I was surfing the net when I came across Roy’s website – http://www.royschreiber.com/. It is a simple site no doubt, but the information shared was about an interesting approach taken to writing a biography. I contact Roy and asked him if he would be interested in an interview and he agreed. Here’s his story.
Like many U.S. families, mine tended to move around. When I was born, they lived in Newark, New Jersey, wandered to Los Angeles, came back to Newark, then to the Queens in New York City and finally back to L.A. All that happened before I was ten. At any rate, I grew up mostly in North Hollywood, attended Hollywood High School and did my undergraduate and master’s degrees at U.C.L.A.
Living so close to the ocean, I learned to swim, surf and sail before I could drive. Sailing has a particular attraction for me because each time out can be anything from relaxing to adventurous. Until I get out on the water, I have no way of telling. Over time I’ve gotten reasonably good at handling sailboats of anything from ten to fifty feet in length, but as a racing skipper, I’ve never had the talent to compete successfully. That is part of the reason William Bligh attracted me. Although he was undoubtedly a difficult and unpleasant person, he could do things with a sailboat that were truly breathtaking, things I will never be able to do. So I write about him doing them instead.
In a way studying Bligh seemed like a natural progression. After I received a doctorate in British history from London University, I wrote a couple of biographies about people known only to other historians of seventeenth century England. At that stage of my writing career I found it attractive to recreate the lives of virtual unknowns, without previous biographers to point me in the right direction. After having done that, I thought it would be a challenge to do the opposite: to see if I could find a way to write about a well known historical figure, but to find an approach that no one else had ever taken before.
I must confess something else drew me to researching Bligh. Looking at the documents about him would take me around the world to places I wanted to visit. Half of his papers are in London and the other half are in Sydney. After years of studying and living there, London is still one of my favorite cities for its theater, art galleries and gardens. As for Sydney, one of my grandfathers started out for there from London but got sidetracked in the U.S. Completing my grandfather’s journey nearly a century after he began it had its satisfactions, but it is also fair to say that Sydney’s attraction would have pleased me even without the family history. For someone with my interests, all those sailboats in the harbor on a summer Sunday made the trip worthwhile.
There are many travel tales that happened on this venture, but I’ll mention just two. While snorkeling in the Whitsunday Islands off the northern coast of Australia, I found myself surrounded by a school of barracuda and marveling at the deep, iridescent blue stripes running along their bodies that seemed to pulsate as they swam. Much to my amazement, the school appeared perfectly comfortable with me swimming amongst them, and they kept to my slow pace for several minutes before they darted off. Not long afterwards, on a side trip to the north island of New Zealand, I went floating down a stream that runs through caves in which hundreds of glow- worms had attached themselves to the ceilings. In the total blackness of these caves, the glow-worms provided the only source of light. I couldn’t tell if they were as distant as stars or just beyond my reach.
Believe it or not, despite all the distractions, I did complete the research on Bligh. And the unique approach to him? It all came down to one question: How did Bligh manage to die an admiral in the British navy when he was the victim of not one, but three mutinies, and was convicted in a naval court-martial of abusing a fellow officer with inappropriate language? That biography of him that is still available. It is called The Fortunate Adversities of William Bligh.
While doing the research on Bligh at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney, I ran across a manuscript memoir written by George Tobin. Tobin began his naval career as a very junior lieutenant on Bligh ‘s second (and successful) breadfruit voyage to Tahiti. The expedition brought the plants to the West Indies. The Admiralty also wanted Bligh to map the treacherous Torres Straits between Australia and New Guinea. It’s a great adventure story filled with many dramatic moments. Tobin wrote about it with zest and humor. What particularly impressed me was that he had no difficulty laughing at himself. He also was a gifted amateur artist who did a series of over seventy pen and watercolor sketches of the voyage.
Right from the first, when I found out that the manuscript had never been published, I wanted to transcribe and edit it for publication. It seemed like a natural extension of the Bligh biography. For a whole variety of reasons that I won’t go into here, it took twenty years to get Tobin into print as Captain Bligh’s Second Chance: An Eyewitness Account of His Return to the South Seas by Lt. George Tobin with over thirty color illustrations of the author’s sketches (Chatham Publishing, 2007).
Since this is a website that caters to storytellers, I guess it is appropriate to say something of other websites for writers. The two I would recommend have a distinctly practical goal. They focus on what to do to promote writing that is published or publishable. They are: www.Writersmanual.com/ and www.Published.com
It is also appropriate for me to say something about storytelling and what I try to find in a story before I attempt to make it publishable. The thing that attracts me to a non-fiction or historical tale is a sense of the dramatic. This sense can include mystery, irony and humor; it often has all three. When telling a non-fiction story, what I mostly want to do is answer two questions: “Why did this happen?” and “How could this happen?” Questions of “when” and “what” are best left to textbook authors.
It is always somewhat deflating to talk about the writers I most admire because almost by definition those people reach levels way beyond what ordinary mortals ever achieve. With that reservation in mind, I’ll name two of the writers (out of many) whose styles I wish I could successfully imitate. One is well known, the other most likely forgotten. The well known one is George Bernard Shaw. The intelligence and satire of his plays strike a sympathetic chord in me. I can easily relate to his lead characters, like Henry Higgins, who will not to suffer fools gladly while at the same time often act in very foolish ways themselves. The forgotten writer is the historian Garrett Mattingly. He wrote about fifteenth and sixteenth century history and his books included a biography of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, as well as a study of the Spanish Armada that became a bestseller. Even on his deathbed, writing about the Portugese prince generally called Prince Henry the Navigator, Mattingly wrote with elegance and a sense of what made a good story. Few historians with PhDs have managed to equal him.
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