Quarterdeck Interview of Rick Spilman by George Jepson

quarterdeckmj2015I am very pleased to have been interviewed by George Jepson in the May/June issue of the McBooks Press‘ newsletter “Quarterdeck.”  If you haven’t run across “Quarterdeck” you should take a look. (A subscription is free.) This issue includes my interview and a review of my novel The Shantyman as well as an article, Victory Turns 250, by Julian Stockwin. It also includes news of nautical fiction by James L. Nelson, J. D. Davies, Jan Needle, Steve Harrison, John Cahill,  Joseph Heywood, and David Gilman, among others.  Definitely worth taking a look.

Rick Spilman by George Jepson (reposted with permission.)

Rick Spilman resides in a lovely late nineteenth century brownstone on a tree-lined street in Jersey City, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan.

During the period when Spilman’s home was constructed, New York Harbor teemed with sailing and steam vessels from around the world. By the early 1870s, the prows and bowsprits of the clippers were common sights along piers in the East River, the area known as South Street Seaport.

The maritime district was alive with commercial enterprises, with arriving and departing vessels connecting America with faraway places. Ship-chandlers and workshops abounded. Sailors speaking a mixture of languages frequented the saloons, boarding houses and brothels. Streets were filled with the miasma of horse manure, fish and rotting garbage.

A century and a half later, Spilman writes about the clipper era and the New York waterfront in his first two novels, Hell Around the Horn and The Shantyman. Living near South Street Seaport and with New York Harbor little more than a stone’s throw away, Spilman immerses himself in the local maritime history. When time permits, he joins in at the monthly sea shanty sing at Sailors’ Snug Harbor on nearby Staten Island, which was once a retirement home for aged mariners.

Over the years, he has sailed aboard a variety of vessels under canvas and diesel power. Recreationally, he sails his Herreshoff America 18, a 40-year-old classic catboat called Peregrine. “I sailed it one season up on Lake George, which was great but difficult to get to, and one season on New York harbor, which is very convenient but too congested for a relaxing sail” he says. “I am still learning the secrets of sailing a gaff rigged catboat.  In the next year or two, I hope to move up to a sailboat in the thirty-to forty-foot range, so we can get back to
cruising.”

Spilman recently shared the story behind his passion for ships and the sea and his writing career with Quarterdeck:

Did your interest in the sea start early in life?

My first vivid recollection of being in awe of wild and open space was when I was in sixth or seventh grade living in Dallas, Texas. I stood on a ridge overlooking the rolling hills of North Texas as the wind blew the long grass in great undulating waves. It was thrilling to watch and I remember thinking that this must be what the sea was like. Not too long after, my family moved to the west coast of Florida. I got a job cleaning boats at a local marina, saved up enough to buy a run-about and started commuting to work by water. By that point I was completely
hooked.

Did you read nautical fiction as a boy?

I read Forester, Pope, Parkinson and a few others of the Georgian naval genre in high school. I also started reading Conrad, who is still a great favorite of mine.

What influenced your decision to study naval architecture at the University of Michigan?

In high school I discovered a book that literally changed my life. The bus would drop us off a half hour to forty five minutes before class started, so sometimes I would go to the school library instead of just hanging out in the school parking lot. I found a new book that had just arrived, The Ship, An Illustrated History by Bjorn Landstrom. I would go to the library every morning and read a few pages and study the drawings before going to class. The book presents the development of ships and shipping as part of a great continuum. The book has something like eight hundred illustrations and literally starts with an illustration of a rather hirsute, naked man paddling three logs lashed together. It ends with nuclear submarines and supertankers. By the time I worked my way through The Ship, I was sure that I wanted to be a naval architect. It also jump-started my interest in nautical history, which is why I am writing novels about clippers and windjammers today.

Your naval architecture studies must have been quite demanding. How did you find time to write and enter the Cooley Award for Short Fiction competition, which you won?

It is all Mortimer Cooley’s fault. Cooley was a naval officer who came to the University of Michigan to teach mechanical engineering in 1881 and stayed for over fifty years. He was the Dean of Engineering for around thirty years. He also founded the Department of Naval Architecture in 1889. Cooley believed that engineers should be both technical and literate, so he incorporated literature and writing courses into the required engineering curriculum. He also set aside money in his will for the writing contest that bears his name. I wrote the short story that won one of the awards that year in a creative writing class that I was taking, in part, to fulfill my writing requirements.

What was your first position after graduating from college?

