In 1984, airline industry executive Donald McPhail left the skies to learn to be a writer in Oregon. The longtime Mountain View resident began a journey that led him to publish two novels, each of which draws on his family’s history and knowledge.
His first novel, “The Millionaires Cruise,” was published in 2015. It’s the story of several millionaires aboard a cruise ship in 1929 who discover they have lost all their money in the stock market crash.
His second book, “The Guest from Johannesburg,” came out in 2019. It follows a young man’s journey to becoming a Pan American World Airways executive. McPhail was interviewed recently about the book on NPR by Tom Wilner.
McPhail first set out to write about the dangers of extreme capitalism, an idea that later became “The Millionaires Cruise.” He noted the parallels between the 1929 stock market crash and the 2008 housing crisis, citing mortgages and gadgets as “freely flowing.”
“We’re a democratic country, which somehow people have equated with being a capitalistic country, and those are two very different things,” the Palo Alto High School graduate said. “I wanted to look at a situation where capitalism in its extreme ended up in a bad place.”
McPhail completed traditional research to strengthen his story, but he also drew on personal history. His father worked as a cruise director in the early 1900s and once knew of a real, 90-day cruise in the Pacific, where millionaires found out they had lost all their money while onboard. McPhail added that to anchor his story in reality, he collected financial reports, Wikipedia pages and 1929 headlines from online research.
“I wanted the story to be grounded, and I wanted the grounding to be what was happening socially, politically and with sports,” he said.
McPhail’s next novel, he noted, is a tribute to his father, who worked for American Express and Pan American for many years. Although he did not know his father, McPhail aimed to project what his life might have been like, using real circumstances and settings. “The Guest from Johannesburg” describes the path of a young man, based on McPhail’s father, as he travels through the world as a Pan American executive and interacts with many people who have experienced prejudice.
When he worked for Hawaiian Airlines, McPhail said he was inspired by a co-worker named Mas Takano, who was raised in internment camps in Colorado.
“What I wanted it to do was an illustration of how a young kid with no control over anything and his family gets uprooted from the home they’ve lived in. I felt that it was so touching, so unfair and so painful. It was an amazing story that fit into the fictional story I was telling,” McPhail said.
McPhail based his character, Masao Tanaka, on Takano, and through him wanted to show how ignorance caused racism throughout the novel. McPhail noted that the concepts he wanted to address were the rampant discrimination by skin color in the United States and the patriotism of many people despite it.
“Starting from Obama’s election, they stonewalled him since he was an African American, due to his race, not just his party,” he said. “Then of course, under President Trump, it has become so blatant. … It pissed me off when our American government started judging people by their race and color. Still, people are discriminated against, but they’re so resilient (and) they surprise us with how strong they’ve come out of it.”
McPhail was raised in Palo Alto and then spent several years in the U.S. Navy before working for United Airlines. Ten years later, he joined Hawaiian Airlines. His wife owned a Los Altos arts and gifts store, Expressions, for many years.
As he wrote “The Millionaires Cruise,” McPhail said he chose to self-publish the book to give himself the greatest degree of freedom. Companies England Sparks and Book Passage helped him with distribution and illustration, and five Books Inc. stores in Mountain View, Palo Alto and San Francisco have carried the books and featured his presentations.
Drawing on his own experiences and his father’s career, the story in “The Guest from Johannesburg” underwent a metamorphosis, gaining an angle of social commentary.
“Pan American World Airways is an important part of my dad’s life, and that’s why the novel started as a history of Pan Am. Then, it turned into an anti-war, anti-racism novel,” McPhail said. “I thought my work would resonate if I pointed out the similarities between racism from America toward Japanese and Japanese toward America with prison camps. I wanted to find the common theme that all humans are capable of, not limited to country.”
McPhail said he’s now working on a book of family history for his two sons and three nephews, piecing together the little information he has about his parents’ childhoods. Although he considered writing a book set after “The Guest from Johannesburg” in the 1970s about world peace, he decided against it and chose to pursue the family history project.