Astrodene's Historic Naval fiction is pleased to have obtained an Interview with M. Kei who's new book Heart of Oak will be available shortly worldwide.
What can you tell us about your new book, Heart of Oak, without spoiling the plot for readers?
It wraps up the story arcs and personal issues that have been running through the series. The four books of Pirates of the Narrows Seas taken together tell a complete tale. When I start the next one, it will launch a new set of story lines.
Heart of Oak features the derring do that is the trademark of the series: ship battles, duels, political skullduggery, and adventures and misadventures of various sorts. The Spanish attack Gibraltar. The Amphitrite is the target of a Spanish cutting out raid. Captain Horner and Peter Thorton spring into action to save Duke Henrique from an assassination attempt. There's an earthquake and fire. Shipwrecks. Thorton makes some bad decisions--usually instigated by Roger Perry--and pays the price for them. His love life is a wreck. He catches small pox. We meet some new characters, such as Colonel Karolyi, the impetuous hussar who is willing to make love or fight a duel at the slightest provocation. Old characters return, like Captain Tangle and Shakil bin Nakih, while the blind commander, Alan Abby, has some adventures of his own. Various characters we've come to know are promoted, find true love, married off, die, or otherwise receive their just (or unjust) desserts.
You have chosen to set your books within a fictional historical timeline, what made you decide to do so?
My goal was write a swashbuckler of the sort I loved when I was young, but for an adult audience. Strict historicity is not required in a swashbuckler--adventure and romance and gorgeous period dress are the hallmarks. All the same, I wanted to be stricter about it than the rather fanciful treatments the genre has received of late, but without covering the same well worn ground featured in nautical novels. Captain Marryat, writing in 1838, dismissed the Battle of Trafalgar by saying, "But everybody already knows what happened there." If Trafalgar was old hat to a man who actually served under Lord Cochrane, what could I possibly say that was new and fresh? I realized that by creating a fictional history I could introduce an element of suspense that was lacking in strictly historical novels -- you don't know who is going to win the battles in Pirates of the Narrow Seas, or what will happen next. It resembles history, but is larger than life, as a swashbuckler should be.
A key element of your novels are the Barbary based Sallee Rovers. What led you to feature a Barbary nation allied to England?
Some years ago I became fascinated by xebecs and Arab seamanship, which led me to discover aspects of history I had not been familiar with. I was also annoyed by the utter lack of research and Islamophobic stereotypes perpetrated by numerous authors of nautical fiction. I've read novels in which the white people are meticulously researched down to what buttons they have on their clothes, but the same care was not taken with the Muslim characters. It's absolutely silly to have guys dressed like Bedouins climbing the rigging of a ship. I mean, come on. You don't have to be a sailor to realize it makes no sense to wear long flowing robes while going aloft. Generally speaking, Muslim characters in the same novels were nothing more than the 'towelhead terrorists', with no actual reason for them to do what they did aside from, "I have to do something despicable so the good guys are justified in slaughtering me to prove how heroic they are." That offends me. It's bad writing. It's bad history. It's boring.
The Barbary corsairs had good reasons for doing what they did, and some extraordinarily intelligent, brave, and gallant heroes -- Captain Tangle is modeled on Dragut. In The Sallee Rovers, when Tangle describes how he hauled his galleys overland at Djerba to escape a Spanish blockade, Dragut actually did that. (And more.) Dragut's commander, Admiral Khair-ed-din, led missions that rescued seventy thousand refugees from Spain during his career, but this man, who was the third most powerful man in the Ottoman Empire, respected and revered by the Turks, is invariably scorned in the West. He is never referred to as anything but 'the pirate Barbarossa', his rank and achievements ignored and denied. That would be like everybody insisting on referring to George Washington as 'the bandit Georgie' and never admitting that he was a general and patriot who served his country. Hector Barbossa of Pirates of the Caribbean is the latest piratical ripoff of Admiral Khair-ed-din. Barbossa is fun, but come on, let's give the source some credit!
They also figure in the swashbuckler genre -- The Arabian Nights are part of the source material for the genre (we all know Sinbad the Sailor), and the corsair figured prominently in 19th century Romanticism, with poets, novelists, and artists choosing 'Oriental' themes for their works. Rafael Sabatini wrote the Sword of Islam, along with Captain Blood and The Seahawk. Dumas, Defoe, and other famous authors included corsairs or Orientals (meaning Muslims) in their books. Actors like Douglas Fairbanks Sr and Rudolph Valentino became famous by playing characters like The Thief of Baghdad and The Son of the Sheik, respectively.
