Flying Saucers Are Real :: A Discussion with Jack Womack

Recently, science fiction author Jack Womack took a break from his near constant political watchdogging to tweet a quick reminder:

“I don’t believe in Flying Saucers; I do believe in people who believe in them.”

The tweet was more than just an offhand clarification. It’s something of a defining statement from Womack, and necessary to make clear as he recently compiled a rather definitively titled book,  Flying Saucers Are Real, for Anthology Editions. An exhaustive catalog of his sprawling collection of UFO literature, the book is an examination of UFO culture in its many permutations. But for Womack, it’s never been about the saucers themselves so much as the people who’ve seen them.

“I’m interested in the innermost workings of people who believe in [UFOs],” Womack says from his home in New York City. “I want to know what led someone to believe in them and why it’s such an archetypal fantasy.”

Womack’s fiction often focuses on alternate histories, and it’s not difficult to trace his ability to envision parallel timelines to his youthful interest in paranormal literature. He began collecting UFO books in 1954, as an eight-year old in Kentucky, pulling them off spinner racks at local drug stores for his grandmother to purchase on his behalf. While science fiction stoked the imaginations of many of his peers, he was drawn more to “nonfiction” work centered on the unknown: pseudo-science narratives, abductee stories, and the work of skeptics intent on debunking extraterrestrial claims.

“It never had anything to do with belief per se,” Womack says. “When I was a kid, the thought of flying saucers and spacemen and all that sort of thing—especially in the early ‘60s—was very big in the cultural imagination. For years, I’d talk to my friends in science fiction about how we started, and I always said my sense of wonder came from these ridiculous flying saucer, Loch Ness Monster, and Abominable Snowman books.”

When Womack moved to New York City in the 1970s, he began collecting material more seriously. His dedication led to one of the most complete and diverse collections of UFO material in the country. In Flying Saucers Are Real, he presents the contents of his collection in wide detail, from the homespun folk art of Albert K. Bender’s Flying Saucers and the Three Men to M. Doreal’s Flying Saucers: An Occult View Point. In addition to beautiful blurry black-and-white photos of far-off, potentially alien objects, there’s striking color photography from A Pictorial Tour of Unarius, a publication compiled by the the nonprofit group Unarius (Universal Articulate Interdimensional Understanding of Science), and pastoral images from author Leah A. Haley and illustrator Lisa Dusenberry’s gentle children’s guide to abduction.

His archive unites the word of military men and housewives with mystics and Aquarian pyschonauts, and numerous people situated between these extremes. Lavishly presented, it examines the plurality of the UFO movement, encompassing  religious fervor, longing eroticism, and conspiracy-theorist Americana.

In his introduction, Womack’s friend William Gibson describes the contents of the book the way we would a meme. “His commentary,” Gibson writes, “…admits us to the inner sanctum, the primal moment, the very planet from which the saucers, wingless, nonetheless came winging.”

The book traces the spread of the idea of otherworldly beings from their root sources and documents the strange, but undeniably human, way these tales spread and codified.

“Kenneth Arnold, a commercial pilot, was [among the first to report seeing] ‘flying saucers,’ which he described as silver discs, over the Cascade Mountains in June of 1947,” Womack says.   “He landed and told a local reporter he’d seen these funny things. The reporter put it on the wire, and two days later the story had gone world-wide, and the term ‘flying saucer’ was used for the first time.”

Following this sighting, there was initially great variety in the kind of encounters described. “People would come down and have long blonde hair,” Womack says. “They’d teach you that graham crackers are good; they’d offer you space pancakes or take you on trips from New York to Los Angeles and say, ‘Better not touch the hull, pal, it’s pretty hot!'”

But over time, the stories began fitting into increasingly familiar templates. “The little grey men that would come and take you, and you’d lose an hour of time. They’d probe you—it became archetypal,” Womack says.

As the decades stretched on, the narratives continued to morph. “It’s become more  conspiratorial over time, [about how] the government was probably covering up these stories because they’re Soviets or our own [advanced craft] or because the government doesn’t want us to know about the space people, or even more unsavory reasons as time progresses,” Womack says.

For Womack, who arranged a permanent home for his UFO library at the Lauinger Library at Georgetown University, where it can be studied as part of the “history of 20th century popular ideology,” modern UFO culture is less appealing. But still, his collection of UFOlogy’s golden age speaks to the power of human connection, collective consciousness, and the power of imagination.

“I have to reiterate, I do not believe in these things,” Womack laughs. “I believe in the people who believe in flying saucers, which is a very different thing there. That’s where my interest lies.”

And ultimately, driven by Womack’s wit, what Flying Saucers Are Real offers is not proof of life in outer space, but rather some sense of what these narratives can tell us about inner space and our internal universes, those just as worthy of exploration and potentially unknowable as vast cosmic expanses. words / j woodbury

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