Monday, 14 September 2015

The Sea, the Sea by Dennis Hamley

I can't quite fix in my mind the moment I decided that enough was enough and I would leave the world of conventional publishing for ever. It's a bad sign of a senior condition when you can't identify even the year it happened. But I think it was in 2009, even before I had to accept that Walker weren't going to do the third in the Ellen's People trilogy, an event which almost made me lose heart about writing completely. But not quite. There was still a possibility of a new beginning, an enticing prospect with a new publisher who had already reissued The War and Freddie, a book for which I have a huge affection.

I'd just finished a novella for the YA market. It was about something I'd never really considered writing about before. That was because it was something I'd not experienced directly. I'd only watched and enviously read about it. Sailing. With Julia and Jan around on this blog, I hardly dare mention the word. Besides which, I still have echoes sounding in my head of a sort of educationally dogmatic mantra about children's writing which was dominant in the 60s and 70s when I was training teachers: 'You must always write from your own direct experience.' I'm ashamed now that I ever transmitted such tosh. It's hard to think of a form of words which so completely denies the imagination.

But I've spent a large part of my writing life as a historical novelist and that has meant doing research. I do a lot. But there's a big difference between doing research and being an actual researcher. Research was what I did many years ago struggling through a PhD and searching for and consulting primary sources. Research for the novelist (no, mustn't make unwarranted generalisations: I mean me) most of the time anyway, depends on familiarity with a lot of secondary sources. And what is the aim of this research? I've often quoted Martin Amis's remark, one of the few of his that I've agreed with. 'The art of the novelist is to appear to know a lot more than you actually do.' So I have a limited aim. I want my research to be at a high enough level so that people cannot say that I am actually wrong. The aim is for an imaginative truth, not an academic one. I know now that in my Long Journey of Joslin de Lay there are quite a few things which I've found out since are actually wrong because of my own misreading. But I don't care. I spent four years inhabiting my version of the fourteenth century, found it a fascinating place and got six books out of it, so, from my point of view, what's not to like?

But sailing? Well, I was brought up on Arthur Ransome but the nearest I ever got to actual sailing was a pedalo on the lake in the park. So, no matter how much research I did, writing about it coherently might prove a bridge too far. As for non-Ransome sea-reading, I was never a real Hornblower fan and, though I hate to speak disapprovingly of another writer, I found the Richard Delancey novels of C Northcote Parkinson (he of the Law), an attempt at the same genre, among the most boring books I have read in my life.



A workmanlike adventure story which gained the shortest Amazon review I've ever seen - 
'Ho-hum.' 

And it was a pity. The period from 1789 to 1815 is to me one of the most extraordinary and fascinating - and ambiguous - periods in European history, with  the Napoleonic Wars as an amazing set of conflicts which almost deserve to be called the First World War. And we're brought up to believe it started with the French Revolution and all those nasty Jacobins and les tricoteuses knitting away as they sat by the guillotine watching aristocrats' heads being mown off, with only the Scarlet Pimpernel keeping us from the same fate. And then nasty old Napoleon, fiend from the bottomless pit, plotting world domination. But no matter, chaps - we won again.

Yes, but what for? It wasn't just a battle for national survival. It was also  a concerted attempt by the other European powers to put the ancien regime back in place - and that's what Waterloo actually did. So, in effect, did Trafalgar,  Does that sound familiar? Britain during the French Revolution was a police state. The aristocracy was in panic. Sedition, even of the mildest kinds, was punishable by prison and de facto banishment. Many, Joseph Priestley and Tom Paine among them, fled to America. Even Coleridge and Southey were spied on and planned to go to America, live by the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania and set up their ideal Pantisocracy.  The modern parallels are easily recognisable. Surely the next century could find a more substantial historical tribute to the extraordinary war at sea than the one-dimensional Forester and Parkinson could bring?

Then I discovered Patrick O'Brian and John Aubrey. Ten pages in to Master and Commander and I was absolutely hooked. For a whole year I read pretty well nothing else. All twenty of the Aubrey novels line my shelves. As soon as one was finished I was off to the Hertford branch of Methvens (great bookshop, now no longer) to buy the next. And there they still sit, taking up a whole shelf, serene and proud and often consulted.  They are narrative masterpieces and, unlike most other Nelsonian epics (Jan's honourably excluded) they have a hinterland: sharp, complex, entirely human characters, a critical debate with Aubrey and Stephen Maturin at the centre, a discussion of values as part of their warp and weft, a feeling afterwards that we've not only read something thrilling but also something of significance. I haven't read O'Brian's posthumous unfinished novel yet. In a way I'm sorry it's there, because the order to Aubrey on the last page of Blue at the Mizzen to hoist his flag at last on promotion to Admiral of the Blue was, it seemed to me, the perfect conclusion for the author to die with.

                                                                                                                                     
This is more like it!

Oh, how I wished I could write something like them. But they merely induced a sort of besotted impotence in me, so I just went about my normal writing business with a sense of loss for something I'd never possessed.

And then I saw the film, Master and Commander. Since then, I've watched the DVD at least eight times and such is the power of the story that I still fear that this time it's going to turn out differently and they don't capture Acheron after all and the British dead are tipped over the side by a different ship's company or perhaps the captive French crew break out, overpower the British prize crew and Tom Pullings's career as captain is over before it starts. I remember coming out of the cinema in an elated trance and saying to myself, 'By heck, I will write a sea story.'

Bright Sea, Dark Graves started as a short story intended for a collection of War Stories. But I soon found that the starting premiss was far too big for 6000 words and put it to one side as I continued with more pressing tasks.  After a year or so I came back to it and ran up quite quickly a first draft novella of about 30,000 words. I sent it to my agent, who replied almost overnight, 'I'm really ENJOYING this', which really cheered me up. The new publisher (who shall stay nameless), when she submitted it, seemed to think the same. Anyway, they promised a contract. So I just waited. I said on my website that the book would soon be published. And then I waited some more. It took a year for a new editor to say bleakly that 'it no longer features in our future plans.'

