Walter Kirn: The Mind Behind Ryan Bingham
News Mediaplanet sat down with Walter Kirn, author of the book Up in the Air to discuss the inspiration behind leading character Ryan Bingham: the savvy reward strategist portrayed on-screen by George Clooney.
How have your own travel experiences helped shape main character Ryan Bingham’s story? Are you a frequent flyer yourself?
Ryan’s a blend of all the frequent flyers I ever saw brushing their teeth in airport restrooms, pushing for an upgrade at a ticket counter, or sitting in business class in front of laptops filling out complicated spreadsheets with satin sleep mask hanging around their neck. I also researched his character in airline clubrooms. One guy I met there had sold his condo and told me he lived only in suite hotels. He said he traveled two hundred days a year and that he’d tried to stop flying for a while but missed the freedom and anonymity of staying on the move. Ryan is also the part of me who will do anything at the end of the year to get preferred status by upping my mileage count, including taking trips that I don’t need.
A lot of business travelers may empathize with Ryan’s enjoyment of flying. What tips would Ryan give to a frequent flyer? Why do you think he’s such a relatable character for other business travelers?
The first thing he’d advise is that you can always purchase after you land any item that you forgot to pack. He’d also recommend little stretching exercises that can be done while sitting in your seat. And he’d tell you to give airline workers a big, warm smile even if you’re complaining—especially then. And go light on the alcohol and salty snacks since you want to be able to hit the ground running. I think he’s such a relatable character because flying still thrills him no matter how often he does it. It’s still a miracle to him that we can cruise along above the clouds. What’s more, he sees flying as a social occasion, a chance to get to know, however briefly, interesting strangers from all walks of life. It’s also a chance to be alone, to think. There’s something about lifting off into the sky that opens up people’s sense of possibility about themselves and their futures. That’s why you see so many frequent flyers with their noses in self-help books.
Ryan Bingham has a personal goal of reaching 1 million frequent flyer miles. What is it about these rewards that he finds so appealing? And why is he so reserved about discussing it?
"I think he’s such a relatable character because flying still thrills him no matter how often he does it. It’s still a miracle to him that we can cruise along above the clouds."
One thing he loves about rewards programs is how they make him feel special, noticed, appreciated. They’re like the gold stars you earn in grade school for reading books and cleaning up your desk. He also takes pleasure in them as a game because they let him set little private goals that distract him from the heavy issues of life. Plus the idea of free tickets and hotel stays lets him fantasize about trips that he might take once he’s finished with his work. He keeps his points totals to himself because he likes having a little secret and also because he’s superstitious – he doesn’t want to break the magic spell of silently piling up invisible riches. He’s running a little race inside his head, one that’s deeply private, that’s his alone.
It’s been over ten years since Up in the Air was originally published and yet the story is still very timely. What do you think are its most enduring elements?
The lasting aspect of my story, I think, lies in the mysterious feeling of freedom, solitude, and anticipation that comes from continually moving from place to place and living by your wits. Human beings, down deep, are partly nomads who can adapt to wherever they happen to be and make almost anywhere feel like home. We’re hungry for adventure and novelty and perpetually eager to solve new problems, meet new people, and experience new sensations. We also love getting things for free, and that’s the illusion, at least of loyalty programs, which seem to reward us simply for living and going about our business.
When not traveling for work, where is your favorite place to be?
In Livingston, Montana, my home, where the scale of the mountains and the big sky make me feel small, like one atom in a vast universe that I don’t control and am not expected to try. I also like the beach in California because the tide brings in new surprises each day.