Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Interview with Seth Hunter

I would like to welcome, Seth Hunter to our Historical Novel Review Blog. Seth has published many books and written and directed dramas for TV and theatre.  Can you share with my readers what inspired you to write a series about naval adventures? 

Like your readers, I like reading naval adventures.   I was encouraged by Martin Fletcher, my commissioning editor at Headline, to write one myself – actually a series.   He thought I could.  I was more doubtful.  I was – am – a particular fan of Patrick O’Brian and I loved his attention to detail, his feel for the period and of course his characters. The relationship between Aubrey and Maturin is as good a double act as you’ll find anywhere in literature and as hard an act to follow as you could possibly choose.  I thought I might fall flat on my face, to be honest. Or to put it another way, I embarked on the journey with great trepidation but I’ve started to enjoy it more the longer it goes on.  And I’ve gained in confidence – which often happens on journeys - if you survive them long enough.  

Everything written after 16th century is rumoured to be not popular with the readers. What made you choose this time and location?

I didn’t know this.  It certainly had no effect on my choice of period.   The Napoleonic Wars and the Wars of the French Revolution are the epic period of naval history.   The clash between Britain and France at this time has been compared with the wars between Athens and Sparta – or Greece and Troy.  It’s very rich territory.  I first fell in love with the period, and this genre, reading Hornblower in the school library but I was also very taken by Forester’s book ‘The Gun’ which is not about Hornblower and which features a naval officer sent on a mission into Spain – during the Peninsular War.  It was made into a film called ‘The Pride and the Passion’ directed by Stanley Kramer and starring Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren. 
I’ve always been attracted to the idea of the naval officer as secret agent.  I also loved the film ‘Queimada’ – or ‘Burn!’ – by Gillo Pontecorvo, starring Marlon Brando as a British naval officer sent as an agent provocateur to one of the Caribbean islands to stir up a revolt against the Spanish slave owners.  And now I come to think of it, isn’t James Bond a naval commander – RNVR? 
I like books, or films, with a plot that combines action by land and sea.  Many of the dramatic events of the Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars were, in fact, combined ops.  So I looked for locations where I could put my character, Nathan Peake, into this kind of a situation, either acting as an undercover agent or leading some amphibious assault.  Because I wanted them to be historically accurate, I followed the historical tide, so to speak – starting with operations in the English Channel – in ‘The Time of Terror’ – then moving to the Caribbean in ‘The Tide of War’. In ‘The Price of Glory’ - which Headline publish in July - I’ve moved on to the Quiberon landings in 1796 and then the Bay of Genoa when Nathan joins a squadron under Nelson sent to disrupt Napoleon’s land operations during the invasion of Italy.

You combine facts with fiction. How far do you feel can a fiction novel deviate from true historical events?

Big question.  To answer it briefly, I don’t think the novel should deviate from the historical events as recorded – but I do think you can feel free to insert fictitious characters into those events.   Like a time traveler, they should not be able to change the outcome of those events or any of its essential features.  But they can be substituted for people who did. 

Have you sailed on a three-mast or two-mast ship?

Yes.  I filmed aboard both at Square Sail in Charlestown, Devon, for the television films ‘Nelson’s Trafalgar’ and ‘Mary Bryant’ and later I hired the three-masted barque Earl of Pembroke specifically to try out some of the manoeuvers described in the books.

In the book it says, you’ve visited the locations yourself. How important do you feel is it for an author to have seen the places with his own eyes?

