Q. What inspired you to write The Wreckers?
A. I set out to write the type of story that I liked to listen to when I was young, when my father read bedtime stories to my brother and me. Since I lived very close to the water, and spent a lot of time in boats – often in dirty weather – a sea story was a natural choice. The first image in my mind was the wreckers with their false lanterns, and the story sort of grew around that.
My first version of the story didn’t have Mary in it. It didn’t have Stumps or Simon Mawgan or Eli. The boy was called Ezra Pugg, and he spent most of the story locked in a little shed, escaping now and then to take part in various adventures before he was captured again. I knew it wasn’t very good, but not exactly what was wrong with it. When I started the second version years later, I kept only the few things that I really liked – the shipwreck, the corpse lights, and the fiery ending – and shaped a completely new story around them. I concentrated on the characters and let their ambitions and faults decide where the plot would go.
Q. Do your characters remind you of yourself?
A. All my characters, in a way, are only variations of myself. With The Wreckers, I could only think how I would act if I were a man with no legs, or a crazy old widow. It makes writing a grand game of make-believe. But on top of that, little parts of myself find their way into every character. Even horrible old Stumps, who I hope is as far from me as anyone could possibly be, has a bit of myself in him. His little shelf full of bottles and shelves was in my work room, and his tattered gloves without fingers were the pair I put on every day, the palms wasted to threads by resting on tillers and outboard handles.
I suspect that the same thing is true for all writers, and that every character in every book is just a distorted image of the author. When you open a book you are stepping into a funhouse full of mirrors, seeing the author in a different shape in all of them.
Q. Were you ever shipwecked?
A. No, but I might have seen the lights of wreckers once, as I crept out of a dark harbor in a fishing boat.
We were passing through a channel strewn with rocks, heading out to sea. On our starboard side, lights appeared – red, then green – as though a boat was turning there. The skipper said there people who came down to the beach with colored flashlights, trying to tempt the boats ashore. I don’t think he was pulling my leg; certainly there was no boat where the lights were shining. There wasn’t even water there.
Q. How much truth is in The Wreckers?
A. I tried to be as accurate as possible with every detail in the story. Its setting on the Cornwall coast of England is absolutely real. Cornishmen were famous for wrecking, though the deliberate entrapment of ships was hardly ever practiced. For the most part, they only plundered the wrecks that occurred naturally, and with surprising frequence. You have to remember that navigation was a pretty tricky thing two hundred years ago, and a very small error was enough to put a ship on the rocks when it came groping toward the coast in fog or foul weather. There is no town of Pendennis, but the village is modeled closely on the old wreckers’ haven of Fowey. The narrow passage where John and Mary confront Parson Tweed really does exist. The Tombstones are an invention, but the general coastline in the story is very much as it really is. I had many, many photographs of Fowey, the moors, the coast, and old shipwrecks to work from. Even the cromlech is described from a photograph, with the strange green light added from a description by my father, who explored a cromlech as a child.
Other details came from careful research. The wreckers’ false lanterns were described in old texts, and looking for them uncovered other things, like the practice of naming coves after the cargo from particular wrecks. Simon Mawgan’s glass match, which plays such an important part in the ending, appears because I started to wonder exactly how a man would light a pipe in the year 1799. Would he use a flint? Did matches exist? It turned out to be very lucky that Simon Mawgan’s match was invented just in time to appear in my story. If it hadn’t existed then, the ending of the story would probably be quite different.
And, yes, people really did eat starry gazy. There are recipes for it in very old English cook books.
Q. Will there be other books about John Spencer?
A. No, I don’t think so. I decided very early on that he would meet wreckers and smugglers and pirates, and that would be all. Later, I regretted that decision, as John lived in a very intesting time, with potential for many more adventures. I’ve started planning one or two. But I think they’ll involve a different character, and that John Spencer’s career is finished. After all, how much bad luck can one fellow have?