LINDA COLLISON knew she wanted to be a writer since second grade. Her website, appropriately, is titled, “Linda Collison’s Sea of Words: Charting a Course form Imagination to Publication.”
An award-winning author of novels, short fiction, and nonfiction, Linda writes stories of the high seas. Her young-adult novel, Barbados Bound, (originally titled Star-Crossed) served as inspiration for the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series. Surgeon’s Mate (Fireship Press) is book two of the series.
As you’ll see in this interview, Linda and her husband Bob have feasted on a life through a series of adventures. Linda is one of those people you hear others talk about when they say things like, “she’s done it all.” Welcome, Linda Collison.
1. In your novel, Barbados Bound, your protagonist is 16-year-old Patricia Kelley who sneaks aboard a merchant ship in an effort to ultimately find her way and her place in the world. Along the way, she ends up having to exist as a man–a cross dresser of sorts, and will be tested in so many other ways during her dangerous voyage. In what ways do you related to Patricia? What kind of background did you bring to the table, so to speak, when you wrote the story?
LC: I’m a retired nurse. And a sailor. Well, that’s to say, I’ve done some sailing. And I’ve always been a student of history; in fact I majored in history when I went back to school a few years ago. Barbados Bound draws on that background. But I never would have been written it if I hadn’t had a singularly life-changing, three-week experience —working as a voyage crewmember aboard the HM Bark Endeavour, a replica of Captain James Cook’s 18th century ship of exploration.
In 1999 my husband Bob and I signed on to work the passage between Vancouver and Hawaii, as the replica ship was circumnavigating, stopping at various port cities where she became a floating museum – living history in a very real sense. When I signed on Endeavour I knew a little bit about sailing a modern sloop but I had no clue how to sail a square-rigged ship. The captain and his crew didn’t care; they taught us everything while underway. Hands on learning. The only qualification needed was we had to be willing to climb aloft and to stand a watch, clean and do ship maintenance, and follow orders. Much like an 18th century British seaman had to do.
The voyage crew, as we temporary sailors were called, bonded quickly. We were all in it together and we all felt the same swing of emotions —anxiety, fear, fatigue, exhaustion, sea-sickness, hunger, occasionally resentment – but most of all, exhilaration and awe.
When Bob and I disembarked in Kona, Hawaii, I carried with me the seeds for a novel. It would not be about Captain Cook or his extraordinary voyages, but it would begin in the mid-eighteenth century aboard a ship much like the one I had sailed on. And it would feature a girl. Because if a middle-aged woman like me could climb the ratlines and go out on the foot rope to make and furl sail, if a middle-aged woman like me could pull my weight on halyards, lifts and braces, then surely a healthy young woman wouldn’t have any trouble.
2. You’ve spent a lot of time at sea and obviously conducted careful in-depth research about the era and lives you write about. Where did this interest come from? What attracted you about this particular genre?
LC: My Endeavour experience was like a time machine. For three weeks I lived the life of an 18th century sailor, climbing aloft to make and furl sail, taking my turn at the helm, stringing my hammock from the timbers at night. I was one of a handful of women and we all did the same job as the men. And I thought of the romantic stories about women going to sea disguised as men and I saw how plausible they were. But what would make a young woman go to sea? This is the idea I wanted to explore. One thing I knew and that was my setting. The story would begin on a ship much like the ship I was now intimate with. Cook’s Endeavour, was originally built as a coal carrier, and launched in 1764.
I had so much more to learn about world events and society during the time period. It would take years of research after my Endeavour experience, but in 2006 Alfred A. Knopf published my story, titled Star-Crossed as a young adult historical novel. It was well received and the New York Public Library chose it to be among their Books for the Teen Age – 2007. Then after the book went out of print with Knopf, I made a few changes and submitted it to Fireship Press, who published it last year as Barbados Bound. The late Tom Grundner, founder of Fireship, believed very much in what I was doing. He published the sequel, Surgeon’s Mate, before I had even obtained a reversion of right from Knopf on Star-Crossed.
Nautical historical fiction has a relatively small but loyal following. My books are among a very few that feature a female protagonist at sea.
3. You and your husband, Bob Russell have logged numerous nautical miles sailing aboard your own 34′ sailboat, Topaz. If you had a choice of three passengers from the time period in which you write, to share a sailing adventure, who would they be and what different question would you ask each one?
LC: I’d like to take along Alexander Hamilton’s mother, Rachel Fawcett Lavien (sometimes spelled Levine or Lavine). She plays a small part in my novel, Barbados Bound. I “met” her quite accidentally on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean, where she gave birth to the baby whose face would one day grace our ten dollar bills. She was not legally married to Hamilton’s father (a Scottish n’er do well) at the time because she was prohibited to marry again, following her divorce from the planter Lavine, a violent man, who had her jailed for “adultery and whoring with everyone” before divorcing her. But Rachel was a strong character who strove to have her boys educated. Strong women who go against the grain intrigue me. I’d ask her how she did it; how she found the strength. And I’d tell her how good of a job she did, raising her son on her own after Hamilton’s father disappeared from their life.
