Yesterday I told you all about ‘The Lifeboat’ a truly accomplished debut novel with wonderful prose which also gripped me like a thriller, is narrated by a wonderfully unreliable narrator and amazingly also bowled me over considering as it was a book set on a boat – and I don’t normally like those at all. Well today its author, Charlotte Rogan, takes part in a Savidge Reads Grills to discuss the novel, the hidden manuscripts locked away in her drawers and her writing and reading habits. You can also quite possibly win a copy of the book yourself today, read on for more…
Firstly can you describe the story of ‘The Lifeboat’ in a single sentence without giving any plot spoilers?
Grace Winter survives three weeks in an overcrowded lifeboat only to be put on trial for her life, but is she telling the truth at her trial or is she merely saving herself again?
Where did the idea for ‘The Lifeboat’ come from?
The idea for the story came from my husband’s old criminal law text. I was particularly intrigued by two 19th century cases where shipwrecked sailors were put on trial after being rescued. At the time, sailors thought they were protected by something called the Custom of the Sea, which was an unwritten code of conduct meant to govern the actions of those who found themselves far beyond the reach of any civil authority. For instance, it held that the captain should be the last one to leave a sinking ship, that the women and children should be saved first, and that the ship’s crew owed a special duty to the passengers. It also held that the concept of necessity made it acceptable to kill other people in order to survive as long as the victims were chosen fairly by drawing lots. The moral issues involved in lifeboat situations are what hooked me—not only on an individual level, but on a social level, for lifeboats can be used as metaphors for all sorts of situations faced by society today. And the law is so interesting. It is a way of telling a story so we can judge it, but in order to do that, it leaves out the fraility of mind and body, the human will to surive, the nuance, and the fear. The left out bits are what I wanted my story to be about.
This year has obviously been the anniversary of the Titanic’s disaster, was this something that inspired the book at all? Did you use anything from that case for ‘The Lifeboat’?
I was obviously aware of the Titanic disaster, but I was not thinking about it as I started to write the book. Later on in the writing process, though, it proved to be an invaluable resource. The volume of information gathered and written about the Titanic made it easy for me to research elements that were important to my story, such as lifeboat sizes, launching mechanisms, wireless communication devices, and shipping routes, to name a few.
How much research did you have to do for the novel, obviously you couldn’t blow a dingy up and just ask friends or relatives to push you out into the middle of a lake etc? Was there a particular story in history?
Besides researching technical details and reading some non-fiction accounts of survival at sea, I tapped into my own experiences growing up in a family of sailors. My father was intense and competitive, which had the effect of turning a casual family outing into a high-stakes, all-hands-on-deck game. We children would be lured onto the boat with talk of cruising to some far-off shore and cooking marshmallows on the beach, but sooner or later we would find outselves racing with the other boats we saw. My sister and I were too little to be of any help in this endeavor, and it was our job to not fall overboard and to stay out of the way. The weather sometimes turned bad, but we were not quitters! It made us seasick to go into the boat’s cabin during a storm, so I know what it is to huddle in the rain for hours on end surrounded by people who are stonger than I am.
Now I am rather renowned through Savidge Reads for not being a fan of a books set on boats (though I was a fan of this one) as I instantly think that with minimal characters and nothing but ocean around this could limit a novel, this isn’t the case with ‘The Lifeboat’ though is it? What were the pro’s and con’s of writing a novel primarily set on a lifeboat lost at sea?
I, too, have had the experience of not being taken with the premise of a novel and then absolutely loving the book. I think the best novels defy expectations, whether it be through unusual characters or surprising language or intricate plots. I also think closed room novels can be both challenging and liberating. Just the way having their options and horizons severly curtailed forces the characters in the lifeboat to draw on deeper parts of themselves, the novelist, too, has to reach beyond setting and plot when she limits herself in this way.
One of the advantages of fiction is that it has so many dimensions: there is the surface of the words and sentences; there is the linear dimension of plot; and there is the depth, which encompasses the myriad things that are going on in a charater at any particular moment in time: motives and memories, hopes and fears, sensations and thoughts. So there can be a wonderful freedom in limits—freedom to dig and magnify and explore more than just the who did what of a linear plot.
Now Grace, our protagonist, is a very interesting character and we never know if she is reliable or not as a narrator. Did you have fun with this element?
I did. My characters take on a life of their own, and I remember the first time I realized: “Grace isn’t telling the truth!” But my very next thought was: “Well, who does?” I love how Grace is by turns calculating and honest and how we catch her in a truth the way we might catch other people in a lie. I also liked the chance to explore how a woman might use her innate talents in order to survive just the way a stong man would use his. Grace is a keen observer and highly attuned to social cues and nuance. Those are traits that help her in the lifeboat, and at her trial, they help her again.
There is a certain amount of mystery to the book, hence why we have to be rather cloak and dagger, how hard was it to come up with twists in order to leave the reader wondering and wanting to know more throughout the novel?
