In Conversation: Kate Inglis discusses her novel The Dread Crew: Pirates of the Backwoods

Kate Inglis, author of The Dread Crew

Kate Inglis is an author and photographer living along the Nova Scotian coast, where she was born. In November 2009 her first novel was published—The Dread Crew: Pirates of the Backwoods, a book January Magazine calls "a spirited tale, gorgeously rendered." The Dread Crew has been nominated for a Hackmatack Award in Nova Scotia and a Red Cedar Award in British Columbia, and is now in its third printing. The sequel is on its way. Visit Kate at www.kateinglis.com, and follow her on Twitter at @sweetsalty.

Julie Wilson: I'm a slow reader, in part because when I get caught up in structure that amuses me—in particular, something so well-crafted you can feel the author's joy—I have to sit with it for awhile. In the case of The Dread Crew: Pirates of the Backwoods, I actually got stuck on the dedication!

For my three boys—one is all energy and marvel and curiosity, one is pure, sheer joy and wanderlust, and one lives high up in a blue sky, in a roofless, skeepskin-draped room with kind minstrels and acrobats that let him stay up late and eat chocolate by starlight. All three are hooligans and inventors, and the sons of a man with the steadfastness of a thousand quilters.

How much of your family lives and breathes throughout The Dread Crew? What elements of your home life—and it sounds like adventure—play out on these pages?

Kate Inglis: Nova Scotia is the family that makes the Dread Crew live and breathe. Much of the book is comprised of elements of people and places I love, but it's

The Backwoods.

broader than just my life. It's the way the Hubbards Farmers Market sounds in June, with the box bass and the fiddle and the German sourdough and scotch eggs. And how the air feels here, all heavy and bracing and wet. And how when you're driving, you wave to the old guy walking along the side of the road in the plaid flannel shirt, and he waves back, because it's just what you do. This is an extraordinarily hospitable and musical place. You've got to haul wood in the winter and batten down hatches during hurricanes, and there are bagpipes and banjos and weathered old barns and whales offshore and abandoned fishing boats sleeping on the beach.

A friend from New York City had a hard time figuring out the time period of the story, because the prospect of a kitchen wood oven and a clothesline struck him as a vintage novelty. But it's how we live here, particularly along the coast and in the country. And so I'd say that's what feeds the book more than anything or anyone else—the setting. It's the birthplace of romantic elements: ocean graveyards and an island of wild shipwrecked horses and garrison forts and cannons just left there, and kilts and old things. It animates this place, and it's all true, and so it animated The Dread Crew.

JW: Pulling from SoMisguided.com, you say: "It occurred to me that writing something silly was highly speculative, a debatable spend of martial and mothering time. I shrugged. I kept it to myself because I thrive in the pressureless void of low expectations. I had 15,000 words before telling my husband—with my mouth full, behind my hand—that I was writing a novel. A three-year spell of insomnia was my groundswell. Getting published was an accident.”

Talk about this some more.What compulsion drove you toward a word count?

KI: I wrote during stolen moments and at night, often until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. When you've got creative momentum, the last thing you want to do is stop. And so I'd write and write and then I'd wake up with my head slumped over and my fingers still on the keyboard and the last sentence trailing off like eeeeeejjjjjjjjjjjjj . . . Then I'd finally crawl to bed. Mornings were rough, but I got used to it. It was invigorating to write a couple thousand words while the rest of the world was asleep. More invigorating than rest.

Word count has dominated the process of writing the sequel, but for The Dread Crew, the lack of expectations (my own or of others) meant there was no deadline and no pressure. There came a point when the book became itself, and the people in it became real to me. I didn't know if it would end up getting published, but I felt like I owed the characters a chance to exist properly either way by finishing it. Otherwise, they just stagger off like untethered spirits. They'll haunt you forever, the characters of unfinished manuscripts. Always tugging at a pant leg or showing up at parties to grab fistfuls of chilled shrimp and scowl at you from behind potted plants.

JW: And how did you come to know you wanted this book to be published and read by an audience?

