Interview: Ian Tregillis on “Testimony of Samuel Frobisher Regarding Events Upon His Majesty’s Ship Confidence, 14-22 June, 1818, With Diagrams”
- “Testimony of Samuel Frobisher Regarding Events Upon His Majesty’s Ship Confidence, 14-22 June, 1818, With Diagrams” is about the supernatural events witnessed by an impressed sailor on a scientific voyage. What inspired this story?
The seed for this story was planted when a friend, knowing of my fascination with giant squid, sent me a magazine article about the (then) current state of efforts around the world to observe a living specimen in its environment. This is difficult because they live at great depths (although they have been observed in the wild since that article was published). The piece contained a fascinating aside about the history of deep ocean exploration, and it was there that I first learned about the famous Challenger expedition.
The HMS Challenger was a 226′ warship outfitted with all the latest state-of-the-art scientific and oceanographic gear to become a vessel of first-rate science. It set sail in 1872 with the mandate to chart the oceans of the world. This was a monumental undertaking that took over three years. But it did produce the world’s first comprehensive soundings of the sea floor. (The “challenger deep” location recently visited by James Cameron owes its name to the HMS Challenger, as did the space shuttle Challenger.) In addition, it collected thousands of biological specimens, many from the deep ocean, and virtually all things that nobody had ever seen before. They identified thousands of new species. The chief scientist, C. Wyville Thomson, really did proclaim that living beings “exist over the whole floor of the ocean.”
But dredging the ocean floor for those specimens was extremely demanding and backbreaking work. Over the course of the expedition, two sailors drowned, two more went mad, and another committed suicide. As a speculative fiction writer, I can’t read a historical footnote like that without immediately wondering if there was a connection between the onset of madness and something they pulled from the depths. (After all, doesn’t dread Cthulhu sleep in sunken R’lyeh?) So my imagination was off to the races. But I thought it would be more fun if the story was set closer to the Napoleonic Age of Sail, so I exercised a bit of artistic license to stage the fictional Confidence expedition almost 60 years earlier.
It wasn’t until after I’d written the first draft of this story that others pointed me to the nautical mythos of William Hope Hodgson. I was more familiar with Hodgson through his novel THE NIGHT LAND and works inspired by that. I’ve been asked if Frobisher’s story is a deliberate homage to Hodgson. I wish.
- Sounds complex. How much research did you do?
I know absolutely nothing about ships, sailing, or sailors. And I know even less about the Age of Sail. Fortunately, I know people who do. So I appealed to my friend and mentor Walter Jon Williams (who started his career writing the Privateers and Gentlemen series) for advice. He recommended several reference works, including Dudley Pope’s excellent LIFE IN NELSON’S NAVY, which I read cover to cover for the sake of this particular story. (It’s a fascinating read, and quite accessible for a landlubber like me.) I read with particular attention to vocabulary, the procedures and practices on a ship of that era, and the actual duties of a sailor like Samuel Frobisher.
Since Frobisher is essentially writing a long confession, I also had to look up the Royal Navy’s Articles of War relevant to that period, since these would have governed his life at sea. I thought it would be fun if he sort of went down the list and said, “Yeah, I violated this one. And then I violated that one. And then…”
- Is that how you capture Frobisher’s voice so perfectly?
The reference works gave me the vocabulary, which of course was essential for a nautical tale. Sailors of every era practically have their own language. I admit to a lot of guesswork and trial and error when trying to develop Frobisher’s manner of speaking, but historical documents from that period gave me the “flavor,” if that makes sense. Mostly I just tried to accumulate a body of examples that I could attempt to emulate. Although the conceit of the story forced me to play some games with issues of voice and class. I plead artistic license… I wouldn’t make any claims about the authenticity of poor Frobisher’s voice, but I tried to make it distinctive.
- As a writer, you’re well known for having a great ear for period language, whether it’s the sailor’s cadence in this story, the World War II characters in the Milkweed Triptych, or the hard-boiled detective narrator in your most recent novel, Something More Than Night. What is the secret to getting those different voices right?
Well, first, thank you for saying that. I never feel confident that I’ve hit the mark, which is depressing because I do have a perverse tendency to tackle projects that force me to think carefully about character voice. For the most part, it boils down to reading widely (or listening, where historical recordings are available) and trying to absorb the “flavor” of the language until the cadence and vocabulary become familiar enough to emulate.
For the Milkweed books, I spent a lot of time reading things written by people who had lived through the Blitz, as well as listening to old BBC recordings. I also had a British beta reader who did a frankly heroic job trying to excise all the Americanisms from the manuscript. (Nobody could have caught them all, though, so I take sole responsibility for the errors that slipped through.) Even so, I’d say that trying to capture the voice of Londoners in 1940 was the most difficult task I’ve set myself; I wouldn’t have attempted it if my editor hadn’t (wisely) insisted the story required it.
For SOMETHING MORE THAN NIGHT, I read piles of Chandler and Hammett, along with a few other authors of the period. I kept a pencil on hand while reading, and every single piece of noir slang I encountered got a mark. Then I transcribed each new piece of vocabulary into a glossary file on my laptop. The glossary eventually grew to 80 pages, because I realized I had to include contextual examples and bibliographic references so that I could go back later and double-check my interpretations. (Some phrases are so obscure I simply had to guess at their meaning.) It was a huge amount of work but essential, because I was able to organize the reference for “reverse lookups” — rather than a tool for clarifying unfamiliar noir terms, I needed something that would give me period-appropriate expressions for anything that arose over the course of the story.
I’ve found that frequently a character doesn’t really come together for me until his or her voice congeals. The way a person talks tells you so much about them: their upbringing, their environment, how they see the world and describe it to themselves… All of this sits at the bedrock of who a person is. Once I have that, then I start to get a sense of how they think and how they might react to particular situations, and in that way they make their mark on the plot.
- I hate to point this out, but – SPOILER ALERT – there aren’t actually any diagrams in the story. Were you ever tempted to draw some?
Hmmm. I prefer to believe the story is rife will diagrams! Or, as I like to call them, “word pictures.” Actual visual diagrams appropriate for this story require scrimshaw, but I couldn’t figure out how to include a narwhal tusk with my submission. (Something for you to consider for your next guest editing gig?)
- So you’re saying readers shouldn’t feel cheated?
There’s no denying that readers of this particular story probably have a case for false advertising. In my defense, an early draft of this story was titled “Testimony… Without Any Diagrams Whatsoever.”
- If people want to read more of your books and stories, where should they start?
Definitely my website, iantregillis.com. It has links to all of my novels and short fiction publications. I try to keep it updated with the latest news; sometimes I even succeed. I’m also @ITregillis on Twitter. I’m currently writing a clockpunk fantasy alt-history trilogy tentatively titled The Alchemy War. The first novel of that series, The Mechanical, will be out from Orbit next March. I also have a story appearing in the Clockwork Universe anthology that will be out later this summer.
- “Testimony of Samuel Frobisher Regarding Events Upon His Majesty’s Ship Confidence, 14-22 June, 1818, With Diagrams” by Ian Tregillis appears in the July/August issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It’s available in both print and electronic formats.
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