|Author Nicola Pierce|
On the night of 14/15th April 1912 the RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic Ocean, four days into her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City. More than 1,500 of the ships 2,223 passengers and crew died when the ship hit an iceberg and sank. To mark the centenary of this tragic voyage, author Nicola Pierce has very kindly agreed to join me here at Yellow Brick Reads. Her wonderful book Spirit of the Titanic (see book review here) is a must read for young (and old) readers interested in this historic passage or indeed, anyone just looking for a good yarn.
Hello and welcome to Yellow Brick Reads, Nicola. Can you tell the readers, how did you decide to write this book?
I was very, very lucky indeed. After I ghost-wrote Mother from Hell for the O'Brien Press, Michael O'Brien rang me and asked me if I would try doing a children's book for them. Having never considered writing for children I was a bit bewildered. A second phone call was necessary where I was specifically asked if I could do something on the Titanic. And I thank God everyday for that invite - I had no idea where it was going to lead!
So much has been written about the Titanic already. Was this helpful or challenging for a writer setting out to create a new story?
It was terrifying, to be honest. In fact I wasn't too impressed, initially, with being asked to write about the Titanic, believing that the story had been told so many times over and there wasn't much leeway for a new angle. However, by the end of the phone conversation with Michael, I had remembered that the very first death was a child, a fifteen year old boy, who also just happened to be the very first Titanic-associated death. Another twenty-four hours of thinking - that is, thinking while ironing/watching 'X-Factor'/ hoovering and walking to the shops - I came up with the idea to use his ghost to tell the story of the sinking, alongside his own.
Historical fiction blurs the categories of fact and fiction. How do you see the relationship between the two in your writing?
|Captain Thomas Andrews|
The thing about the Titanic is that it's very hard to arrive at the 'truth.' Well, I suppose that's a fair comment about writing history in general. At the end of the day I did my research, confused myself by reading debates/conflicts about most of the information available, and then went with my guts. For instance, regarding Jack Phillips, his friend/ colleague Harold Bride swore that he saw Jack get into a lifeboat, but another passenger said that wasn't Jack at all.I went with what made sense to me. He omitted to pass on one of the iceberg warnings Titanic received and I just felt that he would have felt hugely guilty about this on hearing that the ship had indeed hit an iceberg and now needed to evacuate the passengers.
I'm interested that you chose a character that was already dead to be the narrator. Can you talk about Sam and explain why you decided that this was to be his story?
Well, firstly, I needed someone who could travel all over the ship, from First to Third Class, as well as through places like the Mail Room and the Marconi Office. It was just one of those lovely 'Eureka moments': if I used the ghost of Samuel he could be in the Crow's Nest as they sighted the iceberg, follow key characters around, such as Captain Smith and Thomas Andrews, and not get in the way of the story - since the only person who knew he was there would be the reader ...and the baby Sarah of course.
This young boy, from East Belfast, was the first to die. Eight died during the ship's construction and over fifteen hundred would die, including the ship herself - it just felt from the very beginning that this was Samuel's story. I couldn't help noticing too that Samuel fell to his death on 20th of April 1910, while the ship sank on the 15th of April 1912...almost the same date.
Also, because I had been asked to write a children's novel, this fifteen year old just seemed the perfect way into the story, a child's point of view, from someone who would seem very innocent compared to today's teenagers but, at the same time, performed one of the most dangerous jobs, as catch-boy, a junior member of the rivet squad, in Harland & Wolff.
Children are often presented as powerless in society. Do you think this is more or less true for a ghost child who wanders aboard a ship that will inevitably sink?
Well, nothing was going to stop that ship from sinking, that's for sure. I suppose Samuel, like many others on board, had his own personal journey to make. Yes, he is taken up with his sense of isolation, and then hopelessness to do anything of worth, after the ship hits the iceberg. He wonders why he has ended up where he has, but, as it turns out, there is a reason he's there - two reasons, in fact. He is about to make a colossal contribution to a Third Class family and then, when all is over, he has the most important job of all, to bring everyone home safely. After over-hearing violinist Wallace Hartley and Head Baker Charles Joughin talking about finding a purpose in life he determines to find his own.
He does appear powerless until he is helped in his cause, by baby Sarah who can neither walk nor talk. All that is required is Isobel's trust, which ensures the family's safety.
Any book about the Titanic must end in tragedy. Was this a challenge when you were writing a book for younger readers?
I knew that I didn't want to end the book with the deaths of fifteen hundred men, women and children. Somehow, I was determined to find an ending that would include hope and fulfillment - for Samuel, especially. The ending pieced itself together slowly, as I worked on Samuel's own story, his relationship with his parents and so on. And I plainly admit to always preferring a happy ending!
Can you tell the readers what you are working on at the moment?
I'm working on a story, another blend of fact and fiction, set during the Second World War. All I can say is that I'm very grateful to the British historian Anthony Beevor for at least one of his books. I've missed three deadlines already, thanks to my being invited to talk about the Titanic in schools and libraries throughout the country, North and South. Not that I'm complaining, before Spirit of the Titanic I successfully avoided public speaking with a determination I wished I could bottle and sell, but, because I had to, I'm now well used to talking in front of a crowd and pretending that my knees aren't knocking or that sometimes I'm utterly unsure about what I'm going to say next.
This ship has made a huge difference to my life.