Historic Naval Fiction is pleased to have obtained an Interview with Matthew Willis whose new novel, Daedalus and The Deep, was recently released.
What can you tell us about Daedalus and The Deep without spoiling the plot for readers?
It's based on the historical sighting of a 'sea serpent' by officers from HMS Daedalus while sailing in the Atlantic in 1848. The novel is a fictionalised account of what might have happened next. It's the story of a Midshipman with a secret, a Captain with an obsession and Lieutenant with ideals as they go up against a sea serpent with a mission.
The 1840s was a period of rapid change – steam was starting to challenge sail, the Navy was starting to become more professional and 'modern', and was struggling to adjust to being a peacetime force. The Navy's officers – as with the landed classes in England - were starting to become a lot more interested in science, and doing their jobs scientifically. For me, the notion of a ship in the midst of that cauldron of upheaval stumbling across a hitherto-unclassified creature was a fascinating thing to explore. Not to mention a really good basis for an adventure story, pitting a fantastic creature against one of the last Napoleonic-era frigates. At its heart, this is a novel about modernity versus tradition, man versus nature, and growing up.
Your writing speciality is naval aviation. What led you to write a book set in the Age of Sail?
I've always been fascinated by naval matters throughout history – it's just that I've focussed on the aviation connection most in recent years. The age of sail can't be beaten for romance and drama - I grew up with the story of Trafalgar and Nelson's Navy, and later on fell in love with the sea fiction of Joseph Conrad. The spark that led to this particular book, though, was the story of HMS Daedalus herself. I was researching Leda-class frigates for something else and came across the sighting of the sea serpent. This jumped out of the screen at me and I knew I had to use the incident as the basis for a novel. In fact, I started writing it that day or the next. This isn't to say that I won't ever write fiction about naval aviation but the age of sail has such allure that it's hard to stay away from.
Including a fantasy element gives you a lot of scope for change, but how important was historical accuracy to your story?
It was crucial to me that the world in which the story took place was rendered as accurately as possible. I prefer the word 'authenticity' in this sense, as the narrative is a work of imagination. Although based on historical events, much of what takes place is pure invention. The crew is entirely fictional, for example – I didn't think it was right to attribute my motives to real people. The timescale is slightly shortened as well – the raid against pirate strongholds took place three years before the sea serpent sighting. At the same time, though, I wanted everything to do with the Daedalus to be as authentic as possible. Having a fantasy element wasn't an excuse for skimping on the history. In fact, I felt it was important that the historical and technical details were correct because the story was about something mysterious bumping up against the real world. As far as the fantasy element goes, I tried to use that to create a plausible opponent for the ship with credible, albeit shadowy motivation. I see this as an historical novel with a dash of fantasy. Nothing will cause a dedicated reader of sea fiction to switch off quicker than factual and technical inaccuracies.
How did you undertake your research?
In as focussed a way as possible. I had read a lot about the age of sail over the years, so used that as my basis, while reading up as much on the specific ships and the Navy in the 1840s as I could. There has been a lot less written about the Victorian Navy than, say, the Napoleonic period, and much of what there is focusses on the ironclad era. It was possible to find a certain amount of 'colour' about the era though – for example, Jan Morris' biography of Jackie Fisher offers plenty of stories and characters. The National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth has lots of material about the 'Pax Britannica' and anti-slavery operations which really helped get a feel for Daedalus' raison d'etre at the time. The initial operation against pirates in Borneo was based on the official report (which we hear Admiral Cochrane quoting a fragment of) and newspaper reports. And while there wasn't too much information on Daedalus herself, her near sister HMS Trincomalee was in commission at exactly the same time and this is brilliantly covered in Andrew Lambert's book on the frigate. I am also lucky to have a friend who has done a very great deal of square rig sailing. He very generously helped me with the technical details, not to mention sharing his memories which is the kind of experience that can't be bought.
What inspired you to begin writing?
It's hard to say really – I've been writing for pleasure for as long as I can remember and whatever I do tends to gravitate towards words. The novelist Siri Hustvedt likened writing a novel to 'remembering something that never happened' - I suppose I love 'remembering' adventures set in different times and exotic places, and giving readers the chance to share in them. It helps that I am deeply in love with the English language.
Do you plan to write any more age of sail books?
Definitely! I haven't finished with Midshipman Colyer and some of the other characters from Daedalus and the Deep. I have my eye on a story involving the hunt for the North West Passage, and possibly something involving the RN's involvement in the Mahdist war in the 1880s. It won't be my next novel – I'm well into a story about the disappearance of the French naval airship Dixmude in 1924 – but there will be more from me about wooden ships and iron men in the next few years.
When and what do you read yourself?
I read whenever I can. Naturally, I read a lot of historic naval fiction – I'm currently enjoying Richard Woodman's 'For King or Commonwealth' and looking forward to Alaric Bond's new book – for me, Alaric's Fighting Sail series is right up there with Hornblower, Aubrey-Maturin and Drinkwater. I also read a great deal of related non-fiction, both for research and pleasure - The Glorious First of June by Sam Willis (no relation) is next on the list. Other than that, my tastes are quite broad. I enjoy the modern breed of space opera of the kind done so brilliantly by Iain M. Banks and Charles Stross, and love Stephen Baxter's alternative history books. My favourite author is undoubtedly William Golding.
Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?
Only to thank the members of the HNF forum who very kindly read the manuscript of Daedalus of the Deep and offered comments, ideas, suggestions and criticism. I really wanted the book to appeal to fans of historic naval fiction so it was great to get the views of some really knowledgeable and enthusiastic readers. I have an original page from the London Illustrated News reporting the sighting which I hope to give away as a competition prize to readers, so stay tuned for that.
Daedalus and The Deep is published by Fireship Press