An interview with the best-selling historical novelist ANN VICTORIA ROBERTS

Q:  Your latest novel, THE MASTER’S TALE, is a gripping account of the life of Captain Edward Smith, the Master of the TITANIC. What inspired you to write this particular story?
A:  In the summer of 2008, just as I was about to start work on a novel about the English Civil War, Captain Smith appeared in my life. As these things often are, it was a matter of chance. 
My husband Peter – a Master Mariner – came home after a routine visit to the Southampton Pilots’ Office with an extraordinary tale about Captain Smith and the Titanic. I was keen to see what he’d been looking at, so the office manager very kindly invited me down. Out of a metal filing cupboard, he brought out a great leather bound volume, the Dock Master’s Log Book for 1912. This official, handwritten document recorded the details of all ships entering and leaving the port of Southampton. 
He opened it to April, and there was Titanic’s name – with that of her Captain – Smith – departing at noon on April 10th.  Knowing what was to happen just five days later, I shivered. But then the pages were turned back to show two previous entries. And what they suggested changed my whole perception of the Titanic tragedy.
On March 30th, at 6 in the morning, just 11 days before Titanic set sail on her maiden voyage, the liner Olympic, with her Captain – Smith – was logged coming into Southampton from New York. 
I couldn’t have said exactly why at the time, but it seemed odd. I remember thinking he hadn’t had much time off before taking command of the new ship. But it was the next entry that set the hairs on my neck prickling.  Just after midnight on April 4th, less than 5 days after arriving from New York on Olympic, Captain Smith was again logged inwards by the Southampton Dock Master. This time the ship he brought in was Titanic – from Belfast.
We checked times and dates again. It didn’t seem feasible at first. But this was a legal document – and the facts were there before us. We worked it out. If Smith left the Olympic as soon as Customs and Immigration had cleared the ship, he could have taken the boat train up to London, the afternoon train to Liverpool and overnight ferry to Belfast, to arrive next morning, March 31st. 
I discovered later that the weather was bad, so the ship’s sea-trials did not take place until April 2nd. At 6 that evening Titanic was accepted on behalf of White Star. Captain Smith brought her back from Belfast, down the Irish Sea and up the Channel, to arrive in Southampton shortly after midnight on April 4th.  He would have been on the bridge for most of that time – some 36 hours, give or take the odd hour’s rest.  6 days later he was sailing again, for New York.
The pressure must have been phenomenal – and all this after a winter spent crossing the North Atlantic. 
 There are moments in every writer’s life when the urge to tell a story comes with a great flash of insight. In the early years of my marriage, I spent long months at sea with my husband, on voyages around the world. I know how bad the weather can be in the North Atlantic – and I know the kind of pressure that can be brought to bear on shipmasters by the companies they work for. So yes, I knew what those log book entries meant.
The evidence in that log book pointed to a man being pushed beyond the limits. And we must remember that at 62 years old, Captain Smith was not a young man. It was disturbing to say the least. Was he fit to take that ship to sea? Was the loss of Titanic his fault?
In any maritime disaster, the Captain must always carry the blame. His, after all, is the ultimate responsibility. But that’s not to say that Captain Smith was a fool.  This man was a professional, with some 45 years’ experience at sea – so there had to be more to it than that. What was going on beforehand? Where did this tragedy start?
I’ve never been a Titanic buff – married to a man who went to sea for a living I’ve preferred not to dwell on maritime disasters. What I knew was mostly based on films and hearsay. But the log book was direct evidence, evidence I could relate to in a very personal way.
I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I started checking – looking at accounts on the Internet to begin with, later borrowing books from friends. It struck me that the tragedy was constantly being viewed in isolation, while facts about Captain Smith were often vague or inaccurate.
After that first flash of understanding, I felt the need to take up the case for Captain Smith. To set his story – and that of the Titanic – in context. If I’d been a biographer, then I’d have written a biography – but as I’m a writer who can’t resist putting words in my characters’ mouths, it had to be a novel. 

Q:  You have obviously had to do a tremendous amount of research for this book. Was the information easy to come by?

A:  Information about the Titanic was easy to find. There have been books without number concerning the ship, the fanfare, the luxury aboard, the experiences of the survivors, and the poignant details of those who lost their lives. But reliable facts about Captain Smith were difficult to come by. He had but one daughter, and she survived her children – so there were no descendants to tell his side of the story. Eventually in Southampton library I discovered a slim biography first written in the late 1990s by an historian from Stoke-on-Trent, Captain Smith’s birthplace. The author had done the Smith family history, and researched Smith’s professional career – details of ships and dates which gave me a short-cut to the facts. 
The author, Gary Cooper, has said since that his motive in writing was similar to mine – to set the record straight. But his knowledge of professional seafaring – like so many of the Titanic historians – was lacking. With the approach of the centenary, the History Press commissioned him to re-write Smith’s biography, and it was published late last year. Mr Cooper and I were in touch with each other while working on our respective books, and in return for his excellent factual information, I was able to correct some nautical errors and give him an insight into Captain Smith’s profession. Both books have benefited, I believe, from this collaboration.
The most vital information I obtained, concerned the court case following the collision between White Star’s Olympic and HMS Hawke. Since time was short, I engaged a professional researcher specialising in maritime history, to obtain transcripts of the trial in which Captain Smith was a key witness. To my mind, that collision, and the subsequent court-case, is where the Titanic tragedy began.