So here are these people that are absolutely fascinating in fiction and reality. Their real differences and adventures make them worthy adversaries and far more interesting than the cardboard stereotypes that have previously been offered up.
Where did your interest in the sea originate?
Like every landlubber, I grew up thinking tall ships were beautiful, but I knew nothing about them. I live in Maryland where land and water are intricately entwined, and I love it. Some years ago I took an American history course at my local community college, figuring that knowledge of history had probably updated since the decades when I was in school. I had to write a research paper, and my professor, who is a fan of local history, suggested I write about the Baltimore clipper.
At that point I couldn't tell a schooner from a marlinspike, so I had a lot to learn. I was also frustrated because a couple of very respectable authors raised the theory that Baltimore clippers were derived from the North African xebec, then dismissed the idea without any analysis or evidence. Landlubber that I was, naturally I asked the question, "What's a xebec?" The more I learned about it, the more fascinated I got. I dug into the origins of the Baltimore clipper, and I think there's a good case to be made for a connection between the two. That is what led me to learn about xebecs and the men who sailed them, which in turn led into an interest in early American history and the formation of our nation.
I wished I could sail such a vessel, so it dawned on me that there are all sorts of maritime organizations in Maryland. I called up the nearest one, the Skipjack Martha Lewis, and asked if they took volunteers. They did, so I served five years with the skipjack, including voyages up and down the Chesapeake Bay. I'm actually a poet, so I keep my journal in the form of poetry, and published that section of it as Slow Motion : The Log of a Chesapeake Bay Skipjack. I'm pleased to report it is 'recommended reading' by the Chesapeake Bay Project, the major organization coordinating the restoration and preservation of the Chesapeake Bay. I absolutely love sailing wooden boats. I am happiest at sea, and I like a foggy night with stars swirling at the top of the mast best of all.
You are a crew member of the Delaware based Tall Ship, Kalmar Nyckel. How has this experience helped your writing?
Crewing with the Kalmar Nyckel actually came after I'd written the first three books; I only joined the crew in December of 2009. Therefore, most of my knowledge was informed by my service aboard the Skipjack Martha Lewis, buttressed by plenty of research.
Interesting, skipjacks have lazyboards, massive canvas, shoal drafts, raked keels, and clipper prows, so there was sufficient similarity to a xebec to be helpful in interpreting my research. For example, I noticed that most authors had no word for 'lazyboard,' and very little understanding of what it was or why it existed, but since I have crawled out on the skipjack's lazyboard more than once, it was obvious to me. The skipjack is where I had my encounters with personal danger--being swept by the boom, being within arm's reach when a half inch cable parted and went whizzing through the air like a rifle shot, or the vessel swinging out of control in a raging current. I also worked her in winter, including eight hour transits in an open boat. I've been bow watch while picking our way through a field of flood debris with telephone poles (actual telephone poles) floating just submerged. You become keenly aware that there's only a two inch plank between you and sinking at such times.
When I went through the Kalmar Nyckel training, I was gratified that I had gotten right the parts of research that were able to be verified by the vessel, such as the tacking of a lateen sail. I had departed from Falconer's description because based on what I'd researched, it didn't make sense. Modern dhow racers can tack a lateen sail in as little as five minutes, and Alan Villiers, in Sons of Sinbad, described two emergency tacks aboard a dhow. Any way I thought about it, I didn't see how Falconer's method could be accomplished in five minutes or an emergency, so reasoned my own idea about how it must work. It was a great relief to discover that the Kalmar Nyckel's lateen mizzen tacks exactly the way I had imagined.
I think the aspect of the Kalmar Nyckel that really was helpful was in understanding blue water sailors. When you're on an ocean voyage and there's nothing to see but the sea and sky, you discover that most people are really not cut out to be sailors. They get cabin fever and are bored out of their minds. However, some people really are 'born sailors'; they meld with the ship. There's times I would notice a change in her sound or motion and would come on deck looking around to find the reason, and I'd find one or two other crew also looking around. Although I have not experienced any real danger aboard the Kalmar Nyckel (the KN has an excellent safety record), I was aboard her for Hurricane Earl. We were safe in a hurricane hole, so no trouble there, but I did walk up to the Seamen's Bethel and sit where Melville sat and contemplated the cenotaphs of mariners lost at sea, all with a hurricane bearing down on us. You see ghosts at such moments, the sort of ghosts that only mariners can see.
What drew you to write your first novel?