I would like to meet any random, unnamed woman “of the lower deck.” Up until the mid-1800’s women were commonly found belowdecks on British Naval vessels. The wives of warrant officers frequently lived aboard ship with their husbands. The ship was their home. Girlfriends, wives and prostitutes were allowed to come on board when the ships were at anchor. Some of them stayed aboard after the anchor was weighed. Why? Probably because they didn’t have a home or means of support on land. The term “son of a gun” was originally given to those born on the gun decks. These women were an inconvenient truth and are seldom written about but their presence has been documented. I would ask this woman what kind of life she gave up back in England and if sharing her man’s lot in life aboard a crowded ship was worth it? I would ask her what she contributed to the ship society? I would ask her name and if I could write her story.
You’ll notice my first two choices weren’t famous men from the era because their stories have already been told over and over again. History belongs largely to the victor—and the white male. The famous men have preserved their stories. I want to hear from the underdogs. The losers. The forgotten. The women. It’s not that I don’t like men, I do. But we’ve heard a lot from them.
But for my third sailing mate I’ll choose a man —a famous white man whose face graces our one hundred dollar bill. Benjamin Franklin, an appreciator of women as well as a canny diplomat, philosopher, wit, amateur scientist and statesman. I would love to have him as a traveling companion. I would flirt and gossip with him and give him some indomethacin for his gout. I’d ask him what it was like flying that kite during a thunderstorm. I would ask him how we can get Congress to quit being so politically self-serving and divisive and get something done. I would ask him how to foster more statesmen and fewer politicians.
4. A short story I read of yours, Friday Night Knife & Gun Club – about nurses who work the night shift at a local trauma center – is about as far from sailing and the high seas as you can get. I enjoyed the story. It was fun, contemporary, edgy, and tongue-in-cheek. In general, how do you feel about knives and guns, and people arming themselves for protection?
LC: America is the land of the free. We came here armed with self-righteousness, in search of religious and economic freedom. And we eventually beat the natives into submission with our muskets and Springfield rifles. We opened the west, exterminated the bison and tamed the wild and savage land with our firearms and our rugged individualism and our inflated sense of manifest destiny. OK, I’m making fun, I’m being sardonic, when actually I’m in awe of my ancestors and all the other people from all over the planet who came to America and risked it all for the chance to be free and create themselves anew.
But this is the 21st century. We don’t all need to have an armory in our homes. I’ve lived my whole life without having to shoot someone. I respect the American tradition. I love a good Western or War movie. My dad had a gun collection; he liked to go hunting a couple of times a year. He learned how to shoot in the Marine Corps, in World War II, and he was a responsible guy. A gentle man.
Flash forward to the present. It’s not the wild Wild West. We’re an urban society, like it or not. There are too many irresponsible, out-of-control people and vengeful sociopaths have easy access to weapons. Many years ago my head has been on the other side of a loaded gun and I’m lucky I wasn’t just another domestic violence statistic. Luckily the police intervened. As far as people arming themselves for protection, I think that’s largely a fallacy. A little-man syndrome. Violence begets violence.
That being said, I must confess I enjoy the hell out of shooting my grandson’s plastic pellet gun. There is something very satisfying about blasting the zombie gel target. I’m a pretty good shot too. Annie Oakley would be proud.
As far as knives go, we’ve been using them since the Stone Age. Sure, they can be dangerous. They’re sharp. Anybody will tell you a madman with a gun can kill more people in twenty seconds than a psycho with a knife. Do the math. Sensible gun control, I support. Knife control? That’s your mother saying, “Put that thing down before somebody gets hurt!”
5. Have any particular writers influenced your work? Who or what fueled your desire to write?
LC: I’ve wanted to be a writer since second grade. I think my desire has been fueled by the quest for immortality. (Said partly in jest, but not entirely.)
My parents were both readers and writers. My Dad liked westerns, historicals and biographies. When he died he was reading Clavell’s Shogun, which he didn’t have a chance to finish. My mother wrote poetry and creative nonfiction. They both took an interest in my writing. In fifth or sixth grade I won an award from the Daughters of the American Revolution for an essay I wrote about Mordecai Gist. This convinced me I wanted to be a writer.
American writers of the 19th and 20th century have influenced me the most, I would have to say. Especially during my most formative years. Herman Melville, Richard Henry Dana, Mark Twain, Emily Dickenson, John Steinbeck, Katherine Anne Porter, Martha Gellhorn, Flannery O’Connor, Anne Tyler, Annie Proulx, Denis Johnson, Dave Eggars— phew, I’m out of breath —are a few of dozens who vie for attention in my mind. My reading isn’t limited to American authors, but I mention them because they had the greatest impact on my life, and hopefully my writing.
6. You once wrote “the cool thing about being a novelist is you can be anything you want, you can try on different lives and have a go at different careers, all through your fictional characters.” How has that applied to you in real life? You’ve done a lot of different things. Which ones made a direct impact on your work as a novelist?
LC: As my husband says, I’ve cobbled together a composite career. I’ve worked in a shoe factory, raised children, worked as a waitress, a registered nurse, a data manager, a ghost writer, a skydiving instructor, a volunteer firefighter. I’m a jack of all trades and master of none. My mother used to warn me about that, but that’s what I am, and everything I’ve done has enriched me. Through it all I’ve written. Writing is the one thing that ties the loose ends of my life together.
7. Give us three “good to know” facts you want readers to know about you (likes, dislikes, interests, hobbies, be as creative as you want; anything counts).
LC: I enjoy travelling. Road trips, ocean voyages, and time-jumping are my favorite modes. I’m living parallel lives. I do believe we create our own reality. Then again, maybe not. Honestly, Tom, it’s hard to pin me down!
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