Good. You’re here. Hope you brought your own coffee. Now, let’s talk process. With me today is another friend from VCFA, the incomparable and incandescent Miriam McNamara!
This discussion will conclude on Friday. We have a lot to cover, so let’s get started.
El Space: Bio please, for the curious.
Miriam: I have a B.Ed. in Elementary Education from Warren Wilson College and an M.F.A. in Writing from VCFA—oh yeah, and a Certificate of Cosmetology from Blue Ridge Community College, too. I am a hairstylist by day and a writer by morning and night. My favorite genres are historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy—I love exploring different worlds. I live in Asheville, North Carolina with my partner and our four fuzzy animals.
El Space: Awesome! And now, a brief synopsis of your young adult novel, if you please.
Miriam: The Unbinding of Mary Reade is the story of a girl forced to live as a boy to survive in early eighteenth-century London. When her obsession with the neighbor boy makes it impossible to lie any longer, Mary follows him to the New World on a pirate-hunting mission, determined to win his love. But her objective is sidelined when her ship is taken by a pirate crew that includes the seductive girl-pirate Anne Bonny. Mary’s new connection with a girl as unconventional as herself forces Mary to reject the falsehoods and fantasies that sustained her as a child—but as tensions between the law and the outlaws mount, will the person she is beneath the disguise be strong enough to survive without the lies?
El Space: Sounds great! What attracted you to the subject of pirates? What was your plan for making your concept fresh?
Miriam: Well, pirates have always been a trope that appeals to me. Real-life pirates are complicated, though; the whole steal-pillage-rape thing is hard to stomach along with all that romantic swashbuckling and adventuring, which I think is why a lot of people go for a more fantastical pirate. But I think that real-life complexity is fascinating.
In the early 1700s, when my novel is set, the European elite were pillaging and raping the New World, and the common people who worked in the Navies and on merchant ships led bleak and short-lived lives. Poor people, women, and non-Whites really had no rights. The Golden-Age Caribbean pirates, despite their flaws, were arguably forerunners of American democracy: every member of the crew got a vote and a fair share of the loot. Pirate captains were elected and, if they fell out of favor, replaced by someone else. I wanted to show the yearning for fairness and freedom, as well as the greed and violence.
I was drawn in particular to the real-life characters of Mary Reade and Anne Bonny, two women pirates that crewed the same ship and were eventually caught and tried for their crimes together. I wondered, what kind of woman would join a pirate crew? What would her life be like? What would drive her to take that kind of risk? It was surely that same yearning for fairness and freedom that drove men to become pirates, but I think that yearning and desperation would have to be even greater for a girl.
I knew the girl-disguised-as-a-boy-on-a-ship thing has been done a thousand times, as well as the pirate thing, so I did have concerns that Mary’s story would lack originality. It’s the character of Mary and her struggles that make this story unique. Despite the swashbuckling context, the story is really about a terrifically unusual girl trying to figure out who she is, and if there is a place in the world for that person. It explores themes that are extremely relevant today: the intersection and divergence of gender, sexuality, and justice.
El Space: Very compelling! So, what pirate books have you read that you thought were done well?
Miriam: My favorite pirate book is nonfiction: The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down by Colin Woodard. It’s narrative nonfiction, so it’s a very engaging read. I think everyone who is intrigued by the romantic ideal of the Caribbean pirates should read it, to get the facts behind the fiction. It is extremely well-researched, and he still manages to keep all the romance and adventure while sticking to the facts.
The “original” Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson is my favorite pirate novel. I haven’t read any contemporary pirate novels that compare.
El Space: What aspects of writing historical fiction did you find most challenging? Why?
Miriam: Whew! The research was so much more complicated than I could have imagined. I knew a lot about the political milieu of the time, but when I sat down to write the story I was stymied again and again by the details. What did every little piece of the ship look like? How does one sail a ship? Where do they use the bathroom? What was London like? Where did poor people live? What did they eat and drink? Did they have cigarettes/glass windows/underwear? What did things cost? Details, man.
During this particular time period, the lives of the poor went mostly undocumented: most records are ship logs, trial and prison records. This was a blessing and a curse. I could make some stuff up, but I had to be careful that I didn’t make something up that couldn’t have happened. And since my main character was a real person, that made it even more challenging. I couldn’t change certain plot elements, but because of the unreliability of many sources of the time period, I gave myself permission to massage some of them a bit in the name of story.
We’ll stop here for today. Tune in tomorrow for more Q and A with Miriam. If you have questions for Miriam about her book or her process, please comment below. Thanks for stopping by!
Illustration of Mary Reade and Anne Bonny is from arrrpirates.wikispaces.com.