Interview in Quarterdeck
Where did your interest in the sea originate?
I grew up, prophetically, in a Massachusetts town called Manchester-by-the-Sea, on Boston's North Shore. My home was a hundred feet from the ocean, and on a foggy night I could clearly hear the foghorn on Baker's Island. It was a comforting sound and conjured up all sorts of images of ships at sea. My family had several boats and I learned to sail at the age of eight, in a nine-foot Turnabout. Also, as a teenager I worked 25 lobster traps in the waters off Cape Ann aboard a 13-foot Boston Whaler. You learn a lot about the ways of the sea doing something like that, and you quickly learn to respect those ways.
Were books an important part of your world as a lad growing up in New England? Were there particular authors and genres that were your favorites?
I was fortunate to grow up in a home where reading for pleasure was an important aspect of life. My mother often read two or three books a week, fiction and nonfiction, and even my father, an investment banker with limited free time, tried to read at least one book every two weeks. My uncle, a college professor, was also an avid reader, as was my grandmother. Their enthusiasm rubbed off on me. By the age of twelve I was reading any sea and adventure story I could get my hands on, particularly those written by Edward R. Snow and Jack London.
When did you begin writing?
While I tried my hand at writing magazine articles in high school and college, my first serious attempt at writing was more than thirty years ago, when I was in my mid-twenties and living in Maine with my uncle. I wrote an historical novel set in fourteenth century England during the reign of King Edward III and his son, the Black Prince, during the Hundred Years' War. It was fun to write, though fortunately for American letters it was never published.
What drew you to write naval fiction?
I have always been interested in books, movies and television shows about the United States Navy. As a youth I wanted nothing more than to attend the Naval Academy, before a high school football injury earned me a 4-F classification. When I joined the Boston publishing firm of Little, Brown, which publishes C.S. Forester, I began reading the Hornblower series. What a great launching pad!
On a more practical level, while reading and enjoying the works of modern nautical fiction writers, I noted early on that there were precious few writers presenting the American perspective in the Age of Fighting Sail. Jim Nelson is a notable exception, and there are several others, but for the most part, nautical fiction has been dominated by British authors writing about the Napoleonic Wars. My novels interact with these wars and with the Royal Navy, but the perspective is strictly American.
Did you have any second thoughts about entering an already well-populated genre?
I beieve the creative process for most writers is too intensely personal to consider such things. You write for yourself and you write your passion, then let the chips fall where they may. Also, I knew starting out that I was actually entering two genres: nautical fiction and historical fiction. There's a lot of well-researched history in this novel, more so, I believe, than in most other works of nautical fiction - or, for that matter, most other works of historical fiction. This history, much of which is unknown to most Americans, has passed muster with several noted historians, including a professor of naval history at the Naval Academy, and the rear admiral in charge of the Washington Navy Yard. Both officers have endorsements on the book's cover.
What most appeals to you about the late eighteenth century?
First, of course, there is the Revolutionary War, a period that has long fascinated me, and in which I concentrated in college. How a ragtag band of farmers, sailors and silversmiths could take on the world's mightiest military on land and sea, and carve out a new country in the process, is a saga for the ages.
On a societal level, this period is one in which the notions of loyalty, duty and honor were taken quite seriously. Men dueled and died over a perceived affront to one's honor. While I certainly am not advocating dueling as a means of settling disputes, I salute an era in which a handshake meant something, and a promise, even by a politician, was expected to be fulfilled.
Your description of the period and, specifically, life in the Continental Navy are most vivid. How did you research your book?
I researched the book primarily by reading books, some of them published more than a century ago. I haven't counted the number; it's at least a hundred. And because there are real historical figures in the novel - for example, John Paul Jones, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Horatio Nelson - I read a great deal about them, including, where possible, their personal journals. And of course, the Internet is a wonderful source for research, especially in providing photographs or line-drawings of people and places and ships.
Your protagonist, Richard Cutler, is described in great detail throughout the book. How did you create him?
I don't recall exactly how that happened, since he evolved over time. I knew early on that I wanted the protagonist to have a simple but strong name. "Richard Cutler," when it came to me, seemed just right. As to his character, I wanted to imbue him with those human traits I most admire - a sense of honor and duty, yes, but also a realistic sense of self and the world around him, a sense of humility, and above all, a sense of humor.
Do you write the sort of story you would like to read, or do you write strictly for readers?
I write for myself. As I state in the novel's preface, if what I write pleases others, that is a wonderful thing, but it's not why I set my alarm for 4:00 each morning. To write strictly for readers would presume that I know what readers want to read, that there's a magic formula out there that every writer must follow if he or she wants to be a success. I don't think that's the case. As Somerset Maugham once quipped, "There are three rules for writing a novel - and nobody knows what they are."
How do you name your characters?
Certain of my characters are real historical figures, so naming them was easy. As to the fictitious characters, I tend to draw names both from my own experience, from friends I've had over the years, as well as from my research. Some people who lived during the colonial era had names that seem rather odd to us in 2008. I doubt many parents today would name their son "Agreen" or "Increase" or "Abel." But such names were far more common back then and they evoke both a period of our history as well as a place: New England.
Do you plot out your novels before beginning to write?
I don't do a lot of plotting before I write, as I believe that doing so would stifle creativity - both my own and that of my characters. I do create a concept paper before I begin writing a novel, in which I broadly summarize the plot. But I do not go through it chapter by chapter. Stated another way, in business parlance, while I, as the author, may have strategic control over the plot, my characters have operational control, on a day-to-day basis. There is not a single morning when I walk into my study that I know exactly what I am going to write that day. My characters tend to tell me, in their own way. It's a truly remarkable phenomenon.
At what point in the process do you begin writing?
I begin writing when I believe intuitively that I have done enough research to begin. Research does not stop then - I continue researching almost daily until the first draft of the novel is complete - but I must have enough confidence in what I have done to date to ensure that my daily writing routine, which I hold sacred, will not be interrupted by the need for extensive research - or for a vacation, or for anything else short of a family crisis.
Please describe where you write.
Nothing exotic here, I'm afraid. We have a small study off our kitchen in Minneapolis, and that serves as my quarterdeck. A PC on a desk, no telephone, piles of books everywhere, research notes catalogued in some fashion or other, missives from my editor - in other words, a typical writer's lair. It's where I feel most comfortable, and it's near the coffee maker, which, for those early morning hours, is an obvious benefit.
What is on the horizon for Richard Cutler beyond A Matter of Honor?
Much awaits him and his family and shipmates. I am planning five additional books in the series. Book II, For Love of Country, will be published in Spring 2009. (Editor's Note: For Love of Country will be published by the Naval Institute Press in October of 2010.) It covers the years 1786 to 1790. Subsequent titles will cover the Quasi-War with France, the two Barbary Wars, and the War of 1812. The backdrop of each novel is the creation of the first nation-sized republic in the world and the emergence of the United States as a naval power.
Is there anything else you would like to share with your readers?
Only that I hope your readers have enjoyed or will enjoy reading A Matter of Honor and subsequent titles in the series, and that they will continue to email me with any comments they may have. I very much appreciate the encouragement from readers I have received to date.