KI: Only at the moment that Penelope, now my editor at Nimbus, sent me an email suggesting that I could get published and read by an audience. Before that, I only wanted to be an author. It's easy to want to be an author. You see it in your mind with sun streaming through windows and a Siamese cat purring on an antique rug and a little pellet stove and somehow the bills are paid and there's wit and self-sufficiency and divine inspiration seeping through walls and pores. And then, in your mind, you skip ahead to a book launch party and more Siamese cats.

When you graduate from wanting to working, you say, "I am going to flesh out this idea and write the whole thing down, and rewrite it, and rewrite it again, and rewrite it unendingly, and I'll have no real assurance of when it'll be good enough, but at some point I'll pitch it to someone who will decide if I'm delusional or not." The optimism and the ego-bruising, unsexy work needed to follow through feels unending. But once Penelope dangled the carrot, I trotted stupidly forward, not thinking too much. That's what worked for me.

JW: Tell us about the origin for some of the names of your characters and the ships. They're playful and beg to be read aloud, perhaps shouted.

KI: Names tend to emerge gently. It's more like listening than inventing. As characters take shape, I try to balance playfulness and plausibility. Nicknames can get silly, but I prefer names that don't come burdened with too much of the author's effort. It's like anything else that you use to adorn yourself or someone else, fiction or otherwise—beyond a point, fashion becomes a contrivance. I had a great-uncle Hector, and you just can't argue with a Sam. There's no better name for an island than Ironbound, and the best name for Ironbound is Ike. I like simplicity best, and good cadence and believability is more important than me, the author, looking clever. I'm all for shouting, though. It's fun to see kids look at the crew roster and giggle.

JW: Talk to us a bit about the illustrations by Sydney Smith. Were there other interpretations along the way, or did they come more or less fully formed?

Sydney Smith's illustrates The Dread Crew.

KI: Generally speaking, publishers don't allow authors and illustrators to gather in public groups. They divide us into unspeaking camps and it sounds terrible but they've got a reason. Authors tend to get very attached to how they think things should look, and this complicates the art direction process. I can understand that but couldn't help myself. I dug a hole underneath the fence and crawled across the yard and Sydney was there behind his fence, and he was digging a hole too. So we asked Nimbus if it was all right, and they agreed after I promised I wouldn't be an obstruction. From there, it was heaven. I loved every sketch of Sydney's. It was just a matter of continuity, since I knew the story best. Making sure the ship had a stern hold with a plank door, being sure he knew that Phezzie was the one with the wrench and Meena was the one with the boils, and that Johnny was biggest but not by much when standing next to Sula. Beyond that, Sydney brought so much to the book. He intuited what to draw, and he did it sublimely.

Sydney and I share stomping grounds—the south shore of Nova Scotia. As he read the manuscript and began visualizing the characters and the setting, he was pulling from the same palette. Sketch meetings were my favourite part of the production process. It was like meeting children that I already loved, getting to see faces for the first time. And there wasn't a single jarring line that Sydney drew. Gloomy and beautiful, and so Maritime. It was such a thrill to watch it come together.

JW: Across a number of reviews for The Dread Crew, the same feeling bubbles up, that this is a book for all times, a book that our parents may have thought to buy for us, or a book that as parents we might think to share with our own children. At the time you were writing The Dread Crew were you consciously attempting to infuse your story with such timelessness? Is there something timeless about pirates, in general?

KI: I imagine every author would love to write something that people would deem timeless. It's a lovely compliment. I just tried to infuse the book with as much all-over goodness as I could manage. I wrote about pirates because they happened to be the ones who nudged me first—if anything, I wanted to riff on the pirate genre to the point where it would become something atypical. I can't imagine trying to write a book to capitalize on a trend, or strike a certain marketability. If I tried to do that, I'd feel like a bit of a hired monkey. There's such a magic to letting a story and its people unfold with witchcraft and late nights and walks in the woods. You don't lead a story. You follow it.

JW: What were some of your own favourite books as a child?

KI: Everything by Roald Dahl, the master; The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, and his The Dot and the Line is brilliant; and I read Gnomes by Wil Huygen and Rien Poortvliet pretty much every day until I was 26 because I like to keep up with the non-fiction.

February 1, 2012
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