Quill and Quire

Iain Lawrence

« Back to
Author Profiles

Godforsaken sea

Iain Lawrence hopes kids will have one reaction to his nautical adventures - fright

Picture a secluded island off the northwest coast of B.C., a little house with an ocean view, and add the sounds of rain, classical music, and the perpetual tapping of a keyboard, and you’re probably getting close to the world of Iain Lawrence on a winter’s day. The scene may be conducive to the long concentration that writing demands, but you can be sure that little of the peaceful atmosphere will find its way into his manuscript, since it’s a novel about pirates, the last in his trilogy of action-packed sea adventures for children.

Iain LawrenceLawrence is now putting the finishing touches on The Buccaneers, which will complete the trilogy he began with The Wreckers (1998) and The Smugglers (1999), both published by Delacorte Press. The series of sea adventures, set in England at the end of the 18th century, follows the harrowing exploits of John Spencer, the boy hero whose ambition is to captain his father’s ships. His first voyage, in The Wreckers, is ill-fated; the ship is wrecked off the Cornish coast, and John survives only to find that he is in further danger from the wreckers, who murder anyone they find from the ships they have lured onto the rocks. The Smugglers continues with John’s adventures on a voyage to London that gets sidetracked by a contraband operation. The Buccaneers, which will come out this year, follows up with John’s voyage to the West Indies on his father’s ship, The Dragon. Along the way, he contends with pirates, one of whom is partly modelled on Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

The action in Lawrence’s first two novels races along at a breakneck pace, and so does the output of his work. Unsurprisingly, his habits show the discipline of a tightly run ship. On a typical day, he sits down at his desk in the morning, composes directly onto the computer, and works for three or four hours until he’s exhausted. Then he takes the dog out, often talking to himself as he walks, and comes back for another three or four hours of writing in the afternoon.

In part, he credits his businesslike approach to writing to years as a newspaper reporter, when writer’s block wasn’t an option. “Some days are harder than others,” he admits, “But you know, it’s like a job.” He estimates that it takes him about three months to complete a draft of a novel, a pace he keeps up year-round, except for in the summers, when he goes on long sailing trips with his partner, Kristin, on their 32-foot wooden cutter named Connection.

Lawrence has spent nearly all his adult life near the sea, living on the coast or travelling by boat. He and Kristin have lived on Digby Island for several years. They are caretakers on a radio transmission site, in exchange for which they get a rent-free place and can pursue their own projects in relative seclusion. The arrangement has worked well for them: “We think of it as our Canada Council grant,” Lawrence jokes. However, the grant is soon to end because they have decided to move to Gabriola Island, where they’ve bought a house. When I ask whether the sales of his books helped pay for it, he laughs goodnaturedly. “I bought about 10% of it with the earnings from them,” he says.

Their new location will have some practical advantages, the most important of which, he says, is proximity to their families, Kristin’s in Seattle and his on Vancouver Island. But it will put eight miles between their house and their sailboat, and Lawrence sounds anxious about the distance. He and Kristin spend the summers sailing off the west coast. These journeys have given rise to Lawrence’s books of adult non-fiction: Far-Away Places: 50 Anchorages on the Northwest Coast (1995), and Sea Stories of the Inside Passage (1997), a compilation of his ship’s logs over five years.

The move south may also facilitate Lawrence’s research. Living on a small island off the northwest coast may have immersed him in the right atmosphere for writing sea adventures, but it didn’t afford easy access to the historical information he needed about wrecking and smuggling in England in the late 1700s. For The Wreckers, he relied mostly on the information gathered by his father, who combed the libraries and used bookstores on Vancouver Island for material, sending excerpts from hundred-year-old books as he found them.

How Lawrence, a former journalist and newspaper editor, began to write specifically for children remains slightly mysterious, but his full-time commitment to writing fiction came about with the bankruptcy of a fish farm where he was working in 1990. “I figured I’d have about a year of employment insurance so I thought, well, in a year I should be able to start making money by writing. The Wreckers was the second thing I wrote. It wasn’t very good then; it was completely different from what it turned out to be.”

He didn’t send the manuscript to any Canadian publishers because he’d found his previous experiences submitting manuscripts frustrating. “I had horrible problems just getting anyone to look at them,” he recalls. Instead, he sent the first version of The Wreckers to Jane Jordan Browne, a Chicago-based agent who had represented Kristin’s book about quilting and had impressed Lawrence. Browne took on The Wreckers, and it made the rounds to American publishers for years without getting picked up. Meanwhile, Lawrence was writing feverishly, producing eight unpublished novels in six years. He subsequently rewrote The Wreckers and sent the new version to Browne, whose reader at the time, Katy Holmgren, sent it back with suggested changes. “She was great,” Lawrence said. “She sent back what was practically a manual on how to write a children’s book.”

With Holmgren’s suggestions incorporated, the manuscript went to two publishers – Doubleday and Lothrop, Lee and Shepard. The latter had expressed interest in the first version, but rejected this one; Doubleday accepted it, and editor Lauri Hornik sent back a long list of changes, including a revised ending. It was the third time Lawrence had had to rewrite the ending, but he is clearly grateful for the recommendation, since his version didn’t leave room for sequels: “I had all of John’s life wrapped up in that version,” he recalls.

When The Wreckers finally appeared, it was a financial and critical success, selling 7,600 copies in its first year and earning a cluster of strong reviews (including one in Q&Q), an ALA award, and the Publishers Weekly honour of “Flying Start Author” for Lawrence. The novel has been translated into French and Danish; Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Italian versions are in the works.

Plot is central to the John Spencer trilogy, says Lawrence, but he is hoping that his novels will be more character-driven in the future. As it is, there is some complexity to Lawrence’s sea-faring characters. For instance, Simon Mawgan in The Wreckers and Captain Crowe in The Smugglers are mercurial figures; it’s not clear whether they are trustworthy until near the end of each novel.

Lawrence readily acknowledges the uncertainty. “That’s one of my favourite ideas – that you can never know the truth about anything. You think you know someone but you never really do.” Not knowing whom to trust in these novels generates suspense, and if there is one reaction to his fiction that Lawrence clearly hopes for, it’s fright.

His appetite for fear goes back to childhood, when he remembers being terrified of Blind Pew from Treasure Island. He was also “gruesomely frightened” by the witches in the film version of The Wizard of Oz, “especially the one whose feet roll under the house.” When I mention that Lawrence’s books show a predilection for the grotesque, he seems surprised at first, but doesn’t disagree. He does insist, however, that his books are not violent. “I’m sort of disappointed when people say that these books are very violent, because I don’t think they are.”

His current projects and ideas for future books demonstrate an eclectic range of interests. He has just finished a novel (also to be published this year by Delacorte) about an albino boy who runs away with a group of circus freaks. And he has an idea for a novel about boys on English prison ships. “They used to crowd all the prisoners onto derelict war ships in the 1830s,” he explains. “A lot of them would never go anywhere, just spend years anchored along the Thames.”

Over the next few months, Lawrence will be finishing two novels and moving approximately 1,000 kilometres to a new house. But the prospect doesn’t seem to faze him. As long as he stays near the water and writes, it’s all smooth sailing.