Award-winning author Joan Druett sailed back into nautical fiction in 2005 with the launch of A Watery Grave, introducing the Wiki Coffin Mysteries, which are set against the U.S. Exploring Expedition in 1838. By this time, Druett was already an established author, writing maritime history, as well as fiction. Druett, who lives and writes in New Zealand, launches her Promise of Gold Trilogy this month. It will be digitally published by Old Salt Press, with trade paperback editions following.
Quarterdeck recently interviewed the author just as she was about the head out to sea:
How did you arrive at writing as your vocation? And, what initially drew you to the sea and nautical nonfiction as subject matter for your books?
Robert Cormier once said that he wrote because he wanted to see his books in libraries, which I think is as good a reason for writing as any. After voicing that lofty thought, Cormier went on to pen thought provoking, ground-breaking young adult fiction. Other authors, such as many of the subscribers of the really excellent journal, Quarterdeck, go on to pen thought provoking, ground-breaking maritime books. They might be drawn to the sea because they are old salts who are brimful of tales, or people who are eternally fascinated by the romance of sail. In my case, it was because I was curious to know how animals were carried on board ship.
It was my first book. I had been writing short stories and travel articles for years, along with teaching biology, which I suppose was some sort of a reason for a publisher to ask me to write a book about the importation of exotic plants and animals into New Zealand. So how, precisely, do you cart racehorses, moose, honey bees, and opossums from one side of the world to the other, on a four-month voyage? A weird problem, solved by some really weird people (the racehorses and the moose were housed in deck cabins, bought from their rightful occupants). Not only did I find these fascinatingly eccentric importers, but I learned a lot about sailing ships and the men who sailed them. And the book, Exotic Intruders, went on to earn a lot of awards, which earned me a lot of interest. Which meant that my name was inextricably linked with long voyages under canvas.
Again, fate took a hand. I fell into a grave in Rarotonga. Well, to be precise, I fell into a hole where a tree felled by a hurricane had grown, and found the long lost grave of a whaling wife at the bottom. Her name was Mary-Ann Sherman, and she had been buried on that tropical island in 1850. Knowing as much (or as little) about life on sailing ships as I did, I wondered what on earth she was doing on a grubby little whaleship, particularly when I learned that that ship (Harrison) had left New Bedford in 1845. And thus a passion was born. To my surprise, I became first, a world expert on women on whalers, and then an international expert on women on sailing ships in general. As it coincided with a sudden huge interest in the topic, it also led to a number of well-publicized books – Petticoat Whalers, She Was a Sister Sailor, Hen Frigates, She Captains – and still more awards. And so my fate as a writer of maritime books was sealed.
Your latest history, a biography, is Tupaia – The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook’s Navigator. What drew you to his story?
There were many so-called “kanakas” on American whaling ships, which in many ways was logical, because the Polynesians were the greatest natural navigators and seamen the world has ever known. After bursting into the Pacific over 3000 years ago, they colonized Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, and then Eastern Polynesia, stepping fearlessly from island to island through a totally unknown sea. Back when Europeans were just starting to experiment with the fore-and-aft sail in the Mediterranean, their huge double-hulled canoes, powered by lateens, sailed from Tahiti to Hawaii and back, and they sailed south to New Zealand 200 hundred years before Magellan ventured into the ocean. When Europeans “discovered” the Pacific, it was just a rediscovery, because the Polynesians had already done it.
So what was it like for them to sail on plodding, single-hulled, round-bottomed European craft, driven by squares and triangles of canvas? When a friend remarked at a lunch that no one had written a biography of Tupaia, the astonishingly gifted Tahitian who sailed on the Endeavour with Cook, I said, “I can do that.” I was thinking as a maritime historian, of course, not as a Pacific historian or an anthropologist, but I eckoned I could, and so I did it. And Tupaia won the New Zealand Post non-fiction award, which was a huge accomplishment.
It’s been nearly nine years since Maori detective Wiki Coffin appeared as the protagonist in your nautical
fiction series in A Watery Grave. What motivated you to cross over from history to historical fiction?
I’ve always written both fiction and nonfiction. When I discovered Mary Ann’s grave, my first impulse was to write a novel about her – or about a girl like her, only with a happy ending. The result was Abigail, which was snapped up by big New York and London publishers, and went into several editions. I moved away from whaling with the next novel, A Promise of Gold, which is about a brig that is owned by a pirate and sailed by a crew of fortune hunters, and is set in the very early Californian Goldrush. This book (originally 210,000 rousing words, but severely cut,) was also published internationally. These are now adapted for digital publication. Abigail needed a lot of rewriting, as it included a great deal of background description of the whaling process, something that isn’t politically correct any more. It has only recently come out, with its title revised as A Love of Adventure. The Goldrush saga is being reissued in three volumes by Old Salt Press, as the Promise of Gold series, after having been restored to its original length. The first book, Judas Island, will come out in May, followed within days by the next two.
What was the seed for the Wiki Coffin character?
Wiki Coffin, as a person, was inspired by a book I was reviewing for the Boston Globe, which was a fine study of the 1838 U. S. Exploring Expedition by Nathaniel Philbrick, Sea of Glory. When I started reading the journals kept on this expedition, I was struck by an unconsciously racist description of a Maori on the Vincennes, Jack Sac. I thought a man like Jack would be a perfect detective, part of the complement and yet an outsider, with an outsider’s perspective. All I needed was rousing maritime background and a stirring mystery. An editor at Minotaur/St. Martin’s loved the idea, and so the series was born. The Wiki series is now includes five books and a several short stories in the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.