But it still featured in mine. I spent much time fine-tuning it, getting the debate implicit in the story absolutely right, setting my main character, Edward Trefusis, a 14 year-old midshipman on his first voyage, and trying to manage carefully his switches between being a reliable and unreliable narrator, finding more and more depth in the central relationships and tracing the process which matures him by half a lifetime in hardly two weeks at sea. And I also hope that the moral debate and the asking of questions (what does heroism consist of? what is the true nature of leadership? where do the roots of friendship start? how can we find our way through the moral maze which war presents?) are as much the warp and weft as they are in the chronicles of John Aubrey.

Above all - and this comes back to the inadequacy of  writing from experience - I wanted to find a metaphor in the story which would convey concretely what I feel is the sheer squalidity of war without having had to experience it directly, thank God. I think I may have come near it.

Now I think of it, perhaps that's why the new publishers withdrew their offer.

I had three beta readers (as I believe they are called nowadays) - the children's writer Elizabeth Lindsay and our own Julia Jones and Jan Needle. I couldn't have chosen better. My sketchy nautical knowledge was considerably refined and two of them suggested a massive plot change which at first I was very unwilling even to consider because it would have a delayed action effect in changing the whole thrust of the nearly complete second novel as well as that of the first. But then I realised it was absolutely right. That made me think of another huge plot change which I duly made for myself.

But together they leave the book on two, perhaps three, knife edges. There's unfinished business to sort out. So, as I said, I'm just finishing a sequel. Perhaps it will be a trilogy. Bright Sea Dark Graves is the overall title. The first book is The Guns of St Therese, the second, The Nightmares of Invasion.

It's a pity I haven't got a finished cover yet, but I do have what might be the next best thing. True to the spirit of John Aubrey, the ship at the centre is a frigate. HMS Fortune. Just like Aubrey's frigate Surprise. Early in the writing of the story I was in Germany with my son and his family. And in the window of a little shop in Bad Homburg in the Taunus, there it was, among a display of beautiful ship models made by the modelling firm Falkenstein. HMS Surprise itself, actually a model of the full-size American replica which was used in the film, and a dead ringer for HMS Fortune.

                                               

HMS Surprise/Fortune, as presented by Falkenstein, ship modellers extraordinaire

I had to buy it. And now it stands on a window sill, a constant reminder to make me get on with it and finally bring this project so long in the making, to a proper end. I hope the Duncan Grant print of Coleridge's 'painted ship upon a painted ocean' hanging just over my head as I write urges me on to finish The Second Man from Porlock as effectively.

As soon as the cover is  ready, The Guns of St Therese will be published as a paperback and on Kindle as an ebook. Though it will have a Createspace ISBN it's published under the imprint JOSLIN BOOKS which I'm using for everything I do - or have done - which isn't intended for someone else, including Blank Page Press.

And if anyone would like to have Bright Sea, Dark Graves 1. The Guns of St Therese as a PDF with the possibility of doing a review, let me know and I'll send it.



8 comments:

Reb MacRath said...

Way to go, Dennis. I'm inspired by your story and am on fire to read this. Also--a bankshot bonus--I want to give Patrick O'Brian a try, since I've been put off as you were by glum memories of Parkinson. Could you set my mind, though, at ease on one score? Please tell me the guillotine mentioned is used only on men in the book.

Dennis Hamley said...

Reb, I don't remember any guillotine at all in the whole of Patrick O'Brian, though an errant clergyman is court-martialled, for what we are not told, and executed, presumably by firing squad, in the very first book. The only violent female death that I can remember is that of Stephen Maturin's wife, married after long and patient striving, through careless handling of a coach and horses. I make no comment about women drivers. (Sorry, spoiler alert). You can start reading the series without fear. Yes, I'll send you a prepublication pdf of BDSG. And when it's up on Kindle I'll make you a gift, when I've found out how to do it, out of thanks for the extraordinary reading experience you're giving me now.

Jan Needle said...

Keep me in the picture, Dennis!

Mari Biella said...

I'll happily buy a copy of Bright Sea, Dark Graves when it's published, Dennis!

Lydia Bennet said...

I"ll happily buy one too Dennis, I"m a keen O'Brian fan, I read them obsessively for years and became very emotionally involved in the characters' lives. I also wrote my first commissioned play back in 2000 about our own local hero, Collingwood, who with Nelson was prominent at Trafalgar, for which play I did a lot of research too. If there is any nobility in war, it would be in naval warfare of that time, despite its horrors - the officers (on the ships) were at even greater risk of death than the men they commanded, and both sides would rescue enemy sailors from sinking ships, at risk to their own.

Dennis Hamley said...

Valerie and Mari, than you very much. But you've been so good to me with reviews and kind words that you must let me gift them to you. Jan, tou're never out of my picture!

Bill Kirton said...

I'm another O'Brian fan. I'm also a writer who has on his window sill a model ship. It's one I made myself and I learned all about it when researching for my historical novel, The Figurehead. (She's The Scottish Maid and she was launched exactly 100 years to the day before I was.) This is just to preface my thanks for such an interesting insight into how you work and that clear distinction between academic research and the sort of immersion in a period that's required when setting a novel. I, too, will be buying BDSG when it appears. But NB the verb. Stop losing sales by giving things away.

Dennis Hamley said...

You made it yourself. Oh, how envious that makes me feel. Yes, The Figurehead is a grand and gritty book and I should have reviewed it as soon as I read. I will now. As for giving things away - yes, I'm a fool to myself I know but what the hell, eh?