Tuesday, August 21, 2012

M.C. Muir (author of FLOATING GOLD) in conversation with George Jepson (Quarterdeck)

Do you read the historical fiction and nautical fiction of your contemporaries? Have any in particular been inspirations for your writing?
I read nautical fiction but little general historical fiction. It was C.S. Forester who inspired my enthusiasm for the age-of-sail. His Horatio Hornblower series is exciting, easy to read, and, without being didactic, conjures up scenes and events to create a real sense of adventure. Of course, I have sampled, Alexander Kent, Julian Stockwin, Richard Woodman and others, not forgetting Patrick O’Brian, but Forester would have to be my favourite. Like everyone else, my reading time is limited and today it is nautical non-fiction, set in the age-of-sail, which I devour. Books I have particularly enjoyed, and use for reference include: ‘Jack Tar’ by Roy and Lesley Adkins, ‘Nelson’s Favourite’ by Anthony Deane; also real-life stories such as ‘Billy Ruffian’ by David Cordingly, the memoirs of Admiral Lord Cochrane, and ‘A Mariner Of England: An Account Of The Career Of William Richardson From Cabin Boy In The Merchant Service To Warrant Officer In The Royal Navy (1780 To 1819) As Told By Himself’. Books, such as the latter, provide a reminder that all sailors serving on His Majesty’s ships were not unintelligent louts, but honest, hardworking, and often literate men.

When did you begin writing? Was writing your first career choice?
I began writing late in life after a career in Cytology (microscopic detection of cancer), working full time and raising two boys. But in the mid-1990s my busy lifestyle fell in a hole. I had a personal brush with cancer, lost my elder son to illness at the age of 25, was made redundant from my job, and my marriage broke down. By the late 90s, I found myself with time on my hands, so decided to do the things I had always wanted to do. One was to sail on a tall ship. The other was to write.
Over the next few years, I entered university and in 2004 graduated with a BA (Writing). My first book was published in 2005 and four others followed. It was prior to my study that I signed on for a 12 day voyage on an 1853-style barquentine, STS Leeuwin 2 which sails out of Fremantle (Western Australia). That brings me to your next question.

Where did your interest in the sea originate?
Joining the ship in Exmouth on the coast of Western Australia, with 40 other trainees, was a little daunting. But it was on this voyage, sailing north to the warm tropical waters of the Indian Ocean, hauling on lines, furling sails and taking the helm, that I became hooked on the sea. Sitting on watch one night, I witnessed the tiny marine bioluminescent particles shining in the bow wave – flashing like tiny fireflies – and it was this spectacle which inspired my first book, ‘Sea Dust’. Despite suffering sea-sickness, numerous similar sailing experiences followed on replica vessels, sail training ships and on a 23-day sail across the North Atlantic. Apart from travelling under sail, I have cruised to destinations I would not otherwise have visited, such as around the coast of South America and to the Antarctic Peninsula – the location that features heavily in ‘Floating Gold’.
From an historical point of view, I have visited many tall ships and national maritime museums and will be revisiting the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard later this year. Over the last two years, I returned to university to improve my knowledge of the Age of Revolution and the Atlantic and Colonial Worlds. I love to learn perhaps as much as I love to write and it is hard sometimes to know how to prioritize the two.

What most appeals to you about the early nineteenth century in which Floating Gold takes place?
The late 18th century and early 19th was a time of enormous change. It was the time when revolutions swept through France, North America and the islands of the West Indies. It was a time when life was cheap and death came quickly, and those heroes, made in battle, are still remembered today. But this period also saw the glorious days of the wooden world come to an end. From Henry V111 time, British sailors went sea in fleets of fighting ships and by the late 1700s mighty men of war, such as HMS Victory, were being constructed in private and naval dockyards along the English coast. But after Trafalgar, the death knell for such vessels was sounding. Soon the clang of iron, and the clatter and hiss of steam engines would replace the thrum of the wind in rigging, the luff of a sail and the creak of a yard. As the age-of-sail died, so did the sense of adventure and the intangible magic it personified. It is the magic surrounding the era of fighting ships which appeals to me and which I try to recapture on paper.

