What can you tell us about your book Men of Promise without spoiling the plot for readers?
Men of Promise is about a voyage of exploration to the South China Sea. The idea for the book really came from my realization that voyages of exploration, an exciting part of maritime history, have not received as much attention in fiction as naval warfare has. I think that a novel, and hopefully a series, focused on exploration will bring something new to the seafaring genre while staying true to its swashbuckling spirit. And the South China Sea, with its fabled dangers of pirates, typhoons, and coral reefs-- all of which are important in Men of Promise-- is an exciting setting for a nautical adventure.
The character of the hero, Captain Bowman West, is also an important part of the novel. As the story begins, West is a Royal Navy captain recovering from nearly fatal wound. He loves the ocean, but is weary of warfare; so, with the help of an old friend in the Admiralty, he determines that his next voyage will be one of discovery. West has a sense of curiousity that makes him appreciative of the exotic places that he visits, and he has the ability to use his wits, as well as his courage, in dealing with the dangers of the journey.
The book is the first in a proposed series. What are your future plans for it?
I want to continue the theme of exploration by having West make a circumnavigation-- and that, in and of itself, gives me material for several books! There are also some hints in this book about relics from the lost treasure fleet of the Ming Dynasty, which I intend to follow up on in the series. West's past will also be brought into play, including the re-appearance of an old enemy. And of course, the great joy of a series (as opposed to a single volume) is the opportunity to continue developing characters, seeing how they change over time, and exploring their interactions. I think this will add to the sense of warmth and family that I want my ship to have.
What intrigues you about the period in which the book is set?
The late eighteenth century-- 1770's, specifically-- is a great period for a story about exploration because of the inherent tensions. Early on, West is told that the Age of Exploration is over; he insists that exploration never ends, and he backs up his philosophical point with the real, contemporary example of James Cook. In terms of the history of naval voyages of exploration, West is late enough in the game to seem eccentric, but nevertheless, he is right: dramatic voyages of discovery are still being made in his time.
Where did your interest in the sea originate?
The first part of my childhood was spent in Mamaroneck, New York, a village in Westchester County. I was taught that the name "Mamaroneck" is from a Native American expression meaning "where the fresh water meets the salt," the salt water being Mamaroneck Harbor, which leads to Long Island Sound. Also, I love travel, and some of my favorite destinations over the years have been the coast of Connemara in Ireland, the Amalfi Coast of Italy, and, yes, the South China Sea (I visited friends in Taiwan several years ago). I often visit family on Florida's Treasure Coast. And I now live on the shores of Lake Champlain, which, despite its freshwater nature, has a distinctly maritime aspect, with wonderful variations in colour, sudden storms, and a rich naval history that includes important engagements during the American Revolution and the War of 1812. So I feel that a love of the ocean has always been part of my life.
How important is history to your stories?
West wants to travel to the edges of the map, so the history of exploration is central to the premise. Other historical elements that are important to Men of Promise are the dangers of piracy in the Straits of Malacca and in the South China Sea itself; the power and secrecy of the East India Company; and even the idea of the giraffe being viewed as a "celestial animal" in Chinese culture. (West decides that a pair of live giraffes would make a wonderful diplomatic gift, and this leads to a stop in East Africa and a safari that doesn't go quite the way he planned).
West's own personality is also based on that of a historical figure-- though perhaps not someone you would expect. I love the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, and I think that the author himself was as colourful as any of the characters he created. So, I decided to use Stevenson as the inspiration for West's character. The result is a bold, adventurous, curious, and somewhat wistful captain who is eager to set sail for new horizons.
How do you undertake your research?
Some of it is during the course of my writing, as a particular point comes up; but some of it is my own curiousity paying off in unexpected ways. Things that I learned about years ago, really just for fun, found its way into the novel. Even childhood trips to the Museum of Natural History in New York City paid off here, especially when it came to the outcome of West's safari. So, some of my research actually was a matter of learning new information while I was working, but a good portion of it was more about refreshing my memory. Either way, it's definitely part of the joy of writing a historical adventure novel.
When and what do you read yourself?
The "when" would be morning and evening-- reading typically begins and ends my day. The "what" includes re-reading Forester and O'Brian, (who among us does not?), and it certainly includes RLS, as I mentioned above. Stevenson's range as a writer is marvelous. In addition to adventure classics like Treasure Island and Kidnapped, I've found a great deal of joy in some of the novels that are more obscure today; in the perceptive and insightful travel writing; in the witty correspondence; and in the thoughtful, often bittersweet poetry. Stevenson even wrote his own lyrics to the Scottish folk tune "The Skye Boat Song." All of this has been helpful in developing West as a multi-faceted character.
I also appreciate the work of James Fenimore Cooper, and the character of Sir Gervaise Oakes, from his wonderful seafaring novel The Two Admirals, appears in Men of Promise as an old friend of West.
I love mysteries, as well-- Sherlock Holmes has been a hero of mine since childhood-- and that's manifested itself in some elements of mystery within my novel. West is suspicious of two enigmatic passengers from the East India Company, and he tries to use deductive reasoning to determine who they really are. It felt very natural to me to add some touches of mystery to a seafaring novel, because they're both genres that I often read.
Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?
How about a cask of rum?