Tuesday, 26 June 2012

In conversation with... Charlotte Rogan

Hello Charlotte! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of The Lifeboat. Can you please tell us what it is about?

A: The Lifeboat tells the story of Grace Winter, a 22-year-old woman who survives a shipwreck only to be put on trial for her life. You find out in the first chapter that Grace’s attorneys suggest she write her story down as part of her defence, and the result is a day-by-day, first person account. As the days pass and the weather deteriorates, it becomes increasingly apparent that for any to live some must die. Grace watches and waits as the other passengers choose sides in a brewing power struggle, but eventually, she too must declare herself. It is because of her actions in the boat that she ends up in a courtroom, but is she telling the truth at her trial or is she merely saving herself again?

Did you have the plot entirely figured out when you started writing or did it develop before your eyes as the characters grew on the page and did something that you were not expecting?
A: The plot unfolds for me, kind of as it does for the reader, though a lot more slowly. I have spoken to novelists who first prepare a complete outline of the chapters, and I can see how that is a much more efficient way to work, but I can’t seem to do it that way. I do use an outline, but it isn’t finished until after the book is. And yes, my characters always do unexpected things, which is part of the fun of writing for me.

The Lifeboat is a fictional work but you must have had to research the historical period it is set in, not to mention all the technical, nautical details. What resources did you use and how much did you enjoy this process?

A: Even though the book is set on the eve of the First World War, I never think of it as a historical novel — mainly because there is not a lot of history in it. But any novel requires a certain amount of research, and I love that part of the writing process because it focuses my reading and because it is like a treasure hunt, leading to all sorts of interesting documents, both in libraries and online.


Much has been written on the shipwrecks of history, particularly the Titanic, which was a wonderful resource for everything from lifeboat specifications to shipping routes. I also researched legal cases where shipwrecked sailors were put on trial after being rescued, and I read several non-fiction shipwreck accounts. But in the ten years I worked on the novel, I chose not to read any fiction set at sea or any accounts of the survivors of the Titanic. I felt it was important to protect my imagination as I created my own characters.

An example of how the Titanic was useful was in determining the size of my lifeboat. Most of the Titanic lifeboats could hold up to 65 people, but a lifeboat of that size would obviously lead to an unwieldy number of characters. There were also four 47-person collapsible lifeboats and two 40-person emergency cutters, but those still seemed too big, especially since my plot required that the boat be overcrowded. In order to come up with a size that worked for me, I decided that the owners of the Empress Alexandra — the steamship that sinks at the beginning of the book — had cut costs by putting greed over safety and skimping on the specifications. That allowed my boat to be in constant danger of sinking with only 39 people in it.

This is your debut novel. How did your book deal come about and how did you feel to finally see your first novel in print?

A: I didn’t start writing until I was in my mid-thirties, and in the past 25 years I have written 5 novels. Over the years I made occasional attempts to find a publisher, but none of them came to anything until a chance encounter led me to my current literary agent, who sold The Lifeboat to Little, Brown in the fall of 2010. Books have always been almost sacred objects to me, so to see one with my name on it has been a complete thrill. An even bigger thrill is knowing the book has found an audience and has sparked some interesting discussions.

If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?

A: I am very superstitious about talking about my current project, so I will only say that it is set in South Africa. In 2009, my husband’s job took us to Johannesburg for a year, and I fell in love with the country. While I was there, I started to write a new novel, and that is the one I am working on now.

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, it seems that interacting with readers – be it via a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a blog etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: This is a very good question, and one I am grappling with as we speak. Years ago, I told my children that I would never have a Facebook page. Well, never say never. I have one now — as well as a website and a Twitter account. While I am enduringly grateful to the many people who have taken time to read my book and to comment on it, I have to admit that I am not naturally suited to social networking. I tend to be a quiet person, saving my words for my work, so everything to do with publicizing the book -- talks, interviews, and social media -- presents a new set of challenges. I am trying to balance those things in a way that allows me to get back to writing, which is something I really love.

What one fundamental piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: 1. Read. John Barthes told his writing students to stop reading innocently, and I second that advice. Try to discover out how your literary heroes did it.
2. Stick with it. Be honest with yourself about what isn’t working, and try again.
3. Don’t give in to writer’s block. There is always something you can do: reread a favourite author; edit an old chapter or piece; put your character in a strange situation and see what he or she does; do research for some aspect of your work; visit an art museum (at least this works for me).

Thank you for your time!

To win a copy of The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan, please fill in this form. The competition will end on the 9th July. Good luck!

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