Quarterdeck Interview with Bill Westbrook
This article originally appeared in Quarterdeck, a quarterly e-magazine available from McBooks Press (www.mcbooks.com).
In The Bermuda Privateer novelist William Westbrook introduces privateersman Nicholas Fallon, who sails the Caribbean in 1797 against Britain’s enemies aboard his swift Bermuda schooner, Sea Dog.
McBooks Press publisher Alex Skutt was immediately smitten with the manuscript when it crossed his desk over a year ago, and eagerly awaits the book’s launch in September.
“The characters in The Bermuda Privateer are unusual and vividly written,” says Alex Skutt. “The novel is packed with excitement at sea: trickery, storms and battles. Bill’s story is the sort of submission to McBooks Press that, as a publisher, we dream of receiving. Westbrook spins a rousing sea yarn!
“The manuscript of the second Nicholas Fallon novel has just arrived, and I can see that The Bermuda Privateer is the start of a great nautical adventure series.”
In his first interview with Quarterdeck, Bill shares the story behind his writing:
What was the genesis of your interest in the sea?
The Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston once said, “Ships at sea carry every man’s dreams aboard,” or words to that effect. Every boy’s dreams, as well – at least in my case. I was raised in Arizona and didn’t see the sea until I was sixteen. I never got over it. I often create collages when I’m not writing, and one of my favorites captures the promise, even the necessity, of sailing away.
What sort of reader were you as a boy? Are there childhood books and authors who have remained with you over the years?
I was a constant reader, not only of the usual adventure books, but of sappy poetry that I could copy and send to girls. I loved the Hardy Boys especially, and Sherlock Holmes. I liked the way the puzzles were solved, the creativity and leaps of imagination. I still read Conan Doyle annually.
After a successful career in advertising, what prompted you to write naval fiction?
In my early twenties I discovered Hornblower, followed by Drinkwater and Bolitho and Aubrey, and I knew I wanted to write about a sea hero one day. I learned to write as an advertising copywriter and contributed to sailing magazines. I still wrote when I moved into senior management with Fallon Worldwide.
How did you develop your protagonist, Nicholas Fallon? Is he based on a historical figure?
A year ago my good and great friend Pat Fallon died, the man who led his namesake agency to global prominence. We were very close, and the hole his passing left in my life was massive. I sat at my desk one day not long after his funeral service, just looking at a picture of the two of us, and I knew I wanted to keep him present in the world somehow. I opened my laptop and typed the name: Nicholas Fallon. My hero in real life would become my hero in fiction. And Nicholas Fallon would be just as creative, enigmatic, and strategically brilliant as his namesake. But better looking.
Was The Bermuda Privateer your first attempt at fiction?
Yes, if you don’t count an earlier children’s book that was published years ago and sold ten copies, seven of which I bought.
Once you decided to write The Bermuda Privateer, how did you proceed?
There are probably two kinds of writers: those who can see the whole story in their minds, the plot, characters and events before they begin writing. And then there are writers like me, who create a character and wonder what the hell is going to happen next. Zadie Smith believes that once you discover the right voice, it guides everything you do, provides all the information you need to discover plot, characters, events, relationships – the whole shebang. I agree. Once, when I was stuck on which way to take my children’s book, I wrote to E. B. White and asked if I could come see him for direction. He wrote back that, no, I couldn’t, because if he saw every writer who needed help he’d never have time to write himself. But he offered this advice: put the paper in the typewriter, turn the roller and start typing. Pretty soon you’ll make sentences that will make paragraphs that will eventually make sense. That was my strategy for The Bermuda Privateer. Absent the typewriter and roller part.
How did you research the novel?
I knew a lot of nautical history, generally speaking, from having read so much of it over the years. And I’ve sailed competitively and cruised the Caribbean extensively. Then I turned to Ms. Google and Amazon for verification and correction, plus several wonderful calls to the Bermuda Sloop Foundation. I must say that sometimes different sources don’t agree on dates and events, so you have to choose your God.
The Anatomy of a Book Cover
Do you have a regular writing routine? Are you a rapid writer?
