Astrodene's Historic Naval fiction is pleased to have obtained an Interview with Steven E. Maffeo who's new book The Perfect Wreck - Old Ironsides and HMS Java: A Story of 1812 is now available in paperback worldwide.
What can you tell us about your new book, The Perfect Wreck - Old Ironsides and HMS Java: A Story of 1812, without spoiling the plot for readers?
Firstly, it’s a story that has never been told anywhere—fiction or non-fiction—in any sort of detail. Usually all you can find is just 2-3 pages in a broader history book with a focus specific to the battle itself. And, there’s virtually nothing out there – until now! – on the story from the British point of view. (The exception to that might be some 30 pages in Patrick O’Brian’s The Fortune of War, but there’s too much wrong in his account.) My story takes you back and forth from the one ship to the other, as they fit out in their respective home ports, get to sea on their diverse missions, and ultimately—accidently—run into each other one memorable day. Even if I hadn’t telegraphed the ending with the title, we know what’s going to happen (it’s like doing another book or movie on the Titanic—as my wife says, it always ends the same; the damn ship always sinks!) The point is that you’ll now get the whole picture, you’ll completely understand what the two ships’ missions were, you’ll participate in their various adventures as they cruise the Atlantic, and you’ll get to know very well the ships, officers, and men on both sides—finding more similarities than differences. And, to steal a phrase from Disney’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, “it’s a whale of a tale, and it’s all true.”
You are known as a writer of non-fiction books. What made you decide to fictionalise this one?
Actually, I began it as non-fiction. But, almost from the very beginning of the project, I was struck with the overwhelming feeling that this was an unusually cool story, and such a dramatic story, that maybe it needed a slightly different treatment. Once I got my hands on a decent amount of documentation and assessed my situation, I decided that to fully bring out the nuances of this great adventure I needed to employ just a touch of the tools of a fiction writer—while I ruthlessly maintained allegiance to the facts. So, hopefully, the reader will benefit from a little of the story being more fully fleshed out, the addition of a little color and texture, and the adding of a little context and depth. When finished with the book, I further hope that the reader feels fully informed to historical fact.....and at the same time has been thoroughly entertained by a great sea-story.
Where did your interest in naval history originate?
That's an extremely tough question! Where does a little boy born and raised in Denver—smack dab in the middle of the Wild West—decide at a very early age that he likes old sailing ships? Not sure, really. It could be that living a thousand miles from the sea creates a fascination with it. I've often also said that a defining point was when my parents took me to see the Trevor Howard/Marlon Brando version of Mutiny on the Bounty, which I found riveting. That was 1962, and I was 8 years old. And, perhaps the other defining moment was when my mom (to whom I've dedicated The Perfect Wreck) gave me a copy of Captain Horatio Hornblower, with that lovely N.C. Wyeth dust jacket (indeed, a poster of that jacket looks down upon me as I type this). I was in the 4th grade at that point, and from then on I was hooked.
The second part of your question could be, where did my interest in history in general originate? I guess that I've always liked history, for it's always struck me that past times and past people were interesting and—if you will—even exotic. And, somewhere early on, I realized that whenever we live, we occupy a place in the long continuum of time, and what past people did has absolutely created who we are and what we have. Likewise, what we do now will definitely shape our descendants away in the future. I find that whole never-ending concept fascinating.
How did you undertake your research?
One of the things nice about working in an academic library (I'm associate director of the U.S. Air Force Academy Library) is that such a place holds treasure upon treasure of books, documents, and microfilm. One of the advantages of commuting back-and-forth to Washington DC for my last three years of naval reserve duty was an occasional trip to the Navy Library and to the Naval History and Heritage Command in the Navy Yard—and particularly to their Early History Branch. Over the past ten years I've made many trips to Boston as a "visiting expert" to hold seminars with the young tour guides on board Old Ironsides, and thus have been able to work closely with the amazing guides, docents, historians, and other experts at the USS Constitution Museum and the Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston. Lastly, I was really blessed with a contact in England who happens to be a direct descendent of the surviving senior officer of HMS Java; he not only provided unique and priceless documentation passed down for 200 years in his family, but on my behalf also made several research forays to the British government's archives which resulted in a number of extremely critical and never-before-used pieces of documentation. Fortunately, my publisher allowed me room in the book's "Author's Afterword" to individually recognize all these people so crucial to this project!
Do you plan to fictionalise any other historic events from the age of sail?
Funny; that's pretty much the same question my publisher just asked! I don't really have any plan formulated at this point. Yet, I certainly can think of a number of events that could lend themselves to such a treatment, and certainly there must be many more out there just waiting to be discovered and analysed. Frankly, I might need to see how well The Perfect Wreck is received by the readership and the critics before I take both feet and jump into another similar project.
Where do you typically write?
You'll be happy to know (just as I complete this, my third, book!) I've remodelled an unused bedroom as an office for myself (my wife gets the ritzy one on the main floor). So, in the future I'll have a great place. But, that's not where I wrote The Perfect Wreck: this is going to sound pretty disorganized and haphazard, but it is what it is! As I was otherwise busy with a full time job, family (including teenager), house, yard, and until recently a senior position in the naval reserve, it was a struggle to find time and locale. I generally write in longhand and then type into the computer. I wrote pieces of this book on various airliners, the dining room table, the kitchen counter on board the vacation houseboat, in my tent at Boy Scout summer camp, in hotel rooms, in Visiting Officers' Quarters rooms, and after work in my library. I guess the most frequent place was the dining room table. The most fun place was three summer evenings in the captain's cabin (after visiting hours) of Old Ironsides herself.
When and what do you read yourself?
I learned to read very early, and have always been a pretty voracious reader. Over the years, mostly naval history, military history, science fiction, naval/military historical fiction. Forester, Kent, Pope, Woodman, O'Brian, Lambdin, etc. Some adventure stuff. Most of Tom Clancy, most of Clive Cussler, all of Stephen Coonts, and all of Robert Parker's Spenser novels. Recently, I don't find much time, and so am almost limited to bedtime....thus, needless to say, my "to read" stack is huge!
Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?
Perhaps surprisingly, the book opens in 1845 at Singapore, rather than in the Atlantic of 1812, with a true event that sets the stage for the rest of the story (which, of course, does take place in the last quarter of 1812). It's this remarkable event which grabbed me with an almost physical intensity. It drew me in to writing this book at a time when I definitely was not looking for a new book project. With any luck, the reader will find it similarly grabbing, and find diving into the rest of the book practically irresistible!
The Perfect Wreck - Old Ironsides and HMS Java: A Story of 1812 is published by Fireship Press.