biggles and playing the Red Baron video games)—and it seemed that although the Australian War Memorial had voluminous private records relating to Australian airmen in the First World War, few books had been published on the subject since the Official history in 1923. [FM Cutlack: The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War 1914–1918. Volume VIII: The Official History of Australia in the War of 19141918] Shortly after I started teaching in 2006, Professor Peter Stanley (then principal historian at the War Memorial) encouraged me to produce a book on the AFC and introduced me to Ian Bowring who published a lot of the military history at Allen & Unwin. This is how Fire in the Sky came about.’ Perhaps explaining why I thought Fire in the Sky was the book of the thesis, Michael told me that the book ‘used a similar approach to my thesis and a style that appealed to A&U’s broad readership—the story of WWI air combat from an Australian perspective and one that relied predominantly on private records (letters, diaries, memoirs, interviews)’.
Michael was teaching full time at this stage and so he wrote in the evenings and on weekends. It proved a ‘demanding task and one I started not really appreciating how much work was involved’. Even as he taught and wrote, Michael had not forgotten his ambition for higher studies. ‘As I was finishing Fire in the Sky, Professor Jeffrey Grey at ADFA contacted me and asked if I would be interested in doing a PhD on Australians and air power in the First World War—it would form the basis for a volume in the Army Centenary series of which he had been appointed editor.’ (This is Oxford University Press’s five volume Australian Army Centenary History of the Great War series. Written by a group of historians mainly associated with the Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society at UNSW, Canberra, the series is funded by the Australian Army.)
Such an invitation would be the dream of any young writer and historian but Michael was initially reluctant to accept as he did not want ‘to commit to another four years research on the same topic—but knew there was a lot of material I had not looked at (especially overseas) that research funding and full-time study would allow.’ And so, in 2010 he embarked upon his PhD studies with a thesis that might be broadly in the same area but of an entirely different focus. ‘Fire in the Sky looked at Australia’s involvement in the First World War “from below”—from the pilot and air mechanic’s perspective. The thesis—Australia, the Empire and the Great War in the Air—examines it from above, from the perspective of imperial politics, strategy, operations; it perceives Australian involvement as part of the empire’s broader effort in the air’. I wondered if Fire in the Sky delayed the thesis at all. ‘Not really and I am glad I wrote a book on the subject first. Most people do it the other way around of course. Starting my PhD I already knew the AFC’s narrative and all the main people involved; this was a useful framework to build on.’ 
Fire in the Sky received a number of favourable reviews—and I should declare an interest here as mine was one of them (see the review at This history of the Australian Flying Corps particularly impressed me because, while many formation histories are simply catalogues of movements and battles (and are consequently dead boring, in my humble opinion) Fire in the Sky is interesting, well paced, and easily digestible for the general reader. It seemed to me that this was because Michael kept the men and their individual stories in mind as he wrote it: they are the heart of the book, not the Corps and its activities. I wondered if this is a fair assessment? ‘This is exactly what I intended’, Michael told me. ‘I’d say it is one of the historian’s greatest challenges to balance the “big” picture with personal experiences. A heap of interesting characters floating around in a historical vacuum is as difficult to understand as the “catalogues of movements and battles”. I like books that balance both elements—they show what Private Smith experienced but also set his experiences in a context that makes them meaningful’.
I feel that one of the best aspects of Fire in the Sky is how Michael wove one story from a number of different accounts (in my review I used the example of Owen Lewis’s story). In my own work I too have pulled stories together from multiple threads and have encountered conflicts in the source material, including diverging personal interpretations and perceptions. I was particularly interested to know how Michael resolved those conflicts. ‘Historians have a professional obligation to be transparent with their evidence’, Michael advised. ‘Even in books for a popular readership they should signal when their interpretation is based on incomplete or contradictory evidence. As well as being honest, this also indicates to the public (which typically sees history as a sequence of facts) that history is an interpretive and highly subjective business—and that the book they are reading, and indeed, no book, could be considered definitive.’
A change of direction from military to civil aviation came about when Michael was contacted by the National Library of Australia’s publications branch. ‘They had read a positive review of Fire in the Sky [the aforementioned one by Michael McKernan] and wanted to do a Collection Highlights book on an item in their Kingsford Smith collection’. Michael ‘did not really know much at all about Kingsford Smith’, but accepted the commission as he ‘saw the project as an opportunity to find out more about Australian aviation between the wars’.
Given the serendipitous aspects of Michael’s writing career, it is clear he did not set out to be a writer and indeed he ‘did not aspire to be a writer’. But he developed an early interest in historical research and that set him on the path to history writing. ‘I probably began to be interested in historical research in the later stages of my undergraduate degree when I started doing assignments that involved some nominal archival research. Then, in 2005 I was an Australian War Memorial summer scholar—I spent six weeks as an intern in the Memorial’s military history section where I researched the training of the Third Division AIF’s training in Salisbury in 1916. This was to support archaeological field work being undertaken that year by the UK’s Ministry of Defence (the AIF training grounds lay on land held by UK Defence). It was a rich and rewarding experience—doing research that nobody had done before and that had a practical application’.
