- Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, what do you see?
Robin Lloyd: As I wrote Rough Passage to London, I always had a few of my friends in mind; all were experienced sailors or the armchair variety of sailors who prefer to dream rather than experience the wind and the waves. I wanted to give a sense of the sea, the smells, the motion, the taste, and Ely Morgan’s life was such a perfect opportunity. So even though I ventured onto land quite a bit, as I wrote the book I saw it as a sea novel. The readers I envisioned would be like me, filled with curiosity and wonder about what it would be like to sail the Atlantic on a three masted squarerigger. Oddly enough, I also envisioned Morgan’s English friends, particularly C.R. Leslie and Charles Dickens as the readers. I knew Morgan had captured their imaginations long ago with his sea stories so I always had them in my mind.
- BB: You’re on record as saying that Rough Passage to London began as research into your family tree. At what stage did it turn into a possible novel and why?
RL: I like to say that Rough Passage to London was a family research project that ran seriously amok. From a planned 6 month long effort it became a five year long marathon. It was like a giant magnet pulling me forward. My original task to myself was simply to find out as much as I could about the man, his time at sea, the dates, the ships and above all, explain how he met all of these famous people in the literary and arts circle of London. That became a self-inflicted, but much-enjoyed research project on the transatlantic Age of Sail in the mid 19th century. I was fascinated by this entire world, the sailors, the passengers and the transition to steam. These sailing ships were, in effect, the first cruise ships. They were the link that tied together the transatlantic world of letters, arts and commerce, not to mention people. I wrote a 300 page rough draft about the man and his times with no intention of doing much more than that. My wife encouraged me to show it to an editor in the publishing world.
He liked the topic but said you don’t have enough material about Ely Morgan. You can either write a history about the packet ship era, he said, or you can write an historical fiction about Ely Morgan. I’d never written any fiction before in my life, but I knew I wanted to write about this man. So with great trepidation I chose fiction. My skill set was as a journalist so a non-fiction book might have made more sense. But I simply could not see how I could capture the man’s personality and his life story with a non-fiction. I wanted to see this world of ships and sailors through his eyes. So like an early explorer, I set out on my largely uncharted voyage, knowing little about where fiction was going to take me. Certainly all the background and research I’d done gave me a foundation to work from, but I oftentimes felt like I had no compass to steer by. It took me two years of solid writing to finish the novel. Editing and rewriting took another year. And most of the original 300 page non-fiction I wrote about the man and his era became extraneous material. As my editor said, most of that is deadwood.
- BB: You say in your book notes that the book is a well-researched fictionalised account. Which bits are fiction and which fact? (To make it more difficult – sorry – without spoilers?)
RL: Throughout the writing of Rough Passage to London, I struggled with the marriage of fact and fiction. That’s the reason I wrote such extensive Author’s Notes at the end of the book. In those notes, I describe my journey and how I made sense of bringing fact and fiction together to create this novel. What helped me was the knowledge that I had researched his life quite intensively. I felt that I had gone as far as I could in my research. In all likelihood, I felt that I had uncovered what was possible to find out about him. I had his life chronology at sea, all the family genealogy, the names and details of his ships, the dates when he met C.R. Leslie, the dates when he married his wife. I knew quite a bit about his personality thanks to descriptions of him by C.R. Leslie and Robert Leslie in their books.
The seafaring character in Dickens’s short story, A Message from the Sea was his portrayal of Morgan. So I had a good sense of his character. I also had scattered anecdotes, many of which I used in the book. Some of them were quite funny such as the story of the wet lovers and the dry one. I expanded this delightful story Morgan told Dickens and Dickens loved, and gave it a personal twist. There’s no record to say that it happened this way, but then who’s to say it didn’t? His meeting with Queen Victoria was another example. Several maritime history books recorded this luncheon event on board Morgan’s new ship named in Queen Victoria’s honor. The quote from the Duke Of Newcastle was right from the history books, but the descriptions of the event were my imagination.
