It’s a pleasure to welcome author Sheila Dalton, who, like me has a love of all things piratical. Here’s what she had to say about her research into the life of pirates and their connection with the slave trade and the Royal Navy during the seventeenth century. Fascinating stuff:
Q Hello and welcome. Pirates play a role in your historical novel, Stolen. Would you tell us why you chose to write about them?
Hi. I’m excited to be on a blog featuring pirates and their history, one that does not glamorize them. They were a rough bunch, and often cruel. They also had their good points, especially in the context of the less-than-ideal society in which they lived.
In my novel, Stolen, which features both Barbary Corsairs and British pirates in the 17th century, I try to be true to their reality as I came to understand it. My pirate captain, “Gentleman Jake” Norris, is a complex character, and a very intelligent man. He is still a thief who is ruthless to his enemies. I tried to make him a person who is not easy to dismiss as a stereotype; but he is not intended to be a representation of an ‘average’ pirate, either. I tried to make him as well-rounded and believable an individual as I could. I have to say that I really like him, despite his many and obvious faults.
I first became interested in pirates after I visited Morocco and saw the underground dungeons where the Christian slaves were imprisoned. Subsequently reading about the Barbary Corsairs who captured British villagers along the coast of England during the 1600’s was riveting and eye-opening. They carted off whole villages of people to be sold in North African slave markets, often treated the men very cruelly, and sent many of the attractive women into harems, royal and otherwise. The British captives who helped build some of the most beautiful mosques and palaces in the world were often savagely beaten, kept underground, and worked to an early death.
This was happening at the same time the black slave trade was growing and expanding in Africa and the New World. My research into that era led me to accounts of the activities of British pirates during the late 17th century.
These men also could be cruel and almost casually violent. But I learned that joining a British pirate crew was often preferable to signing on as a sailor for the Royal Navy. Pirates tried to be fair to each other; they had their code. Pirate captains, to be sure, were tough and fearsome to their men, but they generally saw themselves and their crew as a team, and spoils were shared. Berths were provided; food was divided equally. In contrast, British sailors were often treated like chattel, had to sleep on open, wet decks, were scourged for small infractions, even keel-hauled, were terribly underpaid and often underfed.
Even before researching Stolen, I thought the way pirates were represented in popular culture was intriguing. Sometimes they are portrayed as rollicking good ole boys, who drink a lot and do bad things, but have hearts of the proverbial gold beating under their rough exteriors; sometimes they are ruggedly handsome romantic heroes, never mind that, in reality, they were as likely to rape you as woo you. They have become glamorized almost as much as vampires.
I suspect that in the popular imagination, they are the ‘Keith Richards of the sea’, affable bad boys who allow us to vicariously live out our own anti-social and rebellious urges. They represent a kind of lawlessness that lurks deep in many of our hearts, and a longing to be free of all the constraints of ‘civilization’. Perhaps it makes us less afraid of our own unacknowledged drives if we see them as loveable rogues, rather than heartless villains.
Q What are your favourite books? Which authors inspire you?
There are so many authors out there who blow my mind, it’s hard to choose – all the way from the authors of classic literature, such as Charles Dickens, who knew how to tell a good story without sacrificing quality, to modern writers of historical fiction, such as Sarah Waters and Lisa See. I also admire contemporary novelists, including Barbara Gowdy, Janet Fitch and Joyce Carol Oates, who are intimidatingly brilliant at creating great psychological portraits of damaged or unusual people (among other things).
Q If your book was made into a film, who would you like to see as the lead characters?
Robert Downey Jr. would be my first choice for the British pirate captain, “Gentleman Jake” Norris. He’s got just the right mix of inspired craziness and intelligence. I’d like to see Javier Bardem as Jean, the French privateer who becomes involved with the main character, Lizbet Warren. He’s handsome and sophisticated, but a bit rough around the edges. Lizbet is a sensitive young woman with high ideals and a restless spirit. I think Selma Hayek would be a good choice to play her. She has the right figure and colouring, and is capable of projecting a mix of hesitancy and boldness. And I can visualize Elinor, the street-wise young orphan who accompanies Lizbet to London, played by a young Sissy Spacek – all bone and brass.
Q Did you choose the title and cover for your book?
Yes to both. It was originally titled Slavery in Black and White: My Life as a Kept Woman and Most Peculiar Pirate. I still like that title, but came to realize it was both too cumbersome, and took up too much room. I bought my cover, a pre-made, from a company called Spittyfish. I absolutely love it, and was very lucky to find something that fit my book so well.
Q Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
I often suffer from writer’s block – not in the sense that I don’t have story ideas or can’t think of characters. Characters in particular come to me all the time, and the world seems full of stories. But I just find there are times I lack the motivation to write; I’m almost phobic about it, and nothing seems to help until the feeling passes on its own. I think it has mostly to do with the vast gulf between writing as a solitary activity, in which you search for meaning and relevance, and writing as a business. I also, like most writers who care about their work, doubt my abilities at times.
Q What do you do when you’re not writing?
I work as an editor though I’m formally ‘retired’. I also read a lot, take courses in things like Buddhism, history and poetry, volunteer at a cat rescue, do artwork for a donkey sanctuary, take art classes, exercise, spend time with friends and family, love to visit small-town bookstores and wildlife preserves, and travel when I can afford it. I tend to watch a lot of T.V., too. I can really get sucked in by a good series. I also help friends with their writing, judge local writing contests, and spoil my cat.
Q: We know you have written non-fiction as well as fiction for both adults and children.
Where can we find out more about you and your writing?
I have two websites. One is out-of-date, but has a lot of information; the other is ‘a work in progress’, but current.
All my books, including Stolen, are available on Amazon and other book sites. This link will take you to Stolen on Amazon in whatever country you live in: