I was born in New York City and raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I attended the Bronx High School of Science and then the City College of New York, where I was accepted into an accelerated creative writing program, which allowed me to take undergraduate and graduate courses simultaneously and to graduate with both degrees in four years. I also had the good fortune to study under such fine writers as Joseph Heller and Jack Cady.
After college I worked in publishing for several years and then entered the hospitality field, eventually becoming an executive chef for such hotels as Hilton, Radisson, and Inter-Continental, mostly in southern cities although once I had an assignment in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast. Eventually, however, I hung up my apron and became first a consultant for a major outplacement firm and later a website designer and programmer.
In the early nineties I began publishing science fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories on a regular basis in magazines and anthologies. In 1998 I was a second-place winner in the Writers of Future contest and in 1997 I was honored with the Golden Bridge Award in Beijing, China, where I have a good number of readers. Twice, in 1977 and in 2007, I was invited to speak at the International Conference on Science Fiction and Fantasy in Chengdu, Sichuan.
Why did you decide to write about Sir Francis Drake?
In 1998 I was a winner of the Writers of the Future Contest, which was created by L. Ron Hubbard, who was a science fiction writer before he founded the religion of Scientology. Each year winners of the contest are invited to Los Angeles for a black-tie awards ceremony and a week-long writing workshop conducted by a professional science fiction writer. Hubbard believed in research. Thus one morning we were let loose in the aisles of the LA Library to browse the shelves in search of inspiration. I was mildly interested in pirates and began reading a facsimile edition of The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake.
This was not written by Drake himself but published by a nephew thirty years after Drake’s death in an effort to keep alive Drake’s reputation. While thumbing through the book, I came across an interesting passage:
On an island off the coast of Patagonia, Drake charged one of his crew with treason and mutiny. Forty men were chosen as jurors and a trial was held. The accused, Thomas Doughty, was found guilty. Drake gave Doughty three options.
"Whether you would take," he asked Doughty, "to be executed in this island? Or to be set a land on the main? Or to return into England, there to answer for your deeds before the lords of her majesty's council?"
To which Doughty replied: "Albeit I have yielded in my heart to entertain so great a sin as whereof now I am condemned, I have a care to die a Christian man . . . If I should be set a land among infidels, how should I be able to maintain this assurance? . . . And if I should return into England, I must first have a ship, and men to conduct it . . . and who would accompany me, in so bad a message? . . . Further, the very shame of the return would be as death, or more grievous if it were possible, because I would be so long a dying, and die too often. I profess with all my heart that I do embrace the first branch of your offer, desiring only this favor, that you and I might receive the holy communion again together before my death, and that I might not die, other than a gentleman's death."
Drake obliged and cut off Doughty’s head. Then he held it up by the hair and said, “Lo, here be the end of traitors.”
Upon reading this, I said to myself, “This is utter mendacity.” So I started researching the real story of what had happened on that bleak island (Drake called it the “Island of Truth and Justice” but the crew had another name for it: “The Island of Blood”). Eventually, I succeeded—at least, to my own satisfaction. My first inclination was to write a non-fiction book about the Doughty affair. I am, however, a fiction writer, so I decided to tell the tale in novel form. I am also writing a series of short stories and essays about aspects of the circumnavigation.
Tell us about the research you have done.
I read most of the major accounts of Drake’s life and the circumnavigation, starting with The World Encompassed, and including Corbett’s Drake and the Tudor Navy and Wagner’s Voyage Around the World. I own an 8-volume edition of The Principal Navigations, by Haklyut, which is an invaluable resource and contains much about Drake. Once I wrote to the British Library and had them send me photocopies of manuscripts pertinent to the voyage, and then I had to decipher the writing letter by letter, not an easy task but a thrilling one—it was an amazing experience to hold in my hands the actual signatures of the men about whom I was writing.
Also, as I wrote the book, to get into the spirit of the period, I immersed myself in Medieval and Renaissance music, particularly the work of Orlando Gibbons, William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, and, of course, John Dowland. The Sting album, Songs from the Labyrinth, is an exquisite paean to this immortal composer.
What do you admire or dislike about Francis Drake?
Francis Drake was an extraordinarily complex man—charming, brash, cunning, idealistic, practical, devious—and always brave! He was admired by ordinary sailors and by aristocrats alike and moved among both classes with ease since he had himself risen from humble origins. Unfortunately, although he was a brilliant tactician, Drake often pursued his own self-interest at the expense of greater goals, and used his subordinates with calculated ruthlessness. Love Drake or despise him—you can never be indifferent to him.
Many people wonder whether Drake was a privateer or a pirate. My answer is that he was both a pirate and a privateer at different points in his career. During the circumnavigation of the world, however, there is no easy answer.
Ostensibly, the expedition was a peaceful merchant venture headed for Alexandria to trade in currants. Its real purpose remains unknown to this day. In the early twentieth century a draft plan of the expedition was discovered in the archives of the British Library but the manuscript had been damaged by fire and much of the text burned away. The words that remain tease the reader by almost, but not quite, making sense.
During the voyage Drake asserted many times that his authority came from the queen herself but never once did he produce documents proving his claim. During the trial of Thomas Doughty on the Island of Blood off the coast of Patagonia, Drake was challenged to show the papers giving him the right to take Doughty's life. According to John Cooke, who was there:
“He [Drake] rose of the place and departed towards the waterside... He there opened a certain bundle of letters and bills and looking on them, said, 'God's will, I have left in my cabin that I should especially have had' (as if he had had there forgotten his commission, but whether he forgot his commission or no he much forgot himself, to sit without showing his commission if he had any) but truly I think it should have been showed to the uttermost if he had had it.”
I agree with John Cooke. If Drake had possessed a commission from the queen, one giving him the power of life and death, he would have produced it here. Thus I can only suspect that Drake was operating outside of his mandate and was at this point in time a pirate.
What are your favorite books about the Age of Discovery?
I highly recommend Portuguese Voyages 1498-1663: Tales from the Great Age of Discovery, edited by C. D. Ley. This is an amazing collection of original source material from the Portuguese Age of Discovery. The section, "The Furthest East", is a first-person account of a shipload of Portuguese desperadoes marooned in the China of Genghis Khan, and it's as gripping as a novel.
Another favorite of mine is The Defeat of John Hawkins, by Raynor Unwin. This is about Hawkins's disastrous slaving voyage, and it's an amazing story. Drake was there, and did not well distinguish himself.
How do you feel your work compares to that of, say, Patrick O'Brian?
I have to admit that I've never read Patrick O'Brian. Around ten years ago I picked up a book in the middle of the series but just couldn't get into the story. I figured I should start at the beginning but before I could, I had begun writing At Drake's Command. I rarely read other people's novels while I'm working on my own. I'm afraid of allowing another author's voice into my head because sometimes a good voice will take over and I will find myself imitating the other writer. Since I suspected that comparisons between At Drake's Command and O'Brian's books would be inevitable, I was particularly careful to avoid his work, so that I could honestly claim that I was not influenced by him. I have, however, read all of the Hornblower novels, and Forester is one of my favorite authors.
How does writing historical fiction compare to writing science fiction?
I've had more than 30 science fiction stories published in the U. S. and internationally. I am particularly well known in China, where one of my stories was published in the magazine Readers, which has a circulation of 10 million. I turned to historical fiction, however, when I became interested in the execution of Thomas Doughty, as I explained earlier. The transition from one genre to another went fairly smoothly since in both genres the author must create for the reader a world different from our own. In this regard, historical fiction is easier to write than science fiction because the history already exists and you can take from it what you will. For a SF story, however, you must create the new world from whole cloth, a much harder task.
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"The Mermaids of the Darian Coast" is a short story that takes place during the 1577-1580 circumnavigation of the world by Francis Drake. It is a companion piece to the author's critically acclaimed novel, At Drake's Command.