It is no secret that I did not produce my first full length book until the age of forty. Mind you, I had published rather a lot before then, starting from my late teens, when I wrote science fiction for American magazines, and short stories for the Maori magazine “Te Ao Hou” under the pen name “Jo Friday,” and then travel stories for New Zealand magazines, under my own name. However, I was mostly involved in teaching biology and English literature, and raising our two sons, Lindsay and Alastair.
Then I was approached by a publisher with the idea of writing a book about the introduction of plants and animals to New Zealand — how they were carried here in the sailing ship era, and how they failed or thrived. The result was “Exotic Intruders.” Not only had I enjoyed writing the stories of the eccentric sailing ship captains and passengers who had carried such items as birds, fish eggs, racehorses, and deer through the tropics and southern ocean storms, but the book won a couple of prizes — the Hubert Church Award and the PEN Award for Best First Book of Prose. All very encouraging.
Then, on one of my quests for a travel story, I fell into a hole on the tropical island of Rarotonga, found the longlost grave of a whaling wife at the bottom, and a passion for researching the lives of captains’ wives under sail was born. A Fulbright Award sent me to New England and Hawaii, and so “Abigail,” “She Was a Sister Sailor,” and “Petticoat Whalers” were written, the second of these winning the prestigious John Lyman Award for Best Book of American Maritime History in 1992.
Since then, I have become equally fascinated with the stories of the adventurous Polynesians who shipped on board sailing ships–American whaling ships, in particular. I so I came to the story of Tupaia, the astonishing Tahitian who sailed with Captain James Cook and the naturalist, Joseph Banks … and to my fictional half-Maori sleuth, the inimitable Wiki Coffin.
All three resulted in a residency in New York, at the Oysterponds Historical Society at Orient, Long Island, and the job of Project Historian for a museum exhibit, “The Sailing Circle,” which was largely funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and co-sponsored by the Three Village Historical Society, East Setauket, and the Cold Spring Harbor Whaling Museum.
Opening first at the Whaling Museum in 1995, this exhibit moved on to other venues, including Mystic Seaport, and won for the Three Village Historical Society the Albert B. Corey Award, which is occasionally (not regularly) granted by the American Association for State and Local History for projects “that best display the qualities of vigor, scholarship, and imagination.”
I returned to New Zealand in 1996, to write a fourth book about the brave seafaring wives, “Hen Frigates,” which in 1998 won a place in the New York Public Library list of the twenty-five Best Books to Remember. The following year this was followed by the L. Byrne Waterman Award for outstanding contributions to history and woman’s history, awarded by the Kendall Whaling Museum.
These last were all American awards. In the year 2000, however, my native country recognized me again — a Creative New Zealand development grant was followed by a year-long John David Stout Research Fellowship at Victoria University of Wellington.
This signal honor resulted in the writing of a true-life maritime mystery, “In the Wake of Madness,” and research into wrecks in the subantarctic islands of New Zealand, which has led to another maritime nonfiction account, “Island of the Lost: Death and Survival at the Edge of the World,” which was published by Algonquin in July 2007, went into several other editions, including one by Allen & Unwin (Australia), and was a bestseller.
As well as this, in 2005 I was appointed a consultant for an ongoing NEH-funded project with the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society, “Children on Whaleships.”
In 2008, I was fortunate enough to win a substantial Creative New Zealand grant to research a biography of Tupaia, the unacknowledged Tahitian who was so essential to the success of Captain Cook’s first discovery voyage, and in 2009 very generous travel funding from the Stout Trust allowed me to journey to Tahiti, Raiatea, Connecticut (Yale), New York, London, Bonn (Germany), and Australia, to further my studies into this remarkable man.
In 2011, I was awarded a CLL/NZSA Stout Centre Research Grant to further my studies into the strange stories of American seafarers in New Zealand, through the correspondence and reports of the United States consuls.