Did you have any second thoughts about entering the already well-populated naval fiction genre?
Because I write whatever grabs my imagination, I never thought twice about entering the male dominated world of maritime fiction. Subsequently, however, I have discovered the pitfalls of being a female writer in this sub-genre. Firstly, for any author, age-of-sail nautical fiction is a very narrow field, and one could argue that the 20 year period of the Napoleonic wars has been done to death. C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian are revered as the classic Georgian fiction writers and for decades their voluminous works monopolized the arena. More recently, they have been followed by a number of authors wishing to compete for this narrow window. All have been male and many had naval backgrounds. Naturally, these sorts of credentials make an author’s work more attractive to a publishing house, for it is the author’s career the publisher is promoting not just the book.
For an older female author, therefore, with limited credentials, publication in this field is a challenge. However, having been previously published in Britain, I approached Robert Hale Limited, requesting that ‘Floating Gold’ be published under a pseudonym (even Patrick O’Brian preferred not to use his own name). But the publisher would not accept my argument. Recently, I received a letter from a gentleman in England complimenting me on my work. He told me that he would not have read ‘Floating Gold’ as it was written by a female had not the library insisted he give it a try.
Perhaps I should have considered the publication problem earlier.
However, as I look back and finish my work-in-progress, I am reassured by the increasing number of female sailors now crewing on tall ships, those sailing single-handed across the world, and, just recently the appointment of a female commander to a British naval frigate.
I believe a book should stand on its merits, irrespective of the writer’s name, and it is up to the reader to pass judgment.

Your protagonist, Captain Oliver Quintrell, is described in great detail. How did you create him?

Oliver Quintrell is a figment of my imagination and not based on anyone I have ever known.
He is aged 32 years and, as a post captain, has responsibility for one of His Majesty’s frigates and her crew. I have received a couple of comments about this character portrayal. Firstly, that he behaved more maturely than his 32 years, and secondly, that he showed little emotion in the face of death.
I would argue that in the late 1700s boys moved directly from childhood to manhood minus the intervening teenage years as we know them today. Children were sent out to work before reaching the age of 10, and during their lives men and women witnessed death on a regular basis. For a ship’s captain death and dying, be it in battle or as a result of illness, was a familiar sight. Life expectancy, for a male in Britain, in those days, was 38, therefore I feel that Oliver Quintrell at 32 years would have been a fully mature man who was not greatly troubled emotionally by morbidity.

Do you write the sort of story you would like to read, or do you write strictly for readers?
I write for my pleasure, as one must these days, because writing is very time consuming and, for the majority of authors, is not lucrative. I do not write for a specific audience but I aim to produce a piece of work which will engage the reader and capture and hold their attention from cover to cover.

Do you plot out your novels before beginning to write? AND At what point in the process do you begin writing?
No, I don’t work to a plot. Writing usually begins with ideas flashing thorough my head. I may conceive a rough outline of where a story/or ship is heading. With my work-in-progress, the ship is sailing to Callao in Peru, but the twists and turns which happen on the journey come as much a surprise to me as to the reader. Some books take shape from a single idea, such as the marine luminescent particles in ‘Sea Dust’. Having written that scene first, I then back-tracked and wove a story around it. Sound crazy I know, but it works for me.
With ‘Floating Gold’, I read a news article about a lump of floating gold washed up on a South Australian Beach. It intrigued me and inspired a novel. Of course the places I have visited, the things I have experienced, plus a good dose of imagination, combine to provide the raw materials for my writing.

Are there more sea adventures on the horizon for Oliver Quintrell and his mates?
I have titled my work-in-progress, ‘The Tainted Prize’. The story sees Captain Quintrell, Mr Parry and several other officers and crew aboard the frigate, Perpetual, set sail on a voyage around South America. The year is 1803 and war with France has resumed after the short period of peace. I hope to have this ready to present to a publisher by July.
After that, Oliver’s next mission will be to the colony of New South Wales (Australia) and I already have a few ideas on paper.

From the author:
Firstly, I would like to thank, George Jepson and Quarterdeck for this interview.
Secondly, if you embark on my latest novel, ‘Floating Gold’, I hope you will derive as much pleasure from its pages as I did from writing it.
Thirdly, the sequel to ‘Floating Gold’ – THE TAINTED PRIZE – will be out shortly.

FLOATING GOLD available from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Lulu.com


Linda Collison said...

Another writer and reader of historical nautical and naval fiction -- who also happens to be a woman! Pleased to learn more about Margaret Muir through the Quarterdeck newsletter. I enjoyed "Floating Gold" and I'm looking forward to being on a panel of historical nautical fiction writers with Ms. Muir at the Historical Novel Society Convention in London, September Sept. 29-30.

Roger Moore said...

I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed "Floating Gold," and I am pleased to learn from this interview that I will not have long to wait to read "The Tainted Prize," the second in the series. I am a voracious consumer of fiction in various genres, and am naturally attracted to the depth and nuances of character and "backstory" development that are possible in good series fiction. I am a lover of history, as presented both in non-fiction and fictional works, and am suitably impressed by Ms. Muir's return to academia to increase her understanding of the period. I am even more impressed by her personal experience and adventures on sailing ships, as outlined in the interview, since I have come to love nautical fiction despite a decidedly landlocked personal history. I have seen for myself that these experiences are important in informing her fiction.