In all cases, I respected the history I uncovered. I merely sought to fill in the historical blank pages in his life. His life at sea was largely unknown, specifically the more than 100 transatlantic voyages he made over a thirty year period. That was fertile ground for a fiction writer. The only way to tell his story as a sailor and a ship captain was through fiction. The guidelines I devised for myself was to keep the historical record intact, but through fiction try to bring his character to life by creating imaginary scenes. In many ways, Dickens’s motivation was the same. A fictional story based on an actual man. He wrote Morgan after completing A Message from the Sea that he hoped this story and his portrayal of Morgan would give his readers some faint reflection of the pleasure I have for many years derived from the contemplation of a most amiable nature and most remarkable man.
- BB: How have the rest of your family reacted to the book?
RL: Fortunately well. That’s the short answer. A number have said they really enjoyed it. Even the historically minded in the Morgan family have written me favorable reviews. I think perhaps they understand the novel is a way of remembering the man as part of a larger portrayal of a bygone era. As more than one relative has mentioned, the novel puts Morgan in some historical context. Certainly my grandmother who gave me his portrait years ago had little specific knowledge about his personality or his background at sea. Her name was Elizabeth Babcock. She was a good storyteller herself and wrote an award winning children’s book in the 1940’s about English children during the war being rescued by a flying pig from America. I believe the book was called The Inflatable Pig. I asked an older member of the family who knew her quite well if he thought she would have liked the book.Oh, yes, he replied. She would have loved it!
- BB: Do you recognise yourself or any of your family’s traits in Ely?
RL: I think Ely Morgan was a hard man to duplicate. Charles Leslie described him as a man combining all the various and delightful qualities of the sailor, the artist, the politician and the chess player. I don’t know as I have met a man quite like that. That being said, I found some aspects of his life story I could relate to. The loneliness of being away from family for extended lengths of time. As a foreign correspondent for NBC News, I was oftentimes away from home for months at a time, some years more than three hundred days. My wife was fortunately quite self-reliant, but I couldn’t keep that schedule up for long. Covering the White House became a welcome relief after years of shuttling from disaster to war zone. Those absences helped me portray his loneliness on board ship, and his relationship with Eliza, his wife. Another similarity was that like Ely, I’d also grown up on a farm. I didn’t run away from home, but like him, I was quite eager to look for another life direction. Finally, I suppose it would be fair to say that I felt some commonality with him in that his career and mine were both about communications.
- BB: What surprised you the most about Ely’s life and times?
RL: Many things surprised me as I began to fill in the details of his early life. The relatively humble surroundings in the Connecticut River Valley, the family’s strong ties to the Congregational Church, the modest but basic education he’d received there. This stood in sharp contrast to his later life as a successful ship captain and wealthy owner of the shipping line.
The life of a sailor was much tougher than I imagined. I had not realized the extent of the hardship, the dangers at sea, and the cruel treatment sailors often received at the hands of the mates; never mind the low pay and the dreadful food. Nor did I realize that these sailors and captains made as many as three round trips across the Atlantic each year, and sailed on schedule no matter what the weather, certainly a grueling schedule hard to fathom.
As far as the times are concerned, I was most surprised at the many travel accounts about America by English writers starting with Captain Basil Hall in the 1820’s, then Fanny Trollope, Harriet Martineau, Frederick Maryatt, Charles Dickens. Many of them were quite uncomplimentary. All this told me that Morgan’s journey was all the more exceptional. He’d come up the hard way as a rough and tumble Yankee tar and found friendship in England amongst the most unlikely of friends. Imagining how he accomplished that, gave me the reason for the title, Rough Passage to London. English and Americans then called each other feuding cousins. They both traveled on the same ships so these squareriggers were really like cultural bridges and the Captains like ambassadors expected to smooth over differences and make polite dinner conversation with all. The fact that slavery was such an ever-increasing hot-button issue of discussion between England and America gave me a major theme in the novel.
But I suppose the biggest surprise came from an actual letter dated July of 1816 I discovered in the family records of a distant relative. It was written to Ely Morgan’s mother. The tragic news in the letter would change that family forever. The cryptic wording of the letter gave me the idea for a mystery and a plot line where I could blend and weave the fiction through the known facts. The discovery of that real letter got the novel started.