I had a summer job with Moore McCormack Lines, which became a full time job when I graduated. I was very lucky to have arrived in time to see the last days of the cargo liners – the classic breakbulk ships [vessels designed to carry packaged shipments of all shapes, sizes and weights] with swinging booms, burtoning [loading and unloading] gear and ’tween decks [any deck below the upper deck and above the lowest deck]. While at Mormac I also got some exposure to tanker operations, LNG ships [tank ships designed for transporting liquefied natural gas], coasters and barges. When United States Lines bought Mormac, I got very involved in container ships.

What drove your passion for writing, while working in naval architecture?

Working for shipping companies, I had the opportunity to spend time with captains, mates, engineers and unlicensed personnel. Sailors have been telling sea stories for all of time. If you have the urge to write, the sea stories you hear on ships and on the docks are a great place to start.

What motivated you to write your first novel, Hell Around the Horn?

I thought the story was just too good not to tell, or retell, as a novel. Hell Around the Horn is based on an actual voyage of a British windjammer in 1905. The voyage was unusually well documented for a sailing ship in the latter days of sail. What made it interesting to me was that the ship’s log written in 1905 (only rediscovered by Alan Villiers in 1970) and the memoirs describing the voyage (written by the captain and a first voyage apprentice over a fifty-year span) all disagree on major points, including even the number of sailors who died. It seemed a wonderful opportunity to tell the tale from multiple perspectives as a novel.

When did you begin writing?

I started writing in middle school and continued through high school, college and beyond. I tend to think of writing as less of a career choice than a compulsion. I knew I wanted to be a writer from a fairly early age. It took me a long time to learn how to write and during that time I was having a good time as naval architect, traveling the world, following ships.

What most appeals to you about the late nineteenth century and commercial shipping, which are the focus of your first two novels, Hell Around the Horn and The Shantyman?

My background is in commercial shipping. I do not really understand naval ships. They are interesting, but foreign. I like ships that pay their own way. What I find so interesting about the great sailing ships of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is that they hung on so long. By the turn of the twentieth century, there were still four to five thousand square-riggers making their way around the globe. The last windjammer voyage carrying commercial cargo was in 1957. Many of the old ships are still with us as museum ships and a few are still sailing. The great sailing ships were driven from the sea by low energy costs. We may yet see modern windjammers if energy prices spike again.

How do you develop the ideas and eventually the plots in your novels?

I find stories in history that catch my interest. Both Hell Around the Horn and The Shantyman are based on substantially true stories.

You have sailed aboard replica square-riggers and other craft. How have these experiences influenced your writing?

I have been sailing for over forty years, but my experience on square riggers is not that extensive. I sailed for a few weeks on the ill-fated Bounty and HMS Rose. Nevertheless, the experience of having stood watch and setting and furling sails gives me a sense of what sailing and sail handling must have been like in much rougher conditions. The perspective one gets while bent double over a yard, tying in a gasket, about a hundred feet off the deck, is really extra-ordinary. I have received letters from sailors with a lot more square-rigger experience than I have, who tell me that I have gotten it right in my novels, which pleases me very much.

Your descriptions of the period and, specifically, life aboard a late nineteenth century clipper and New York are most vivid. How did you research these aspects of The Shantyman?

There were quite a few sailors who wrote accounts of their first voyages on clipper ships and windjammers. In addition to Fred Harlow’s memoir, The Making of a Sailor (from which I got the inspiration for The Shantyman), I also learned from Basil Lubbock’s Round the Horn before the Mast, Felix Riesenberg’s Under Sail, David Bone’s The Brassbounder, Paul Stevenson’s By Way of Cape Horn, James Barker’s Log of a Limejuicer, William Jones’ Cape Horn Breed, as well as several books by Alan Villiers and a few other lesser sources. I have also had the opportunity to crawl around on surviving clippers and windjammers, including the Cutty Sark, Star of India and the Peking.

How did you create your protagonists, George Anderson and Jack Barlow in The Shantyman?

George Anderson was inspired in part by several retired ship’s captains that I have known. The story he tells was
inspired by Fred Harlow, who sailed on the clipper Akhbar in 1870. In Harlow’s memoir, he tells of a drunken sailor named Banks who would become the ship’s shantyman. Harlow describes Banks as “a well educated man [who] had been a master of ships, but his appetite for whiskey had been his downfall.” I developed Barlow from Banks, with elements of other clipper ship captains from history added in.

Do you write the sort of story you would like to read, or do you write strictly for readers?

I write the stories that interest me and hope that others will find them entertaining as well.

Do you plot out your novels before beginning to write?

I have a pretty good idea of the beginning, middle and end of the novel. I usually do a rough outline that I fill
in as I go along.

At what point in the process do you begin writing?

Once I think I have done enough research, I will dive in. I often stop in the middle to do more research to fill in holes in the story.

Please describe where you write?

