In 2010, The O’Brien Press asked me to write a children’s novel about the Titanic which resulted in the bestselling Spirit of the Titanic. Last year, they asked me to write about the ship once more, only this time they wanted a small history book, of approximately 40,000 words, for which I would also source photographs, something I had never done before.
Forty thousand words is not a lot, actually it is terrifyingly small – especially when it comes to RMS Titanic, the subject of hundreds of books and articles. My visit to the shop in Belfast’s Titanic museum terrified me. How in the name of God was I going to write a book that would be plonked onto a table already straining under the weight of all those other Titanic history books but had to catch the eye of a prospective customer.
My novel is unique in that my narrator is the ghost of the first Titanic-associated death. On 20 April 1910, two years before Titanic set sail, fifteen-year-old catch-boy Samuel Joseph Scott plummeted down the side of the ship to his death. Nobody else had written about the Titanic like that. Well, that is the beauty of fiction, it is always possible to find your own slant on any historical event. Furthermore, there aren’t as many Titanic novels for children as you might imagine. These two points haunted me as I started thinking about what I might include in yet another history book about the ship.
The novelist must find her own voice. Almost without realising it, I went back to basics in my approach. Well, what I had got to offer? As it turned out, my reading habits proved unexpectedly helpful. Even before that first bout of research last summer, I had accepted that much of this book might not provide anything new to the overtly, passionate Titanic fan but I could still be surprised by new discoveries.
Years ago, I bought Charlie Chaplin’s 1964 autobiography, My Autobiography, second-hand and fairly tattered at that. It had occurred to me to write about Titanic’s sister ships, Britannic and the Olympic, as it was unusual enough to find them mentioned in books about their famous sibling. Susan, my editor, was unsure about this since I had so few words to spend on Titanic herself. However, I am asked about them frequently enough during my writer events. Britannic was sunk on her sixth sailing, leaving Olympic the only sister to reach retirement age in 1935; although, she endured her own calamities, the most famous one involving a serious collision in 1911, with the Royal Navy Cruiser HMS Hawke.
Around this time, I found Chaplin in my bookcase and, for whatever reason, finally decided to open it. I have always enjoyed reading about the movies stars of old and Chaplin’s writing hooked me instantly – that was my first surprise. The second surprise being that he had an enchanting story to tell and the third surprise was that he had sailed aboard Olympic more than once. Initially, he had bunked in second accommodation but managed to find an obliging steward who provided him with a tour of the first-class facilities. After he emerges as the big movie star, he finds himself on Olympic once more and sees his success mirrored in his luxurious first-class cabin.
As a piece of information, Chaplin’s Olympic stint might not sound like much but when I came across it in a book I was reading purely for pleasure, I kissed its grimy, stained pages. I had never seen Chaplin’s name in a book about the Titanic – well, now I had something new for my own.
I knew my book was to have an index. As a writer of historical fiction, I am extremely fond of indexes. In fact, I have compiled quite a few for other publishers and obtained great satisfaction in producing them. And, so, this index, that did not yet exist, became my carrot on a stick. It encapsulated all my ambitions for this book. I wanted my Titanic index to be as interesting and as varied as possible.
And then it happened again. I was in my local Waterstones and Trevor, one of the booksellers, knowing my love for auto/biographies, recommended A Scott Berg’s marvellous account of the life of Max Perkins. Editor to the stars – Fitzgerald, Wolfe, Hemingway amongst others – Perkins lived to work. There was a marriage and children in there somewhere but mostly he was an editor from dawn to dusk, seven days a week. He despised vacations but ends up on Olympic, gradually finding himself transformed from reluctant holiday-seeker into ship devotee. I could not believe my luck. Perkins and Berg would add a little something extra to my index.
RMS Britannic was the younger sister whose WWI sinking, between two Greek islands, on 12 November 1916, thanks to either a German U-Boat or mine, was even more dramatic and considerably faster than Titanic’s. In most books, the description of what happened that morning is usually provided by nurse Violet Jessop. Her story is more than remarkable for the fact that she survived her Titanic voyage, was on Olympic for the 1911 crash and would now survive Britannic’s final journey.
I had received Vera Brittain’s The Last Testament of Youth as a Christmas present and had meant to read it before seeing the 2014 film. By the time I opened the book, the film was long gone. Brittain’s book was wonderful, so wonderful that I knew I no longer wanted to see the film. In 1916, she is nursing in Malta and, lo and behold, describes the shock caused by Britannic’s sinking. She visits a friend of hers who was on the ship and I was beyond delighted to include this account in my book along with Vera Brittain’s name in the index.
(c) Nicola Pierce
Tallaght-born Nicola Pierce is a writer, living in Drogheda.
About Titanic: True Stories of her Passengers, Crew and Legacy:
This book commemorates the enduring legacy of the world’s most famous ship – TITANIC.
Her story is one of all those bound together on that fateful voyage. On board were: writers, artists, honeymooners, sportsmen, priests, reverends, fashion designers, aristocrats, millionaires, children, crew and emigrants looking for a better life.
This book tells of their lives, and shines the spotlight on:
- Some of the great ship’s surprising treasures
- Her fêted voyage from Belfast’s
Harland & Wolff shipyard
- The fascinating museums devoted to her memory, including Titanic Belfast
- The iconic music and movies
- Her winged and four-legged passengers
- The sister ships of Olympic and Britannic
- Tales of heroism
- Theories surrounding Titanic’s fatal collision
- The lifeboats and just how close the SS Californian was on that tragic night
- How Arctic explorer Ernest Shackleton and the inquiries viewed events
These stories and much more lie inside.
Order your copy online here.