Author of The Black Banner, Helen Hart kindly agreed to do an interview for the blog. For those of you who haven't read my review of The Black Banner, you can check it out here.
So, without further ado, please welcome Helen Hart!
- What is The Black Banner about? Can you tell us a little about the characters and background to the story?
- Did anything inspire you to write The Black Banner?
I grew up on the Dorset coast in the south of England, where piracy seems to be in the blood. My home town of Poole apparently got it's name from being know locally as The Devil's Pool because so many pirates lived there! I also spent a few childhood years in the Caribbean which of course was the backdrop of the so-called 'Golden Age of Piracy' in the 17th and 18th centuries... and I've always adored pirate stories - 'Treasure Island' and 'A High Wind in Jamaica' were favourites. So when it came to writing a novel, I decided to write the sort of story I'd love to read (and about the sort of adventure I would have relished as a teenager myself!).
- How long did it take to write The Black Banner?
It usually takes me 6 months to research and write a book (sometimes a little longer, such as when I was writing as Maya Snow and working on the first two books in the 'Sisters of the Sword' trilogy - I had to do a lot of research into life in 10th century Japan and the culture is so different). However, 'The Black Banner' simply flew out of my fingers and onto the page... it took 7 weeks for the first draft, and then another month to edit, refine and fact-check. It's the fastest I've ever written a book. I loved writing about Becky Baxter and her new friends, and for those few months I think I lived and breathed pirates!
- How much research did you do before or whilst writing The Black Banner?
I did mountains of research, and read as much as I could about real-life pirates (Blackbeard, Calico Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny and Mary Read) and also read and re-read fiction about pirates by authors such as Daniel Defoe and Robert Louis Stevenson. It's fascinating to read the older material because authors like RL Stevenson truly invented the pirate 'look' that we know and love - the wooden leg, the parrot on the shoulder - as well as other details such as X marking the spot on a treasure map, and the 'Black Spot'. It also helped that I'd lived in the Caribbean and that my father is a blue-water yachtsman, so the ocean and the islands were a big part of my childhood - there were lots of real-life memories to draw on.
- What is your writing process? Did you plan, plan, plan or do you just go with the flow?
Usually I like to have a basic framework mapped out on paper, often as a series of flow charts and character sketches all written on huge pieces of paper. But although I like to know roughly where I'm going, I also like the characters to come to life themselves - that's when I know a story is working, when the characters begin to say things I haven't planned or take the story in a direction I wasn't expecting. The ending of 'The Black Banner' is a perfect case of that: Becky knew where she was going, but I didn't. And when we got there, it all worked out perfectly. In fact, it still gives me goosebumps when I remember writing those later scenes! I love it when a story comes to life like that.
- Why did you become a writer? What's the best thing about writing?
That's a great question, and really hard to answer. I think most writers become writers because they can't stop themselves. For me, it was a combination of being a genuine bookworm (I love reading), enjoying the process of story-telling, and also having a genuine desire to 'go somewhere else' in my head. Why live one life when you can live hundreds through your characters? And that's the best thing about writing - the escapism and the adventure.
- Becky seems to be a character who knows what she wants, is she based on anyone you know?
Becky isn't based on anyone in particular, but I do feel that she represents a lot of young teenage girls. So often, boys seem to have the best adventures, and why shouldn't the girls have that too? That's why I let Becky learn to fight with a knife and a sword, so there were no limits for her and she could look after herself.
- What do you do to relax?
I walk my dogs - three gorgeous gentle whippets called Josie, Lola and Monty - and I read books. Hundreds of books!
- Do you have any all time favourite books?
I regularly read and re-read Anne Golon's 'Angelique' series. My copies are dog-eared and tattered, and sadly the English translations are out of print, but the world Golon created for her heroine is so rich and full of adventures that I can visit it over and over and always find something new.
- Favourite authors?
Well, as I said I love reading so we could be here a while... in the YA field I admire Catherine Fisher, especially her fantastic novel ‘'Corbenic'’ which is a modern and utterly brilliant take on the Grail legend. Mary Hooper is another favourite of mine – I couldn’t put down her Great Plague novel ‘At the Sign of the Sugared Plum’ (which has such a gorgeous cover, too). Robert Westall is a genius at conjuring up compelling characters and fast-paced plots. Moving up into more adult writing, I'm a big fan of Sarah Waters - I thought 'Fingersmith' and 'Affinity' were works of genius. I've also recently enjoyed Martin Davies ('The Conjuror's Bird') and William Heaney ('Memoirs of a Master Forger').
- Do you prefer day or night? (I'm such a night person!)
Definitely night - that's when all the best ideas come!
- Chocolate or ice cream?
- What's your favourite comfort food?
Tomato soup, in a mug that you can wrap your fingers around on a cold winter's day.
- If you could give The Black Banner a song, what song would it be?
I have genuinely never thought about that - what a fun question. I think it would have to be Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'. Becky's a rebel and she doesn't follow the rules that the grown-up world sets for her and others like her.
- Anything you'd like to add?
I think you've covered everything, Maryam, and this has been a really enjoyable session. Thank you so much for interviewing me, and for reviewing 'The Black Banner'.
Happy reading everyone!