I write at home in my office, which is in the front parlor of an 1880s brownstone in downtown Jersey City about a mile from the Hudson River, just across from lower Manhattan. The room is moderately narrow with wide plank pine floors, plaster walls and a high ceiling with Italianate plaster crowning molding. There is a large mirror over the hearth. Roughly three or four times a year, my office reverts back to a dining room.

I work at an armoire near the front window, or at the conference/dining room table. Several bookshelves are filled past capacity and there are stacks of books on the table, on chairs and and in stacks along the floor. On the wall above the table is an arrangement of five prints and paintings. The largest, in the center, is a John Stobart print, “Lower South Street, New York 1863.” The Stobart is flanked by two Geoff Hunt prints used for Patrick O’Brian covers “Ionian Mission” and “Treason’s Harbor.” Below the three modern prints is a hand colored print from 1875 showing the arrival of the Great Western off the Battery in 1838. Next to it is a watercolor by Luszo of “Presa del Vascello – Vicetori Inglese Fuori la Punto de Piave lanno 1812,” which I believe translates “Seizing a Ship, English Victory off Punta de Piave in the year 1812.” If I am not mistaken, Punta de Piave is in the Adriatic off Venice.

Are you working on new fiction at present?

I am revising a novel, Evening Gray, Morning Red, set just before the American Revolution. It begins in
Boston with the Liberty Riots of 1768 and ends with the burning of HMS Gaspée in Rhode Island in 1772. I am also researching a novel set on a sailing Q-ship during World War I. It is based on HMS Ready, an armed merchant barquentine on which Joseph Conrad briefly volunteered.

You founded Old Salt Press, catering to those who love books about ships and the sea. How did this initiative come about?

Old Salt Press is a writers’ collective. In addition to myself, we have five other wonderful writers – Joan
Druett, Alaric Bond, V. E. Ulett, Antoine Vanner and Linda Collison, and a catalog of roughly twenty titles.
We are not a typical traditional small press. Our goal is to create a hybrid publishing venture, which features
the advantages of self publishing while retaining some of the features of a traditional publishing. The writers
who make up Old Salt Press retain control over their books and retain all royalties. They also bear the upfront
costs. We share expenses and support each others’ work.

What challenges did OSP face in the beginning?

We are still very much a work in progress. We are working through the best way to build a brand and support each other’s marketing. We are not there yet, but we are getting closer.

How do you select manuscripts for publication?

Because we are a writers’ collective, the focus so far has been on the author. That being said, we are trying to
build a brand. We want a reader of one Old Salt Press book to be confident that any book by any writer under
the imprint will be of the same high quality. So far, we all read and comment on each other’s books. We each
write in somewhat different areas of nautical fiction and non-fiction, which keeps things interesting. What
ultimately matters is the quality of the writing and I am very pleased and honored to be working with such an
excellent groups of writers.

How do you balance your own writing with the demands of OSP?

Often badly. Particularity as we have been starting up, I don’t feel that I have devoted as much time to the
imprint as I should have. We are getting where we need to be, nevertheless.

What new books will OSP launch this year?

If you would allow me to look back a few months, we ended last year with the release in December of three
titles: Eleanor’s Odyssey by Joan Druett, a fascinating trip around the globe at the turn of the nineteenth century with an intrepid young captain’s wife, with Joan Druett providing commentary and context to bring it all to life; Antoine Vanner’s Britannia’s Shark, the third of his Dawlish Chronicles, set in 1881, which is a thrilling chase to capture a secret maritime weapon; and Blackwell’s Homecoming by V. E. Ulett, which is the third in her Blackwell nautical adventure series, an exiting blend of adventure and romance.

In January, we released The Guinea Boat by Alaric Bond, a coming-of-age story of two young men in the
south of England during the often violent times during the brief Peace of Amiens of 1802-1803; Joan Druett’s
Lady Castaways, a fascinating collection of stories. Men are not the only ones who have found themselves
washed ashore following a ship wreck; and, of course, my novel, The Shantyman (I am currently talking to a
group of musicians about releasing a companion CD featuring sea shanties from the novel).

Coming up, Alaric Bond’s next installment in his Fighting Sail series, The Scent of Corruption, will be out soon, as will Linda Collison’s Water Ghosts, a very exciting young adult paranormal novel set in the Pacific aboard a Chinese junk. I plan on releasing Evening Grey, Morning Red toward the end of the summer.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

I have always loved books about ships and the sea. There is always so much to explore. The genre is far
larger than many realize. Reading about Horatio Hornblower or about pirate gangs (too often based on Disney) just barely scratches the surface. At Old Salt Press, our books span several centuries, are told from a wide range of points of view, with perspectives both male and female, in tales from both fiction and nonfiction. I invite everyone who has ever felt the wild call of the sea to join us as we go down to the sea in books.

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