I began writing The Bermuda Privateer in December and delivered it to McBooks Press in the spring. I was consulting with an advertising agency in California for several months, flying back and forth from Minneapolis, so much of the book was written in the air. That said, I prefer to write in my library, surrounded by books and artwork. I start first thing in the morning and write until late afternoon, assuming life doesn’t interfere. I find that I have to quit writing by 3:00 P.M., or thereabouts, or I will bring the characters to dinner, which my family does not appreciate.
Did you rewrite sections of the manuscript as your work proceeded?
I normally write furiously to advance the story, even if it’s not particularly writerly. Then I back up, take a breath, and try to fix the dog’s breakfast in front of me. I think when I finished The Bermuda Privateer I had twenty-six drafts. I actually enjoy polishing and backfilling a story. Towards the end I am working less to create a great sentence than trying to escape with my life.
Which do you enjoy more, research or writing?
Writing, for sure. But there is something wonderfully gratifying in discovering a fact or event that you’ve never heard or seen written about before. Those are the surprises I try to work into my stories. Stay tuned.
Do you have a personal research library?
I do. It has every nautical fiction series I’ve read plus indispensable reference books on wooden ship-building, sail handling, gunnery, etc. There are also history books on Bermuda, the Caribbean, the French Revolution, Napoleon, the Napoleonic Wars, slavery and eighteenth century life and culture in the Caribbean islands.
Are you working on a sequel to The Bermuda Privateer?
Just as the salt business was the backdrop to Privateer, so the slave trade in Cuba and throughout the Caribbean will be the backdrop to the sequel. I have found, however, that I have to be completely finished with the editing of one book before I can begin writing the next. It gets too confusing and my brain hurts.
How far into Fallon’s future have you planned?
The late painter Howard Hodgkin once said that every artist makes their own language, and that often takes a very long time. It will for me, as well. I am trying to inhabit Nicholas Fallon’s soul and mind and heart, so when he speaks he speaks his own language. In other words, I’m trying to write nautical fiction that I haven’t read before, and that’s hard in this genre.
Are you able to set your manuscripts aside when you’re working on them or are they always in your subconscious?
That is a question better asked of my wife, Susan, but I feel I can answer for her: “No, he never goes anywhere without his damned manuscript.” The problem is that I like my characters; they become like family. One nice thing about writing a series is that your characters grow old with you; there’s a shared history. Wouldn’t it be lovely to invite them to dinner, every night?
What is the last book that you read for enjoyment?
Avid Reader, Robert Gottlieb’s wonderful autobiography. He is an editor extraordinaire, and his book is gossipy and wickedly insightful into the lives and peculiarities of writers. We are peculiar, I guess.
What books are on your bedside table?
I’ve just looked. I see the last year’s worth of Soundings magazine; Peter Beard’s Stress and Density; Hero of the Empire by Candice Millard; Lydia Bailey by Kenneth Roberts; Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run; Jim Nelson’s The French Prize; Alan Furst’s The Polish Officer; and The Wave, by Susan Casey. My poor table. I usually read several at a time, though, so the tide goes in and out.
Is there an author you most admire?
There is something to admire about any writer who puts it out there. But as for favorites, I admire Alan Furst for his remarkable atmospheres; Annie Proulx for her sentence craft; Elmore Leonard for his dialogue and spectacular dismissal of the subject/verb form; Cormac McCarthy for his carefully observed stories; and Mary Oliver for every poem she’s ever written, especially the meditative Wild Geese.
What do you plan to read next?
The Complete Sherlock Holmes. It’s that time of the year again.
Do you have books in your library that you return to again and again?
C. S. Forester’s Hornblower series. I can’t read any naval historical fiction when I’m writing, because I’m afraid I will lose my voice. But when I put the last draft aside I pick up Hornblower to see how it’s really done. Forester drew such a flawed, complicated and ultimately heroic figure in Horatio Hornblower. I should live so long.
Name three historical figures, living or dead, whom you would enjoy chatting with over dinner.
Well, first of all, it would be a dinner party – black tie. At one table would be the Algonquin regulars, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, et al., hosted by Mark Twain. At the other table would be Napoleon, Teddy Roosevelt, Churchill, Hemingway, John Kennedy, Zora Neale Hurston and Garrison Keillor, hosted by Pat Fallon. I would gladly serve both tables.
by George Jepson, Editor, Quarterdeck Newsletter