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.
This was a great interview. I’m working on a novel with a lot of historical elements as well and I can empathize on the amount of research required. Luckily, for me, it’s a fun process.
Hi, Phillip. Thanks for stopping by. I’m a fairly recent follower of your blog, so I haven’t reached a post where you talk about this project. (You probably have one in the past.) Can you tell us a little bit about it here? In what time period is your novel set? How do you go about researching?
First, thanks for following my blog! I appreciate you taking the time to visit.
About my current project, I haven’t talked much about it. I’ve been reluctant to because the premise has changed a few times. 🙂
But I can tell you it involves a bit of Japanese mythology and is set in the 1850s, Gold Rush-era California. It’s requiring a lot of secondary and primary sources about Japanese life and culture during that time, life in the Sierra Nevadas for the miners and all those that accompanied them, Native Americans in that area, etc.
It’s all fascinating, but a lot of groundwork! I’m trying to schedule a trip to that area so I can get some good first-hand impressions of the environment. I’ve been in the region before, but not as a writer. I’m hoping I’ll notice things I hadn’t before.
Wow. What a rich time period. Lots of fodder for conflict. It’s great that you’ll get a chance to do a research trip. Um, this might sound random, but are you an Akira Kurosawa fan at all? Or of Samurai Jack? Or Avatar the animated show?
Not random at all! You would think I would be interested in at least one of those, but I have to say I’m a little ignorant of them all (except for Kurosawa, but I mainly know him through the Westerns he influenced).
I really got into Japanese history after reading Shogun by James Clavell. Such a great book. Don’t know if you’ve read it, but I highly recommend it.
I was going to mention Shogun, but thought I would sound cheesy instantly pointing to Clavell. (“Oh, you’re interested in Japanese mythology? Have you read Shogun?”) Read it and Tai Pan. Me like.
Somehow I jumped straight from Japanese “Shogun” to Iranian “Whirlwind”. I really need to go back and finish the Asian saga.
Thank you so much, Phillip! I will have to check out your blog as well. I love the research, too. It’s all those details that make me love reading historical fiction so much, but I didn’t know how insane it would be to pull it off in a readable way until I started writing it! I have so much more respect for well-written historical fiction now. Great to hear about your novel-in-progress as well. Good luck!
Love this interview! And I can’t wait to read your book, Miriam! I’m about to immerse myself in a ton of research for the novel I’m working on and I can totally sympathize with the problem of details.
Yeah, research is so needed, Shawna. As you know, I write fantasy, but I still have to research. I’m amazed at people who wonder why that’s so if I’m making up my own world.
Oh so true for fantasy! I’m doing the same thing! It’s such an essential part of worldbuilding.
True, especially for someone like me, who has trouble recognizing certain plants and trees!
Thanks so much Shawna! I can’t wait to read your book either!! You know I love your writing style. 🙂
I’m amazed at all the research you did, Miriam! Thanks for this insight into your process. Great interview. Looking forward to the rest.
I am too, Sharon. But what a fascinating topic!
Thanks so much Sharon! The research is hard at first, but eventually the details reach a kind of critical mass in your head. That’s the best part, when you finally feel like you know the world well enough to move freely in it. Can’t wait until we hear from you!
Historical fiction is a really good way of showing a time from the “bottom up”, from the perspectives of ordinary people and not just rulers and the elite. Research, though, can be a challenge, and you have valuable suggestions, Miriam. Can’t wait to read the book!
Me, too, Lyn. And speaking of books, I’m waiting for Amazon to deliver my copy of yours!
Thanks so much Lyn; I know you’ve written about different cultures and times as well, so I’m sure you’ve got some great ideas on this subject, too. Would love to pick your brain sometime. PS I can’t wait to read your book either! I thought Amazon would have delivered it by now…
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