What’s on the horizon for the naval sleuth?
During the production of the fourth book, Deadly Shoals, my gallant editor departed, and the series went into limbo. In the meantime, I had been writing short stories about Wiki’s earlier life on whalers and traders for the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, the editors being huge fans, and so the lapse of the novels didn’t mean the actual demise of my hero, which was nice. But there was a complication. The four books had also been bought by Allen & Unwin, an Australian publisher, who had wanted a teaser chapter from the next book at the end of each one. So, for the fourth book, I had written a chapter of what was to be the fifth book, Beckoning Ice. And the fans weren’t happy when that book never came out. So in the end I finished it, and went straight to digital self-publishing. No publisher is going to pick up a series halfway through, so it was only logical for me to do that. As it happens, it is the best book of the series, so I might be forced to write another. The short stories, which are about Wiki’s adventures as a younger man, have provided so much background that he has developed as a character, with foibles and fears. Some of the fans have kindly said that he reminds them of Horatio Hornblower, and of course they want more. In the meantime, I nudge them towards the short stories. The latest, “The Bengal Tiger,” is the cover story in a recent issue of the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine – and a wonderful cover it is, too.
Over the years you have interspersed your writing with nonfiction and fiction. What pulls you one way or the other? How do you research your novels as opposed to your works of history? Do you maintain a research library?
I am sure you have guessed by now that writing fiction and nonfiction is very much the same exercise for me. Both jobs demand intensive research, and because of that I have a large personal library, half of which would be good basic reference books, such as John Harland’s Seamanship and Lincoln Paine’s Ships of the World, along with the standards like Stackpole, Matthews, Chapelle, Rodger and Lavery. The rest is made up of memoirs and stories written by old salts who had wonderful tales to tell.
Do you find the challenges of writing fiction much different than writing history?
The biggest difference between fiction and nonfiction is the creation of fictional characters. While you might treat a real historical character fictionally in your nonfiction study, you are confined to what he or she actually did and said. This has applied to a certain extent with real people in the Wiki Coffin mysteries, such as Wilkes or Ringgold, for though I can make up dialogue, it has to be consistent with the real person’s style of speech. Fictional characters give the writer a lot more freedom – initially. Nonfiction, I think, benefits from a novelist’s approach. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a “grabber” first sentence – “At the instant of his birth, Tupaia’s life hung in the balance” – or to establish the setting early, or to describe the characters in human terms.
And telling a nonfiction story is a matter of picking out dramatic moments, just as a novelist progresses step by step through the plot. Reviewers say my nonfiction books read like thrillers, and what’s wrong with that?
How important is historical credibility in creating believable fiction for readers?
Good historical maritime fiction depends on solid basic knowledge, too. The audience is a well-educated one, made up of people who know their ships and sailors already, and if you get a critical detail wrong, they are going to know it, and be very unhappy. And not only does the reader of historical maritime fiction bring a lot of personal knowledge to the book, but he (or she) is expecting to learn something, too, so the little intimate details that come from reading the memoirs and journals of the actual seafarers of the time are what is going to make your book work for them. For the Wiki Coffin mysteries that were set in Brazil and Patagonia, Run Afoul and Deadly Shoals, Darwin’s diary kept on the Beagle was an absolute godsend, for instance.
Do your characters ever take on a life of their own and influence the direction of your stories?
When you ask this question, I immediately think of Forsythe, the lieutenant who made Wiki’s life so unpleasant in A Watery Grave. I had every intention of killing him off in the next book, Shark Island, but he wouldn’t let me, so I had to murder someone else, instead. Now, he has become a major character, with depth, and I have to admit I have become fond of him. I certainly can’t see myself killing him off anytime soon.
Please describe where you write.
Writers usually write at home, and have to make that environment work for them. I now have my desk and bookcases right off the kitchen, so I can dash off that crucial sentence while the potatoes are boiling. It means people are going to and fro, and the phone keeps on ringing, but what office is different?
Do you re-write as you go along?
Constantly. Times of solitude are used for composition,while distractions are more easily ignored when you are self-editing – and that self-editing, polishing, and proofing is very important. Thorough proofreading is critical. Every good writer should never be satisfied with less than an absolutely clean manuscript, whether on hard drive or paper.
What is your take on the current state of publishing, with the advent of e-books and self-publishing?
With the advent of digital publishing, having a clean manuscript is more important than ever, even if you have a traditional publisher. The fact that you have sent in an electronic manuscript means that it is more likely that it will be translated directly into a book, along with all the mistakes, bad formatting, and typos you’ve left in it. And, if you have self-published your book, you don’t want your name on anything that looks scruffy. But, once it is taken on board that e-publishing needs a greater commitment to good spelling, good grammar, and good writing than ever before, I believe it is the most exciting development since the invention of the printing press. Not only are more writers producing more quickly, but I think that it is leading to a surge in the numbers of those who read books, too.
The major problem with independent publishing is quality control. Not only are badly formatted books that are full of simple spelling and grammatical errors getting into the marketplace, but really badly written stories are being self-published, too. Part of the answer will come by itself, as the audience becomes more discerning (digital books are very easily deleted). The formation of cooperative presses, where independent writers work together to advise each other on formatting and editing, and then help promote their fellows’ good work, will go a long way to improve the product, too. It’s your well-informed book group going global. And why not?
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
How about the idea of a writers’ cooperative that is dedicated to excellent maritime writing, both fiction and nonfiction? Featuring a group of writers of maritime lore who support each other by freely promoting other members’ books as they come out? This is the philosophy behind Old Salt Press, and I firmly believe it is the exciting path of the future.