What can you tell us about A Sea Unto Itself without spoiling the plot for the readers?
A Sea Unto Itself centers around a mystery. The year is 1799. The young French General Napoleon Bonaparte has established himself in Egypt at great cost the year before. The question is why? Opinions in London are divided. The majority believe that this upstart Napoleon conquered the fabled land of the Pharaohs in order to advance his reputation and bring glory and wealth to himself and France. A less widely held view is that Bonaparte has a greater strategic objective in mind—the conquest of Britain's extremely valuable colonies in India. Without the vast wealth derived from these possessions London could hardly execute the war. Charles Edgemont, still a relatively junior captain in the Royal Navy, is given a new command—the Cassandra, 32—and ordered to join a small squadron at the southern end of the Red Sea whose purpose is to prevent the French from exiting the sea and sailing on to the subcontinent. A problem is that the Admiral commanding this squadron openly ridicules any notion that the French would even contemplate such an attempt, much less be able to amass the resources necessary to carry it out. It will be up to Captain Edgemont to determine whether he is correct or not.
It has been a few years since there has been a Charles Edgemont novel. What can you tell us about that and the future of the series?
Random House published the first two novels in this series-- Sails on the Horizon (2005), and Any Approaching Enemy (2006)—and declined to publish a third. The main difficulty, I was told, was that they were unable to get any of the major book reviewing publications (like the New York Times) to take up the novels and as a result were not able to meet their sales expectations. In the interval I wrote A Sea Unto Itself, my agent retired, and I had to find a new publisher on my own. Happily, Fireship Press has now taken up the mantel and we continue on. I can tell you on the strictest confidence that the next volume in the Charles and Penny Edgemont saga involves the siege of Valetta on the Island of Malta in 1800.
How do you undertake your research?
I read, read, read and read some more. Then, when I can, I travel. I go to museums. I have trod the decks of the 36-gun frigate Tricomalee which is docked in loving condition at Hartlepool in England. I used to live in England and in mainland Europe and I have visited many of the places mentioned in the books. I'm not really a sailor but I have been to sea on numbers of occasions, including crossing the Atlantic multiple times. Add to that, today there is the internet. For what holes remain I use my imagination. As any writer of historical fiction will tell you, you can't get every tiny detail correct. Small errors will creep in no matter how much you know and I have found that my readers are quite happy to point them out to me with excruciating exactitude. And I am grateful for that.
What drew you to write your first Age of Sail novel?
C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels, I think. I devoured them as a teenager. By now I've probably read every one of them a half-dozen times or better. I've read all of the Patrick O'Brian novels and Richard Woodman's and many of the others and I think I'm drawn to the isolation and self-sufficiency it required to be a naval commander in the era before instant radio communications.
But it wasn't the Age of Sail in particular that I was drawn to, I wanted to write about the experience of war from the viewpoint of someone who comes to be involved in it for too long. We will begin to see the personal costs that prolonged exposure to combat exact in the next book in the series, if we haven't begun to see it already. In this context the character of Charles's wife, Penelope Edgemont, is particularly important. As a Quaker and a staunch pacifist she has very different views about his career and in a sense the story underlying the series as a whole is the tension between these two people and how they come to influence each other over time. If you want to know how the two met and, as unlikely as it seems, fell in love and married, you have to read the first book, Sails on the Horizon.
What intrigues you about the period in which the books are set?
I could have placed Charles in any conflict, but what could offer more scope than one that lasted 22 years and which was arguably the first true world war? More than that, it seems to me that the Napoleonic period marks the beginning of the modern era that we live in today. Industrialization, rapid social change, new types of social, political and economic structures evolved and took form. Great Britain, under the long reign of George III, was a prime mover of much of it, but Napoleon and his assistants in France can claim responsibility for a large measure. For almost everyone on both sides of the English Channel, to one extent or another, it was a time churning change and uncertainty overlayed by an unending grinding war. You can tell all kinds of stories in an environment like that.
How important is historical accuracy to your stories?
Every story line in my books revolves around some notable historical incident. Sails on the Horizon begins with the Battle of Cape St. Vincent on St. Valentine's Day in 1797. Any Approaching Enemy culminates at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. The construct of my stories is to insert the heretofore undocumented Captain Charles Edgemont into mix in some crucial way. For example, at the Battle of the Nile the 120-gun French flagship L'Orient caught fire and blew up in the middle of the engagement. To this day no one knows exactly why. To me it was obvious: Charles did it. To find out how he did it you'll have to read Any Approaching Enemy. So yes, historical accuracy is very important if the overall story is to be believable. The order of battle, the capabilities and situations of the opposing forces, the smells, sights, sounds, and of course the outcomes must be true to have any resonance.
Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?
Just this, a novel is a work of art, the same as a painting, a sculpture or a song. The gift of art is that it provides a window into the soul and helps the reader, viewer or listener to understand a little better what it means to be a human being in all its complexity and contradiction. Great art--and great literature--can provide profound understanding. My books are not great literature, but I hope that in small ways they shed some ray of light on the nature of the human experience. If they can accomplish that I am satisfied. That, of course, and simply to tell a good story.
A Sea Unto Itself is published by Fireship Press