Historic Naval Fiction is pleased to have obtained an Interview with Lee Henschel Jr. author of the first book in a new series, The Sailing Master.
What can you tell us about your book The Sailing Master without spoiling the plot for readers?
I meant for this story to resonate with a great range of readers . . . a story for lovers of sea novels, particularly for those who love the golden age of sail. But, just as importantly, if not more so, I wanted to to create a main character who readers care about, who see themselves in the character, or to learn how life is for someone very different than them.
Well, The Sailing Master certainly provides a great plenty of the naming of things on a sailing ship, of descriptions of the sea and the weather, the sounds and the smells, the feel of HMS Eleanor as she rolls on a big sea. Foreign ports.
And we also follow the thoughts and feelings of the narrator, Owen Harriet . . . his first day aboard Eleanor, how it was the first time he went aloft, the endless procession of characters. Making friends. Loosing them.
The story is a coming of age for the narrator, Owen, spoken in his own charming (I hope) vocabulary and cadence. I hope to have created a main character who people will love . . . someone whose voice they hear.
The book is the first in a proposed series. What are your future plans for it?
In Book One the reader understands from almost the first page that Owen Harriet is writing his story in retrospect . . . as the personal log of an older man returning to England on his final voyage. The series begins in 1798, and will end with the Crimean War, about 1854.
As for future plans, I don’t know how many books the series will include. At first I thought four, but it appears there will be quite a few more than that.
Book Two—The Long Passage was completed in November, 2015, and I’ll send it to my publisher in January of 2016.
What intrigues you about the period in which the book is set?
The golden age of sail, particularly the last hundred years of it, were the result of the building of ships more capable of making long passages, combined with the use of ever improving sextants and chronometers. This combination allowed sailors to go farther, and to places hitherto uncharted, or at least not charted very well. These elements, along with the political atmosphere of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment (also called the Age of Reason) provide a rich and lively background in which to set a novel.
Where did your interest in the sea originate?
Dear C. S. Forester! Aside my own father, Horatio’s my first and only hero. I read my very first Hornblower novel when I was 12 years old. For some reason, (perhaps it was the muse of writing?) reading about Hornblower inspired me to write a story I hoped he’d like to read. And I actually wrote the thing, though it was only about twenty pages long. That’s still not too bad for a 12 year old. I wrote it down in a spiral note book with a fountain pen. The ink was turquoise. I still remember the distinct smell of the ink. That small effort was the genesis of my life as a writer.
Now here’s a fact about myself I didn’t understand when I was young. I did (do) indeed love Captain Hornblower. And I love the sea, as well, but I love Hornblower not because he’s heroic and brave which, of course, he is, but because he’s so very human, so unsure of himself in his internal monologue. His less than prestigious upbringing, his feelings of guilt for not quite loving his first wife . . . a somewhat dull and homespun woman . . . though she dearly loved Horatio. His desire to hide his feelings from others while at the same time berating himself for his own perceived shortcomings . . . all this makes for a flawed character. So much one of us.
How important is history to your stories?
I’m a student of history. I love history, and try to set down the proper order of events. Also, by way of the humanities, I try to portray how the people involved in any historical event might actually have felt about it.
If I’m unclear about what really happened, or even if it really did happened, I try to couch that doubt in the form of dialogue between characters. For example . . .
“Some believe Napoleon was quite distraught upon leaving the Great Pyramid at Giza.”
“Yes, it seems he shouldn’t have spent so much time in there all alone.”
“Was he alone?”
“What do you mean?”
“They say the place is haunted by the Pharaoh.”
That sort of thing.
How do you undertake your research?
To get an overview of what I’m writing about, I rely on many years of absorbing facts as a student of history. To fact check and cross reference, I use the internet as my data base. I read what the historians have written, and sometimes go to a primary source. For example . . .
In 1798 one of my characters drafts his will. I had no idea how to go about writing such a document, but I had a hunch that Lord Nelson’s will would be easy to find. It was. I was looking for what sort of things anyone might think important to mention in a will and, more to the point, the form of the document, and the vocabulary used.
That sort of thing.
I live two blocks from my local library. I still go there, though not as often as before the internet. But a good library system, such as the one where I live, provides access to certain things that are very difficult to find on the internet. For example . . .
For Book Two I wanted to review an unrevised edition of Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast because it was a more frank appraisal of how sailors were treated at the time, about 1840. The internet made no distinction as to what edition I was looking at. I might have kept surfing until I found the unrevised edition, but my library had it straight away, buried deep in their archives, and only waiting for someone to ask for it. I will always use and support the library.
When and what do you read yourself?
I have no time set aside specifically for reading. These days it seems to come in bits and spurts. My own library is eclectic, and I have a lot of books open at the same time. The only fiction I don’t read is something that’s too close to what I’m working on at any given time.
Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?
Your questions cover a lot of ground, and are asked in a way that allows me to expand upon any given subject. I thank you for asking them, and for giving me the opportunity to engage with book lovers.