- BB: The life of a Victorian sailor seems incredibly brutal and unforgiving. How do you think you would have managed if you had swopped places with Ely? Would there have been anything you’d have enjoyed?
RL: Well, everything is relative I suppose. Ely came from a rough background with few amenities so it may be that life as a young sailor was tolerable, particularly as he burned his bridges by running away from home. Within the merchant marine, he came up the hard way. I know that he was a simple sailor for five years before he became a second mate. Then it would be another two years before he would become first mate. These would have been tough years where he would have had little time off. That being said, as he’d survived the gauntlet of deck life, it must have seemed like a major accomplishment when he became first mate and then even more so when he became captain. I tried to convey his sense of ambition and quick thinking as best I could. He was advancing through the ranks, and because he was successful it may have made the life of a sailor more acceptable. Endurance and hope propelled him forward. He also didn’t have many choices.
As for me, I think I would have jumped ship. Climbing the ratlines to get 100 feet or more above deck would have terrified me, if not killed me. As far as what I might have enjoyed…. I would have liked to have been the helmsman on one of those ships, sledding downwind under full canvas with a full moon lighting the way, lines taut and straining with a freshening night breeze on my face. Under those fairweather conditions, I might also have liked to be offered one of Captain Morgan’s Havana cigars.
- BB: Before you wrote Rough Passage your day job was that of journalist and correspondent. Creative writing is a totally different discipline from the succinct world of journalistic writing. How did you find the switch and which do you prefer?
RL: I would say that fiction writing is quite different, and quite a bit more demanding. A news story is generally written quickly, hopefully understandably. Brevity is important. So is simplicity and accuracy. You want your readers, listeners or viewers to get the main point of your story. That’s the bottom line. The result is that you are telling the reader what you want them to know without too many subtleties. A long magazine article obviously is a bit more complex.
But as a journalist and a correspondent, you basically learn the narrative skill with some description. Fiction, on the other hand, requires not only a demand for good descriptive writing but also the mechanics of driving a story forward and the ability to develop believable characters. Learning how to write conversations if you haven’t done it before is not easy.
I found no problems with the descriptive writing. What I had to learn is how to convey and reveal traits of a character through scenes. I had to learn how to create scenes that would transform characters. I had to learn how to use conversations to move the plot forward. Foreshadowing, use of symbolism and red herrings were a few other skills needed in the fiction writer’s toolbox.
Simply put, fiction writing is far more complex. Which do I like more? I don’t think you can compare them. One is more of a skill learned. The other is more of an art form with several different writing skills required.
- BB: Based in your experiences in the writing and publishing process, have you any tips for potential authors reading this?
RL: Well, I’m here to humbly say that I feel extremely fortunate to have found a publisher. Certainly more than a dozen publishers, big and small, turned this manuscript down with little to no explanation offered. I was out wandering in the unpublished wilderness for many months before Sheridan House kindly took a chance with me. They are a maritime imprint so that was part of the attraction. That would be one bit of advice I might give to first time authors. Look for a small publishing house that has handled books with similar themes to your book.
The other bit of advice would be to pay close attention to your first two chapters. They have to be zingers. I discovered this the hard way. Many publishers only want to see the first two chapters of your book. I can’t tell you how depressing it is to be told, Sorry, it’s not for us., and they’ve only read twenty four pages. As a child, my mother used to tell me to never put a book down until I had read at least seventy five pages. Well, those days of more patient reading are long gone.
Finally, I would say have faith in your own story telling ability. Just because someone says they don’t like your book, that doesn’t mean someone else in the publishing business isn’t going to love your book.
- BB: What’s next for Robin Lloyd?
RL: I’ve been encouraged to write another historical sea novel so I’m keeping that option open. If I do sally forth in that direction, I’ll probably stay put in the 19th century. I’m in the process of researching now. This time I think my main character will be fictional, but the setting and the times portrayed will be quite historical. Look for another suspense mystery, perhaps in the Caribbean.
- BB: We look forward to reading that, Robin. Thank you for taking the time to chat to us.