The cover is very simple and dreamy, showing a plane flying through clouds—all very Highway to Heaven--but inevitably the publication of Scott Maka’s MH370: A Novella, published by Smashwords, has sparked controversy. The first fictional book about the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370—a film is rumored to be in pre-production—the novel dramatizes what Maka imagines happened on board the Kuala Lumpur-Beijing flight, which disappeared March 8, with the presumed loss of all 239 lives on board. There remains no conclusive evidence as to what happened on or to the plane.
In Maka’s imagining, the plane is hijacked by two inept Afghan terrorists, whose plans are scuppered by the bravery of crew and passengers, prime among them a Westerner named Jane, who one of the men, Aamir, had previously bonded with before the men got on the plane. Jane and Aamir both find themselves in the cockpit of the plane trying to fly it to safety, after the two pilots are killed by a fire. There’s a kind of straight-talking, cultural détente between the two, as they debate the nature of faith and extremism—with Jane getting steadily more and more drunk on rum as she looks for lights on the land below—before the plane’s final, desperate moments play themselves out. The duo’s bond is sealed, as strangely as it was formed, in those last moments.
One woman who lost her husband in the tragedy has already branded the book “disgusting.” Danica Weeks, whose husband Paul was on the flight, said: “I’d rather they’d put their efforts to helping them find the truth, to be honest. We’re going to be spending the rest of our lives doing that.”
The surprise is that the 127-page novella is far from terrible and creepy. You may dismiss its plot as hokey and in-a-thousand-ways insulting and crass, but it is also a gripping thriller, with an accompanying, far-from-dumb interrogation of faith and fanaticism. It’s mostly written in speech, which is a shame as Maka’s turns of descriptive phrase are evocative, like the mountain the plane almost flies into, a “primal black mass, its flanks were veined with razored rocks.”
Most bravely perhaps, Maka, 45, imagines some comedic moments. When Hamza, one of the terrorists, is seated between overweight passengers, he complains: “I cannot move my body. I think I am being crushed. If I stay here much longer, I will not be in a fit state to continue the mission.” Jane is a bracing presence: “You must be al-Qaeda’s version of Laurel and Hardy,” she says to the two terrorists after they screw up their hijacking. (They are not members of al-Qaeda.)
Jane bears more than a passing resemblance to the mysterious Maka himself. Like him, she’s a relentless backpacker, who teaches to raise funds to travel more. He lives in Malaysia, though was born in Palmerston North, New Zealand, and grew up in the far northern part of New Zealand’s North Island, in the Bay of Islands.
“I have always wanted to be a writer, and I was already writing fiction at high school—just short stories, which only my teachers and friends ever read,” Maka told The Daily Beast. For eight years, Maka was a journalist at three newspapers in New Zealand. He resigned in 2005 to travel with his partner, Joanne. He has an 18-year-old daughter who lives back in the family’s home country. “We’ve been backpacking around various places ever since, 72 countries at the last count. We tend to work on short-term contracts as English teachers, travelling between contracts.”
Maka left Jane’s nationality ambiguous in the book because he thought “it might help female readers identify with her a bit more if I left some of those details open.”
The novella, he said, “came about by accident really. Obviously it’s a massive issue in Malaysia, so it was already in my thoughts a lot. The main catalyst was that, six days after the aircraft disappeared, I happened to be taking a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Vietnam. The flight path is almost exactly the same as MH370's. Normally I don't mind flying at all, but on this occasion I found myself pretty scared—white knuckles, pounding heart, that kind of thing… All kinds of crazy thoughts were going through my head. By the time I landed, I'd come up with the idea for a book. During the bus ride from Hanoi's airport I blurted out the whole story to Joanne. She just nodded her head and said, ‘Okay, honey.’”
Did Maka choose the theme for notoriety’s sake; after all with fame comes immediate book sales? “No,” he insisted. “Quite a few people have suggested that I wrote the book just to ‘cash in.’ That wasn’t the case at all. It was simply the fact that I thought I had a great story idea and wanted to write it down. Once the book was written, it obviously had to be published. After publishing comes marketing. These are normal processes. I suspected that there might be some controversy, but I completely underestimated the reaction of Mrs. Weeks. Her reaction was just so strong it ended up making headlines everywhere. I was completely shocked when I heard her comments. I was genuinely upset that I’d prompted such a reaction from her.”
The research process was quite easy, Maka said, because there really isn’t that much evidence. “The flight path, communications timings, passenger numbers, aircraft type and specifications—all that kind of information was easily accessed. Also, because I live in Malaysia, I had an intimate knowledge of the culture and geography here, which gave me a tremendous advantage over other writers. The most difficult aspect of the research was something quite trivial. I needed to find out what time the meals were served on the flight and what food was on the menu. I spent many frustrating hours trying to find out. Eventually I learned that the only meal was breakfast. This turned out to be a crucial part of my plot.”
I asked Maka if what he came up with—a combination of technical failure and botched terrorist plot—was his notion of the most likely or plausible scenario of what happened. “No. I don't believe that's what happened at all. I tried to make that clear in the author's note at the start of the novella, but it seems that I was not emphatic enough. Several readers (on Amazon's site) have mentioned that my scenario is just as likely as anybody else’s. Frankly, I don’t think it is. I simply thought that I had a good idea for a story that slotted in with the known facts.”
But why choose two Afghan terrorists and a Western woman as his lead characters? “Good question, and to be honest I don't know the answer myself. The main idea I had was to place people from two opposing cultures into a desperate situation where they have to work together, and I wanted circumstances to force their opposing beliefs to collide. I also wanted to force them into having to assume each others’ roles.” A friend was certain that Jane was based on one of Maka’s ex-girlfriends. “In fact, she isn’t. I think she's a blend of many strong-willed women I've met over the years.”
The book interrogates faith, belief, and fanaticism. “Yes, they interest me a lot,” said Maka. “I was born in a predominantly Christian country (New Zealand), lived for four years in a predominantly Buddhist country (South Korea) and am currently living in a Muslim country. It’s impossible not to notice the profound differences in culture and religion when you're immersed in them. Also, I studied philosophy for a while at university, and I think that fostered an interest in logic, debate and differing viewpoints.”
Knowing that the mystery of Flight 370 persists, I wondered if Maka felt any sense of responsibility to the families of those affected about getting the plot “right”? Did he think he had? “I don’t think I am ‘right’ and don’t claim to be. I wouldn’t expect relatives of the missing to read my book at all and if they did I certainly wouldn't want them to think that I was proposing the plot as being plausible.”
Then how does he respond criticism that writing and publishing it is grossly offensive? “I don’t accept that writing and publishing the novella is offensive. The missing aircraft is one of the greatest mysteries of modern times, and everybody is talking about it. They’re talking about it over the dinner table, at work and in the car on the way to work. I see my novella as being part of that—as part of the social discourse. I think one reason why the reaction has been so strong is that there has been no closure for family members, and therefore the pain is still very raw. The unfortunate reality is that the plane may never be found and there may never be closure for those families. Does this mean that we're not allowed to discuss the topic or publish books about it until all of the relatives have passed away? That’s unrealistic, I think.”
Next, Maka will publish Once Upon a Cursed Shore, a historical fictional novel set mostly in 1809-10 in colonial New Zealand and Australia. It's a true story based on the Boyd Massacre—when Maori residents of Whangaroa Harbor in northern New Zealand killed and ate between 66 and 70 Europeans. In some ways, his MH370 book was a “dry run,” Maka said. “If I was going to make any mistakes, I would rather make them with a novella that took me only three months to write rather than a novel which took me five years.”