Q:  Your husband is a Master Mariner, I believe. Did he help with some of the technical details?

A:  Yes, he did. Particularly with regard to navigation. But we both sweated blood trying to work out the visual reality of the collision between Olympic and HMS Hawke!

Q:  You have been writing now for quite a few years and successfully published a number of books: LOUISA ELLIOTT, LIAM’S STORY, DAGGER LANE, and MOON RISING, all historical novels. What is it that attracts you to the genre of the historical novel?

A:  I’ve always been fascinated by historical events as well as the history of places – and by the effects of the past upon the present. One of the reasons I felt so passionately about Captain Smith’s story, was because he was gaining his expertise at a time when maritime trade was everything. We imported raw materials from all over the world – and exported manufactured goods. Everything came and went by sea. Victoria’s empire was still building, and seafarers like Captain Smith were the men who put the great in Great Britain. 
On a different level, I was brought up with classic novels, and I guess my style of writing lends itself to the historical genre. Two of my novels, LIAM’S STORY and DAGGER LANE, are set in the present as well as the past, and to be honest I found the present-day sections very much harder to write. Somehow, having done my research, I can imagine myself in the past quite easily. I see the surroundings as they probably were at the time, and write from that perspective.
By the way, there’s an added plus to historical fiction: you don’t have to worry about being politically correct!

Q:  As a wife and mother you must lead a busy life. How do you find time to write? Do you work to a timetable or just write when you feel like it?

A:  When I started writing, my two children were at school and my husband was at sea on long voyages. Six months away with maybe two or three months at home between times. So writing was something which kept me occupied on a daily basis – it was another world, if you like, into which I could comfortably escape when reality got tough!  The children eventually grew up and left home, and in 2000 my husband came ashore to work, which entailed a move from York to Southampton. 
After that, writing fiction took a back seat for several years. I started painting again – enjoying the challenge and the quicker results. But once a writer, always a writer, and about 4 years ago I dug out some old research notes and started thinking about a new novel. I joined a local writers’ group, and have enjoyed the fun and the encouragement ever since.

How do I write? Well, nowadays, once I’ve begun writing, I like to work every day whenever possible, starting about 10 am and finishing about 6, with a short break for lunch. I try not to work at weekends, but if I’m on a roll I just want to keep going. A longish break of a couple of weeks or more can make it hard to pick up the thread, so I have to go back and revise just to get back into it.

Q:  As an experienced author, do you have any advice to give to new writers of historical fiction?

A:  My first completed novel was written in my early twenties – a slice of contemporary fiction that was rejected by at least a dozen publishers and literary agents. I was convinced I wasn’t meant to be a writer. The novel I longed to write (which eventually became LIAM’S STORY) was in my head for years, but all the advice I’d ever read treated history like some kind of quagmire. ‘Write what you know,’ the experts said. ‘Don’t be lured into historical fiction, which requires tons of research and has enormous pitfalls for the inexperienced novelist…’
Quite right. Except if history turns you on, and you’re willing to do the research because it fascinates you, then go for it. It’s what I did – felt the fear (to coin a phrase) and did it anyway. The research was a joy, and led me down paths I would never have trodden otherwise. Research made LOUISA ELLIOTT a big rich book in which 19th century York was almost one of the characters. But the reason for the novel’s success (or so I’ve been told) was that the themes were contemporary. In other words, I was writing about problems which are as relevant today as they were then.
So that is probably the key to grabbing your average reader. Historical fiction is rarely fashionable – but in the end it’s the characters that make a book, and your depiction of those characters must light a reader’s bonfire. 
Another bit of advice from a writer friend of mine, sadly no longer with us: ‘History must be part of the action, part of the characters’ lives. Not a backdrop against which the actors speak their lines…’
Another comment I’ve never forgotten came from a professional while I was still trying to gather courage after that first series of rejections. ‘Like all creative people,’ he said, ‘writers must be driven from within, by an idea that absolutely refuses to go away…’ 
So true. After all, nobody sensible would lock themselves away for months on end, scribbling away at a story that might never see the light of day. 
The satisfaction is in the creating of that other world – publication is just the icing on the cake. Reviews – if you are lucky – are the cherries. But the glowing candles are the letters from real readers, those wonderful people who have read your book, lived in your world for a while, and felt moved to write their words of appreciation. 
Even one such letter makes all the hard work worthwhile.

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Joan Fallon is a writer and novelist living in Spain.

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