An Interview with Joan Druett
- Created: 04 December 2012
- Last Updated: 13 December 2014
- By David Hayes
What can you tell us about The Beckoning Ice, without spoiling the plot for readers?
In this, the fifth book in the Wiki Coffin mystery series, it is February 1839, and the ships of the United States Exploring Expedition are thrashing about dreaded Cape Horn, on their way to a rendezvous at Orange Harbor, Tierra del Fuego, on a crazy mission to be the first to find Antarctica. A sealing schooner hails the brig Swallow with a strange tale of a murdered corpse on an iceberg- surely an impossible case for Wiki Coffin to solve, especially as he is soon distracted by a violent killing on board. Threatened by vicious murderers himself, he is forced to voyage as far as the beckoning ice before the double case is concluded.
It has been five years since the last full length Wiki Coffin adventure. What plans do you have for the series in the future?
Five is a magic number: I can now apply to St. Martins/Minotaur for reversion of rights. Whether this will succeed, or not, it seemed an auspicious time to bring out the fifth mystery myself. So far, it is just an eBook, as marketing and distribution of print books is so difficult for an author who lives at the bottom of the world. But, getting back the rights to the first four could make a big difference.
In writing a detective series you made your lead character half-Maori and half-Yankee and then decided to have all his cases aboard a sailing ship. What led you to this combination?
I was approached by an editor to write a mystery series set on a sailing ship, so I had that parameter already. And I was reading Philbrick's Sea of Glory for review in the Boston Globe at the time, and was so intrigued with Wilkes's increasingly bizarre behavior that the setting was there for me, too. And, being a fan of the Hurricanes rugby team, the equivalent of a rugby player appealed as a hero. Many of our rugby players are Polynesian, so that led to Wiki Coffin. Then I remembered the story of a real little girl, Alice Henrietta Handy, who was fathered by a captain in the Bay of Islands. When she was about ten years old, her father suddenly took it into his head to hunt her down and take her back to Fairhaven, Massachusetts, as his only child and heir. His wife was understandably upset, so poor little Alice Henrietta was raised by his two sisters, in Boston. So there was my background for Wiki, and an explanation for his excellent English and uncanny ability to fit in, in an alien social setting. It made sense for him to escape to sea as soon as he was old enough, at the age of seventeen. The story of this escape and the adventures that followed is the thread of the Wiki Coffin short stories, published by the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.
What intrigues you about the period in which Wiki Coffin lived?
Nineteenth century seafarers were marvelous writers. I've read hundreds of terrific diaries, logs, journals, and poems written by stewards, captains, wives, daughters, coopers, and seamen, particularly on whaleships. Whaling was like war—months of boredom and inactivity, punctuated by hours of frenetic action, often accompanied by terror. And everyone on a whaling ship, it seems, filled in the lagging time by writing.
Where did your interest in the sea originate?
I'm a New Zealander. The sea is our heritage. My father had a boat. My husband, Ron, is a well regarded maritime artist. We met on a ship. And I fell into a hole on the tropical island of Rarotonga, and found the longlost grave of a young whaling wife at the bottom. That was a life-changing experience.
Do you have other writing projects under way in addition to the Wiki Coffin Series?
My biography Tupaia, the story of the astonishing Tahitian who sailed on the Endeavour with Cook and Banks, won the very prestigious New Zealand Post nonfiction Book Award for 2012, and my publishers (Random House New Zealand) are anxious for another book on a similar theme. So I am working on an account of the 1766 voyage of the Dolphin, under the command of Samuel Wallis. This voyage, along with the discovery of Tahiti, had a profound effect not only on the subsequent exploration of the south Pacific (without a Wallis, there would not have been a Cook), but on the European imagination as well. As J. C. Beaglehole said in his famous biography of Cook, "So almost suddenly, so overwhelmingly, was the idea of the Pacific at last to enter into the consciousness, not of seamen alone, but of literate Europe ... For Wallis had not merely found a convenient port of call. He had stumbled on a foundation stone of the Romantic movement."
I envisage not just a beautifully produced, lavishly illustrated print book, like Tupaia, but an interactive publication as well.
When and what do you read yourself?
Anything to do with sailing ships and the sea. Apart from James L. Nelson and Rick Spilman, I haven't read much fiction lately. I love memoirs written by old salts like Jan de Hartog and F. C. Hendry, and consider Two Years Before the Mast to be one of the best books ever written.
Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?
Just to say that I hope the readers of The Beckoning Ice enjoy the latest Wiki Coffin mystery as much as I did writing it. It was great fun getting reacquainted with my hero and his shipmates on the Swallow, as well as a big relief to find that they were as alive and lively as ever.
The Beckoning Ice is published by Joan Druett