Plot for me is difficult—and, frankly, it is not the first thing I read for. More important for me are the language and the characters and an author’s attempt to hit on something universal. But I eventually realized that most readers read for plot and that if I was going to increase my chances of finding a publisher, I was going to have to pay attention to it.
The key to most aspects of writing is revision, which includes something I call layering—going back over and adding and refining and intentionally making more of whatever I find in the pages I have written. The first draft is little more that hints and impulses, with the twists and complications accruing over time.
‘The Lifeboat’ has been chosen as one of the Waterstones 11 and been praised all over the book world, how has this been for you?
I spent the first six weeks after publication in a state of heightened anxiety. I was being asked to do a lot of things I had never done before and wasn’t particularly good at, like giving interviews and speaking in front of groups. My publishing team had shown such faith in me that I didn’t want to let them down.
Another scary thing about sending a novel out into the world is that a lot of very smart and knowledgable literary people will not only see it, but will publicly comment on it. I have fairly ambitious ideas about what a novel can be, so I am happy and grateful that some of the people who know about these things have understood what I was trying to do.
An unexpected and wonderful aspect to being published has been the opportunity to connect with a lot of people who are just as passionate about books and writing as I am. I didn’t know a lot of book people before, and meeting them has been both eye-opening and fun.
I have heard that while ‘The Lifeboat’ is officially your debut novel, you actually had/have several novels locked away in your drawers. Why is ‘The Lifeboat’ the first one that got published? Did you know it had something special about it? Do you think any of those other novels will be published in the future?
As I said, I got better at plotting over the years, which I think is one of the things that made The Lifeboat appealing to the publishers. But it was also the manuscript I was working on when I was introduced to my literary agent. I actually sent him two manuscripts, and while he liked the other one, he thought The Lifeboat would be easier to sell.
Once I finish a project, I tend to move on. While I could imagine going back to one of my old manuscripts, I don’t spend a lot of time looking back or worrying about all those pages in the drawer.
Before we discuss books further, let us discuss writing! When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? How long have you been writing for?
At this point, I have been writing for 25 years. I did not always want to be a writer—I wanted to be an architect. When I was in my mid-thirties, I took a leave of absence from my job at a construction company, and it seemed an opportune time to try something new. I decided I would write a novel, and I was lucky enough to take an inspirational creative writing workshop with Harold Brodkey. He is the person who opened my eyes to the layered and multi-faceted thing that writing can be.
When I started writing, I started reading differently. I read and re-read with the aim of figuring out how my literary heroes did it. I was not content to write something that didn’t work on several levels at once, and I think that is why I didn’t really care if I got published early on. What I wanted was to get good at the writing itself—for a long time, getting published seemed very secondary to that.
Describe your typical writing routine, do you have any writers quirks or any writing rituals?
The key to fitting writing into life as a parent is to take advantage of the corners of time, wherever you might find them. I used to have a beautiful fountain pen, and I would sometimes spend a good bit of my writing time tracking it down or racing off to buy cartridges when I was out of ink. I got used to the weight of it, which made other pens seem to lack substance. When the pen broke, I went through a period of withdrawal, but I realized I was better off without it. I became very happy to write in waiting rooms and carpool lines, on the backs of envelopes and receipts—whenever and with whatever I had at hand in those precious bits of time. My first writing space was in a basement, where I sat at a workbench amid the tools, and my second space was a funny room off the garage. Now I have the luxury of time and a pretty desk, but I am trying not to get too used to it.
Back to reading now… What is your favourite ‘guilty pleasure’ read?
I recently read a Michael Connelly mystery and enjoyed it. While that is not the type of book I usually go for, I didn’t feel guilty about it. I like literary fiction, but some of the books I am drawn to can only be read in small chunks, like A Book of Memories by Peter Nádas, which I am reading now. I am also reading everything by Albert Camus and A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash.
Which book, apart from your own, would you demand Savidge Reads and readers run out and buy right this instant, a book you would call your favourite?
Reading choices are so personal, and I don’t have a favorite. How about if I suggest four books I read in the last year and found worthy of my Life List? They are Remainder by Tom McCarthy (a novel as remarkable for what the author leaves out—expostition and explanation—as for what he puts in), The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton (a strange and compelling novel of performers and voyeurs), Zone One by Colson Whitehead (astonishing language and powers of observation, no plot), and The Unlikely Pilgrimmage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (another Waterstones 11 pick; gorgeous language and story that touches the heart). I can never describe what I look for in a book, because the books that knock my socks off do so by being completely unpredictable, which is one of the things I love about them.
What is next for Charlotte Rogan?
My biggest challenge now is to juggle my new responsibilities so I can get back to the novel I am working on. I am superstitious when it comes to talking about unfinished work, so the only thing I will say is that it is set in South Africa. My husband and I spent almost a year in Johannesburg and fell in love with the country and the people.
Huge thanks to Charlotte for taking time to answer all my questions. ‘The Lifeboat’ is a truly wonderful book, you really need to give it a read. Oh… as if by magic you might just be able to win one of five copies, for more details pop here. Don’t say I don’t always think of you all.