Although plenty of people had trawled widely through Charles Kingsford Smith’s life, few had looked at Charles Ulm’s crucial role in the preparations for their trans-Pacific flight. Flying the Southern Cross presented a particular challenge in that Michael’s brief was to use Charles Ulm’s log book (as well as other related items in the National Library of Australia’s holdings) as the frame work for the story. Even so, there was much scope for original research and to critically look at some of the myths surrounding Kingsford Smith and Ulm over the decades. In particular, Michael highlighted some less favourable aspects of Kingsford Smith’s and Ulm’s personalities and business practices. I wondered how Michael felt about tackling a subject that has such ‘holy cow’ elements to reveal a less savoury side of the legend? (I asked this as I was recently criticised by a connection of Charles Kingsford Smith for mentioning in a talk that Lores Bonney—the subject of the talk—detested him and considered him arrogant. The connection thought I was being unfair as he was such a good man and a hero.) Michael told me that ‘it didn’t concern me at all: as a historian my job is to interpret the evidence, not to promote myths. My reading of the evidence indicated the extraordinary courage and skill of those two men but also some undesirable elements of their characters (which ironically, in Ulm’s case, probably ensured the success of the flight).’ That is good advice, and I will remember it as I pursue my own research interests.
Michael enjoyed a good working relationship with Charles Ulm’s son, John, and I asked if he had been concerned about how John would react to his interpretation of the evidence. ‘Of course, I was sensitive to John’, Michael explained, ‘but was pleased to discover that he was pragmatic about the whole thing—he knew that, like all of us, his father and Kingsford Smith had flaws. His only concern was that I was fair and accurate; he read the finished manuscript and was pleased with it.’ So too are the reading public. Michael told me that he has ‘received no criticism at all regarding my portrayal of Kingsford Smith and Ulm.’ Indeed, Michael McKernan for one praised him for his treatment of them: ‘Our heroes, all of them, may have feet of clay; anyway they are ordinary mortals, with the faults common to all of us. Molkentin wisely acknowledges that—more, he embraces it.’
Given that Michael did not set out to be a writer, I was interested in how he managed the writing process, especially how he keeps track of a myriad of information. Rather than invent something new, Michael drew on the experiences of others and adapted their systems. ‘A lot of the older historians I’ve spoken with use (or once used) the index card method of note taking—essentially taking notes from the sources on cards and then arranging them either into a kind of index based on topic or the book’s structure. My system is similar in principle. After doing the background reading I map out the structure of what I am going to write—with Flying the Southern Cross it was relatively easy as the NLA wanted a clear chapter outline from the outset that followed Ulm’s logbook—and place my notes on a scaffold of chapter headings and sub-headings. As I do more research the structure is likely to change—like the old card system, however, using a word processor makes it easy to move notes around and play with the structure.
Drawing as he has on the experiences of those who have gone before, I asked Michael about the most important writing advice he has ever received? ‘ “Don’t get it right, get it written”. As a younger writer I would labour over every word and sentence but have learned that it is important to get a rough draft down on paper and then use that as a platform on which to re-work and revise. Writing also is the best indicator of where more research is necessary. I now tell my students that they will do their best thinking on the page.’
As well as interacting with students in the classroom, Michael is the man behind some key teacher resources—such as Zero Hour (—which help other educators instil a love of history in new generations. I asked what he looks at when writing these resources and whether they are pitched at the student or the teacher? ‘The syllabus comes first’, says Michael. ‘It has to address the subject’s outcomes. Secondly, the (admittedly limited) literature on history teaching pedagogy indicates that students learn best when they approach the past with an “inquiry” or “uncovering” method. So, rather than students digesting a “pre-fabricated” narrative from a text book they use the evidence to solve problems for themselves—essentially do a scaled down version of what a “real” historian does. Students not only tend to find this more engaging than a fact memorisation exercise but it teaches them higher-order thinking skills such as critical analysis and synthesis—abilities that have strong applications well beyond the history classroom.’ Teaching has changed much—and for the better—from when I was a bright eyed bushy tailed schoolie.
Michael has found another avenue for history teaching and storytelling. He is also a battlefield guide. ‘Battlefield guiding shares many elements of teaching’, Michael explained. ‘The battlefield itself—the terrain—replaces the photographs and maps that I would normally use in the classroom. Storytelling is an important element for a guide, especially as the Great War’s battlefields on the Western Front are so immense. I find it is necessary to interpret places through the experiences of an individual or a small group—then a place starts to make sense for the battlefield visitor.’
Michael’s writing plate is currently full. Once he finishes the First World War air power book he will turn to an account of the 1917 Passchendaele campaign which Allen & Unwin will publish for the 2017 centenary. It is too soon to consider what he will focus on after 2017 but I could not help asking if, given the particular people focus of his first two books and his special ability to bring the dead back to life through storytelling, if he would move into biography? ‘I’ve come across a couple of very impressive collections of private papers during my doctoral research in Australia and Britain. I have played with the idea of using these as the basis for a biography one day. It seems a challenging task and I am guessing that having an extensive set of private papers would be crucial’. Nothing definite, but he hasn’t ruled anything out!
Michael may not have set out to be a writer but he is now well established in his career, but not so far from his beginnings that he has forgotten his earliest writing thrill, that of ‘seeing a pile of Fire in the Sky in a Sydney bookshop the day it was first released. After four years of hard work it is incredibly gratifying to see your work out there for sale’. And that is an experience shared with every other writer.
If you would like to connect to Michael, visit his website at You can view him talking about Flying the Southern Cross: Charles Ulm and Charles Kingsford Smith and chatting with Charles Ulm’s son John at
Both of Michael’s books are currently in print and available in Australian bookshops.  
I am delighted Michael Molkentin agreed to be the subject of my fourth Echat With... I have learned much about the writing practice of historians. Next month I Echat With... Andy Wright, aviation book reviewer extraordinaire of Aircrew Book Review

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