Novelist Jack Womack fell in love with the mysteries of the strange and unknown at the age of 8, when his grandmother bought him a copy of a book called Strange World by Frank Edwards. So began the unparalleled collection of flying saucer literature and ephemera, one that would continue to grow over the following 40 years.
With his collection on exhibit now at New York City's Milk Gallery, we sat down with Womack to talk about the timeless appeal of UFOs.
The question that we have to start with is, of course: Are flying saucers real?
No, not at all, not at all. I wish I could say they were, but I fear that most tend to be misinterpretations or hallucinations—or pie pans being dangled from strings in front of cameras, back in the old days. It's wonderful just to see how many different things can be misinterpreted for signs and wonders in the sky.
But what's so moving is that, while they may not be real, the human response to them certainly is.
Flying saucer culture is a very good example of something arising in popular culture around something that didn't actually exist. It became a huge fad, not only in the late '40s and early '50s, but then again in the mid‑'60s, and then continuing on again with abductee stories in the '80s. Each time, the way it manifested was different. During the late '40s and the early '50s, it was with the fear of Communism in the back of everyone's heads, and there are these Communist flying saucers.
It's wonderful just to see how many different things can be misinterpreted for signs and wonders in the sky.
They became a very real part of popular culture, up until the Condon Report—which was a scientific study of flying saucers and whether or not there was anything to them—came out at the end of the '60s and said there's basically no reason to study flying saucers, except as examples of human behavior.
And how did you first become obsessed with flying saucers?
I discuss this with my friends who love science fiction: one of us went for all the books on UFOs, while the others would go after all the new books by Chip Delany or Tom Disch, or any of the other great science fiction writers of the mid‑'60s. UFOs just captured my sense of wonder.
You just want to see inside the other yard. You want to look over the fence and see what is out there.
How did the idea for this exhibition at Milk Gallery come about?
In 2011, Boo-Hooray [the New York art gallery] took my collection in order to have an exhibit. I prepared a small catalog, which turned into the rather large book we have now. Within the next year, we sold the collection to Georgetown University. They've been able to keep it together, so we were thinking that, at some point, we'd need to have a much bigger exhibit. We've been working on this for a while, and we're ready to go.
Is there a reason in your mind why your fascination with flying saucers has been so lasting?
Something strange, something beyond us. You know, 'What's over on the other side of the fence?' Just the same impulse that drove me to reading these flying saucer books when I was like 9, 10. You just want to see inside the other yard. You want to look over the fence and see what is out there.
How does it feel seeing your beloved collection of books in a gallery for all to see?
I've shown these books to friends of mine for 25, 30 years. It's fascinating to go into a gallery now and see people looking at them as aesthetic objects or historic objects, seeing them with an entirely different eye.
What's driven you to keep the collection this long?
The impetus has always been to keep it as motivation for characters. Since I entered my teens, it's become the general background I assemble to write novels—just attributes of people, how they arrive at these logical and yet illogical beliefs.
I just started realizing that these are some really beautiful covers. They don't do anything like this anymore.
The beauty of the jackets is now sinking in. When I was getting the collection together, and seeing them all laid out as opposed to being stuck on shelves, I just started realizing that these are some really beautiful covers. They don't do anything like this anymore. That was a whole different way of seeing it, considering it almost as outsider art.
And what's next for you?
I'm working on a new novel, science fiction—set, oh, probably about 60 years from now. I'm just waiting right now to see how things are going to hang out by the end of this year, before I know which direction to take it in. I think that's the thing that's hitting a lot of science fiction writers—and near‑future, and even contemporary authors, presently. It's just so impossible to predict what's going to happen next.