When I was much younger, I wrote a vampire novel. I think it's a phase most writers go through. At the time I was interested in science fiction and fantasy, wrote a couple more, but couldn't publish them. Novel writing did not come naturally to me; just as some runners are marathoners and some are not, so it is that some writers are novelists and others are not. I'm a poet and my chosen form is tanka, a five line lyric. It's not as short as haiku, but it's close. It was ten years before I attempted another novel.
I also had the misfortune to develop a neurological disorder that impaired my ability to process language. Reading and writing became extraordinarily difficult. It takes me about 6 - 9 months to read a paperback. That means when I read a book, it's a huge investment in time, energy and effort. I want that book to pay off in enjoyment for me. A few years ago I was reading a Patrick O'Brian book that had a hint of a gay character in it, and being that I'm gay, I was really excited at the thought of the great POB including a gay character. However, it didn't pan out. I threw the book across room in annoyance. I felt cheated. It occurred to me, "I'm a writer, I'll write my own damn story." I'd write it to please myself with no thought of publication. How exactly I was going to accomplish that when I couldn't string together more than a few paragraphs at a time was a separate issue. I figured I'd scribble a short story and be happy with whatever resulted.
Six weeks later, I had a 110K word draft done. I shared with a friend who loved it. She stuck with me through the extensive rewriting. (She's the inspiration for the character of Jamila, Tangle's wife.) I posted it to an amateur fiction site where it won an award and received good feedback. Somebody said, "This is so good, I feel like I ought to be paying money for it."
Oh, the temptation. You really shouldn't say such things to a writer . . .
Being a poet and editor, I knew how to use print on demand technology to design and publish small press books, so I decided to print up PoNS and give it as a gift to my loyal friends who had read and commented on the drafts. Once I'd done that, I might as well sell it. Once it was up for sale, it was positively reviewed and Bristlecone Pine Press bought the ebook rights. I'm very gratified that a small press novel has been positively received by fans and reviewers. Having a gay protagonist is unusual for the nautical genre, but I think it adds an interesting twist to what is a very old genre.
What’s next in the Pirates of the Narrow Seas series?
My health has deteriorated badly, so I am taking a break once Heart of Oak is put to bed. I have decided to discontinue the poetry anthology that has been a major project I've worked on for four years, but that will not finish until May of 2012. Once it's done I'll have more time and energy.
Therefore I plan to start Man in the Crescent Moon next summer. MCM will start a new story arc, but I have not yet decided how to tackle the material. Captain Tangle is so popular with fans that I intend to focus on him--he is the 'man in the crescent moon' of the title. I am also gratified that readers of nautical fiction have been interested in the corsairs and their ships, so more of it will be set aboard their vessels and in the Sallee Republic. However, Peter Thorton is nagging me for a very different kind of story. He wants to go home to Maryland.
At this point, I don't see how to put two very different storylines in a single book, so I am ruminating a great deal over the matter. I have no idea what the result will be, but I never do when I start a novel. I don't outline my novels, and I don't plan ahead. Instead I try to think of an interesting scene to start with and let it go from there. If I knew how the story was going to turn out before I wrote it, I wouldn't write it because I'd be bored.
Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?
I think it's a great time to be a reader now. The advent of print on demand publishing, ebooks, and the rise of self-publishing and the small press means that many interesting things are available that would never see the light of day through the traditional publishing system. However, it also means that people are able to publish things that aren't ready for the public. Readers may have to wade through a lot of dross to find worthy works published by indie authors, so sites like Historic Naval Fiction that are willing to review and list worthy works by small presses and independent authors provide a valuable service in helping readers and authors connect.
I'd like to encourage wannabe authors to make use of the various writers' resources out there to hone their skills instead of rushing to print, but I'd also like to encourage readers to take a chance on an unknown name. Many independent authors furnish free samples--sometimes entire books--online so that you can "try before you buy." Furthermore, independent authors and small presses are often much more accessible to their readers than famous names are. If you email a question or comment to an independent author, you'll probably get a response. I know I am always delighted to hear from fans--I want to know that my stories are read and enjoyed.
M. Kei is a tall ship sailor and award-winning poet. He is the editor-in-chief of the anthology series, Take Five : Best Contemporary Tanka, and the author of Slow Motion : The Log of a Chesapeake Bay Skipjack, a log kept in poetry form which is Recommend Reading by the Chesapeake Bay Project (USA). He has edited and authored several other books of poetry and a major journal, Atlas Poetica : A Journal of Poetry of Place in Contemporary Tanka. He is also the author of the award-winning gay Age of Sail adventure novels, Pirates of the Narrow Seas. The first novel may be read for free online at NarrowSeas.blogspot.com