Hill: 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…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…I said to myself, “This is utter mendacity.” So I started researching the real story of what had happened…My first inclination was to write a non-fiction book about the…affair. I am, however, a fiction writer, so I decided to tell the tale in novel form.
The dialogue is fascinating. How did you go about re-creating the day-to-day language of 16th century privateers?
Basically, I divided the English language into three sets:
1. Modern English
2. Elizabethan English
3. Words Common to both Modern and Elizabethan English
Then I used only the words common to both Modern and Elizabethan English (although sometimes, for flavor, I would throw in a purely Elizabethan word). I also added some Shakespearean cadences, and borrowed heavily from John Dunne.
Why did you choose a kitchen boy as the protagonist for this tale?
I chose a cook rather than a sailor because I wanted to make the book accessible to the general reader rather than only nautical aficionados. Perry knows nothing about sailing and thus we learn about the sea as he does, and I'm able to explain (as one reviewer noted) “the difference between a fathom and a firkin.”
Furthermore, I know much about cooking since I worked for many years as a chef for major hotels, mostly in the South. I also briefly cooked aboard the Clearwater, a replica of a 19th century sloop built by Pete Seeger and others, which to this day sails the Hudson River, educating people about the environment. Once, too, I cooked aboard a 50 foot vessel on a blue water delivery sail from Maryland to Florida. These experiences allowed me to bring a certain level of realism to Perry's adventures.
At Drake’s Command strikes us a story firmly rooted in historical detail. How did you prepare for and research this writing? What were your primary sources?
As I mentioned, I began with The World Encompassed, which, unfortunately, is a pack of lies and has been known to be such since the publication of the Cooke Account (a manuscript written by one of the gentlemen adventurers accompanying Drake) in the mid 19th century. Most of the text is derived from the notebook of Francis Fletcher, parson to the adventure; however, Fletcher's notes were heavily edited to cast Drake in a favorable light. Still, though, The World Encompassed remains the most important available source of information about the second circumnavigation of the world.
Next I read Corbett’s Drake and the Tudor Navy, which was published in the late 19th century and is considered the seminal biography of Drake. Unfortunately it, too, is little more than white wash.
The best scholarly account of the circumnavigation is Wagner’s Voyage Around the World, which was published in the early 20th century…biased, but of utmost importance, is New Light on Drake, edited by Zelia Nuttall. In the early 19th century, Ms. Nuttall scoured archives in Mexico and Spain to search out any references to Francis Drake during the voyage of circumnavigation…The Principal Navigations, by Haklyut…is an invaluable resource and contains much about Drake.
…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.
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.
How many volumes will this series encompass and how did you arrive at the decision to make it more than one book?
I originally planned a single volume but gave up this idea at the 50,000 word mark, when I realized the story needed much more room. The circumnavigation required more than two years, after all! At Drake's Command follows the adventure from Plymouth to the Cape Verde Islands. The next volume, Desperate Bankrupts, picks up the story in Africa and continues until the fleet reaches Patagonia and Thomas Doughty is executed. The final installment, Beyond Dreams of Avarice, continues the adventure until the Golden Hind returns to England laden with one of the greatest pirate treasures in history.
What are some of your favorite books –fiction or non-fiction- written about the Golden Age of Exploration?
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. So was Pascoe Goddy, a sailor aboard the Pelican, who tells part of the tale himself while explaining his dislike for rapiers and how he lost his ear.
What is it about the Golden Age of Exploration that makes it so interesting for readers and writers?
First, I truly hope the Golden Age of Exploration is interesting for readers. When my agent was marketing At Drake's Command to major publishers, we were continually told that readers only wanted nautical adventures set in the Napoleonic era, not the 16th century. However, by the 1800s, most of the world was mapped, while two centuries earlier most of the world remained terra incognita. This, to me, is the more interesting time, when mystery was just beyond the horizon and every voyage was a journey into the unknown. I hope many readers will feel as I do.
Patrick O’Brian, and his Aubrey Maturin series, is obviously the standard-bearer for this genre, and we’ve written plenty about his work, but how does At Drake’s Command compare with his work?
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.
Your previous work has dealt with science fiction - if we’re not mistaken. How did you make the leap from science fiction to historical fiction? How are they similar?
...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.
When can we expect part II of The Drake Circumnavigation?
It took me eight years to research and write At Drake's Command. However, now that the research is complete, Book II, Desperate Bankrupts, should take under a year. I should have it finished in late 2013 or early 2014.
David Wesley Hill is an award-winning fiction writer with more than thirty stories published in the U.S. and internationally. In 1997 he was presented with the Golden Bridge award at the International Conference on Science Fiction in Beijing, and in 1999 he placed second in the Writers of the Future contest. In 2007, 2009, and 2011 Mr. Hill was awarded residencies at the Blue Mountain Center, a writers and artists retreat in the Adirondacks. He studied under Joseph Heller and Jack Cady and received a Masters in creative writing from the City University of New York, as well as the De Jur Award, the school's highest literary honor.