Astrodene's Historic Naval fiction is pleased to have obtained an Interview with Chris Scott Wilson on the relaunch as an ebook of his novel Scarborough Fair.
What can you tell us about Scarborough Fair without spoiling the plot for readers?
I don't need to tell you about the plot because the book description does that, but one of the things that interests me about life is things are rarely what they appear to be. You can stand with your nose pressed up against the window, looking in, but what you think you see may not be what is there at all. And most things are a lot more difficult to achieve than you could possibly imagine. But some men conquer all the obstacles between them and their objective by sheer guts and determination and most often because they just won't quit. By current standards, wooden sailing ships were small, but manned by several hundred men all living in each other's pockets. Every man has his dreams, and each thinks they can do it better than the next, whether they actually can or not. There are those who admire and those who are jealous, and then there are those who will support and those who will rebel, but most importantly there are those who will follow, but the really special ones will lead. Quite often it is impossible to divine exactly what quality they have, but it is usually described as magnetism which enables them to draw other men to them who will do their bidding. But there is no commander better than one who will lead from the front, and John Paul Jones was such a man.
Where did your interest in the sea originate?
I'm the son of a son of a sailor. My grandfather Valentine was an engineer in the merchant navy. I also spent part of my childhood in the village where Captain Cook was born and attended the school named after him, which much, much later encouraged me to write a short book about him. Also, childhood holidays were spent at the seaside in Whitby, Scarborough, Staithes and Robin Hood's Bay where I'm told I pestered the local fishermen, and I have lived on the North Yorkshire coast all my adult life. My father-in-law had fishing boats for many years, one of which was called the Gin, a name you might spot in Scarborough Fair, while my brother is a yachtsman, and my wife and I have a boat too. I can't imagine not living by the sea.
Can you describe your writing path to naval fiction?
The first book I wrote was a western. It was a challenge to see if I could do it convincingly. It was published by Robert Hale, so I wrote another, then another until they had published five. One of the best pieces of writing advice I have ever had is to write the kind the books you like reading, so it was probably in the back of my mind to write naval fiction at some point. I've read many sea books over the years. One of the first I recall was To Glory We Steer by Alexander Kent. The title, seen on the spine, just pulled me in. I didn't know then it was a line from Heart of Oak. I've read a lot of his since, and in fact am reading one now. I worked outwards from there; Monsarrat, Patrick O'Brian, Dudley Pope, but none of them came close to C.S. Forrester for me. I think Hornblower was almost the perfect creation. Forrester got there first and really drew the template for all the other sea writers using the Napoleonic wars. I've also read WWII naval books; Douglas Reeman, Alistair Maclean, Brian Callison, then I started reading non-fiction about anything to do with sailing ships. Like everyone else, Nelson became absorbing, and along with my brother I was lucky enough to be shown every nook and cranny of HMS Victory from stem to stern when one of my father's neighbours was Victory's Master at Arms. I also own a tiny copper "coin" dated 1905, even smaller than a farthing. One side bears an image of the flagship and the other the provenance it was struck from Victory's stripped copper sheathing when it was replaced 100 years after Nelson's greatest victory, thus the "coin" was actually present at the battle of Trafalgar. I paid £1 for it in about 1985, and thought it a fraud, until on a later trip to Portsmouth I spied one displayed in the Naval Museum. I've cherished it since.
But at the time I was trying to move away from westerns an agent explained each of the major publishing houses had their own sea writer and were reluctant to take on more, so I thought if I wrote historical fiction that would widen the net somewhat. The part of the Yorkshire coast where I live has a strong smuggling history so I thought I would look in that direction. I began researching in the local library – no internet then – and was deflected into writing a local history book. But along the way a name caught my eye. John Paul Jones.
As a UK author what made you select an American hero as the principal character?
It was serendipity, a small paragraph in a history book that stated "the pirate John Paul Jones" had been sighted off Whitby in 1779 and the townsmen had been rousted out to man the ancient gun battery. It's at times like that you realise how ignorant you are. I had never heard of John Paul Jones, but most of my reading had been in the Napoleonic period some 20 years later. Pirate? I learned Jones was regarded as America's first naval hero. By the Americans. But because he was originally a Scot, the English regarded him as a turncoat and a pirate. Jones was commanding a warship, but he wasn't a career officer. Prior to volunteering for the infant US Navy, he had commanded merchantmen. It just struck me this was great story, set in a different period to the usual naval fiction stories, and was different in that it wasn't primarily a journey up through the ranks from 12 year old midshipman.
How did you undertake your research?
There are a couple of acknowledged authorities on John Paul Jones, but I read everything I could find about him from as many different viewpoints as possible and made copious notes, and then hoped I could somehow let it all simmer in the back of my mind and I would find a path through all the twists and turns of his story and decide which part of it to tell and how to structure it. I also had to immerse myself in books dealing in sailing ship terminology to make descriptions aboard ship authoritative without becoming too stodgy.
What intrigues you about the period in which the book is set?
Empires. They are a recurring theme. They expand - they collapse. The mother country colonises fresh territory. If that colony remains weak, it seeks the mother country's protection. If the colony flourishes and grows powerful, it demands its freedom. America did so. While most of the fighting in the War of Independence took place on the other side of the Atlantic, John Paul Jones used his local knowledge and instead brought the war to within sight of the very shores of England. Perhaps the word that suits best is audacity. But while America was fighting for her freedom, this was also the period when Captain James Cook was peacefully making his circumnavigations and planting the flag for more English colonies on the other side of the world.
Do you plan to write any more naval fiction?
Following Scarborough Fair is the smuggling book I was originally researching, Sunset Be Glory, among whose characters is the son of one of Scarborough Fair's leading characters, but it also features running fights at sea between revenue cutters and the smugglers vessels, so there's land and sea. Following that hopefully will be a story set in the Davis Strait in the Greenland Sea among the ice, mainly aboard ship.
Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?
My website, which is found at http://www.chrisscottwilson.co.uk If anyone is interested in shipwrecks on the Yorkshire coast or the development of the iron and steel industry, keep an eye on the Archive section. I occasionally post articles. I'm also hoping my short book Captain Cook, Man of The Sea will be reissued as an ebook in the near future and I also have an unpublished non-fiction manuscript dealing with Yorkshire's Mariners, including Cook, Frobisher, the Scoresbys, Foxe, Palliser and others, not least Robert Moorsom from Whitby who commanded HMS Revenge at Trafalgar. Ah, I see we're back at Nelson again...