I think it’s very important.  It makes a huge difference to my writing.  However, the past is another country and you can’t go there on Eurostar.  How do you find 18th century Paris at the time of the French Revolution?  Of course, you do your best.  I spent a month there, initially, in a little apartment at the foot of Butte de Montmartre and made several subsequent visits.  You find places that haven’t changed much.  I haunted the catacombs.  I found little nests of the past, like the Convent of the Calmes where one of the worst massacres took place at the time of the Revolution.   And the gated Cour du Commerce where Danton and Desmoulins and their families lived – and which still has one of the best restaurants of that period, the Procope.  But interestingly I found more of the atmosphere of Paris, at that time, in modern Alleppey, in Kerala where I spent a month writing ‘The Time of Terror’.   Walking or cycling around those streets at night, with paraffin lights burning in the little workshops, seeing street demos led by the local Communist Party – or even religious processions – gave me a greater feeling for Revolutionary Paris, I think, than modern Paris can. 
For ‘The Tide of War’ I spent several weeks in Cuba – in Havana and on the islands of the Jardines des Rey in the Old Bahamas Channel.  But I didn’t go to New Orleans, where some of the action is set.  I guess I thought it would have changed too much.   But, to partly contradict the beginning of this answer – I found some wonderfully accurate descriptions of the area in old books found for me by my friends Cate Olsen and Nash Robbins of Much Ado Books - and some fascinating old charts at the National Maritime Museum made by British spies during the period.  So I suppose I have to say, in terms of historical writing, you can do it at home!   If you have the right materials. 

Would you share some tricks of the trade with us? For instance, how long does it take you to write such a book from idea to submission to your editor?

Tricks of the trade?  On reflection, having just written the last answer, I have to say surrounding yourself with old charts is one trick.  Charts, models and diagrams of ships.  Steeping yourself in the period with the books you read.  I’ve got a huge collection now of books on this period, and very technical stuff on sailing ships.  Having this around you is a great stimulus to writing and a great technical aid.  I can spend a long time working on particular nautical details described in the books.   If you looked at the attic where I work you’d know what I mean.  Old charts - and maps I’ve drawn myself - all over the walls, dozens of notebooks with drawings and diagrams – and I’ll have a couple of model ships maybe, surrounded with walnut shells – half walnut shells, I should say, representing small boats.  Or whole fleets of ships.  I have a thing about walnut shells.  I don’t think I could write these books without walnut shells.   Old charts and walnut shells.
Timing varies.  ‘The Time of Terror’ took me two years from idea to submission – but I had the original idea about ten years ago, I think.  But then because Headline have certain deadlines I’ve been getting into a rhythm of six months research on a particular storyline and about six months writing.   I started researching the present book –‘The Price of Glory’ - in the Gulf of Morbihan and on the Quiberon Peninsular in southern Brittany back in November 2008.  I felt I needed to be there – rather than just use the charts and the walnut shells – because of the complications of the tides and the weather.  I spent a fair bit of time in Paris.   And I finished the first draft on the coast of Genoa in September/October 2009 – submitted it to Headline – then did rewrites and polishing in the first couple of months of this year, 2010.  

And do you outline your book before writing or does it grow while you are working on it?

I always outline is great detail.  But some things do grow out of this – and often surprise me.

What sparks your creativity and keeps you working?

Deadlines and desperation.

What about your workplace and working hours?
When I’m at home I work in the attic of my house in South London which is big enough to spread out the charts and diagrams.   I was much taken with the stonemason’s room at York Minster (when I was filming there once) where the masons used to mark out their designs with a huge pair of compasses in gypsum on the floor – but they wouldn’t let me have that, so my attic has to do.
Conversely I like working in restaurants or on the move, preferably in trains.  I work best in restaurants.  Or at least I think I do.  The wine probably helps. So typically I might do a couple of thousand words over lunch somewhere – scribbling in notebooks – and then I’ll put them on computer in the afternoon polishing as I go.   If I go away for a long period – like the trips to Paris and Kerala – I’ll work very long days – restaurants for lunch and dinner. 
Where can readers find more information about you and your books?

Website: and Blogs: or

What other eras are you interested in writing about, apart from

These are the only historical novels I’ve written – but I’ve written and directed dramas or docudramas set in many different eras from the time of the Crucifixion to WW2 .

What is your next project?

The next Nathan Peake which is set in Venice, the Ionian Islands and Egypt in 1797/8.

Thank you very much for spending time with me and our readers. I wish you all the best for you, yours, and your writing endeavours.

Helena Gowan

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