FROM THE CAPTAIN'S WINDOW
Stories on Maritime Leadership
Maritime Author Interview- Philip K Allan
I love the sea. I love books. Maritime books combine the two. What I particularly enjoy about naval fiction is the way it blends the author's insights, research, inspiration from real-life and of course the author's creativity to paint a vivid and gripping story of life at sea. Philip K Allan is a rising star in historical naval fiction and I had the opportunity to know the man behind the Alexander Clay series.
What inspired you to writing about the sea?
I am often asked what drew me to the sea. Although I am a keen sailor, I have never been a seafarer. I am one of those people who go down to the sea in books. I have always loved naval fiction set in the Golden Age of Sail. I read C S Forester’s Hornblower books as a child and then later Patrick O’Brian. It is a world that is captivating, with sailing ships and storms, battles and raids, mutiny and exploration, and of course the sea. It is also a period full of extraordinary character, both good and bad. So when I came to sit down and write my first novel, it was a period and a subject I was drawn to.
What are the main themes of your first novel - The Captains Nephew?
The book starts with an officer drowning in the sea while a battle is going on around him. As he dies, we learn that it is no accident that he has fallen into the water. The book then moves back six months in time, and we follow the events that will lead up to the drowning. The story is set onboard a Royal Navy frigate in 1795. During the next six months the ship experiences a number of adventures, starting with a landing of sailors and Royal Marines in Flanders and ending with a long chase across the Atlantic and the battle we saw at the book’s beginning.
The ship is full of tensions. There is a growing rift between the aristocratic captain and Alexander Clay, his first lieutenant. The captain is determined to advance his incompetent nephew, the second lieutenant Nicholas Windham. Then there is tension on the lower deck too. The reader is introduced to an eclectic group of sailors, several of who have run away to sea to escape their pasts. The story also sets up the start of a romance between Clay and Miss Lydia Browning, a passenger onboard a merchant ship that the Agrius is escorting, which will continue into the other books.
Is Alexander Clay based on a historical figure you have read about or someone you think would have been a great man of the sea?
Clay is a bit of mixture of characters. He is the son of a clergyman (like Nelson), although doesn’t have an influential uncle to help him get promoted. He is a self-made man (like Edward Pellew) who has to rely on his own abilities to get on, and resents the way that less able officers with the right patrons have been promoted over him. I try to make him as human as possible, so although he can be charming and likable at times, he is also stubborn and pompous on other occasions. He is very able, but can also doubt himself.
Where do you see the journey taking us in the series?
The Captain’s Nephew starts towards the start of the war with France that will last another twenty years, until Waterloo, so I have left myself plenty of time to work with. Each book in the series covers about a year, and has a slightly different theme. The second book sees Clay’s first command, in the Caribbean; the next is spent blockading Brest as part of the Channel Fleet in 1797, the Year of Mutinies. My fourth book is set in the Mediterranean and follows Nelson’s spectacular Nile campaign in 1798. Book five is just about to be published, and I have a book six planned for the Spring of 2019.
The core of the series is around Alexander Clay and some lower deck sailors, with other characters coming and going. He starts as an experienced lieutenant, becomes a commander and then a junior captain. How long his career will last depends on how long I can still keep producing good, exciting stories. The day I am unhappy with what I am writing I will know that it is time for the career of Alexander Clay to end, but I still have a few plans for him yet.
What makes your books unique?
I always wanted to include the voice of the lower deck properly in my books. This was something that previous writers of naval fiction have largely failed to do. My idea was to make the ship a sort of ‘Downton Abbey’, with the sailors having their own adventures and stories in parallel with those of the officers. It also lets me shift the reader’s view point. When the ship is involved in an event or battle, I can let the reader experience it both from the perspective of Clay on the quarterdeck and then from the sailors manning the cannon, or aloft in the rigging. This has worked well, with some of the sailor’s stories becoming very prominent. Some readers have told me that they enjoy the lower deck stories most of all. In particular I have a black sailor called Able Sedgwick, who is a run slave that joins the ship in the Caribbean. His life story, from a village in West Africa, to the Royal Navy via the cane fields of Barbados could certainly have a novel in its own right.
What are the differences in the leadership between the lower and upper deck characters?
A captain in the Royal Navy of the period had almost unlimited powers over their crew. He could punish them, flog them, and had an armed contingent of marines to back up his authority. But only the most foolish, like Bligh and Pigot, relied solely on such methods. There also existed a parallel lower deck moral code that was just as powerful, with sailors administering their own ideas of justice. Mutiny, which was much more common than the authorities at the time cared to admit, normally took the form of a labour dispute. There was rarely any violence; rather a crew would refuse to carry out an action, such as leaving port, until their grievance was settled. A wise captain knew when to stand down his marines, and sort out the men’s problem. On several occasions in my books I have the lower deck taking things into their own hands, sometimes brutally and occasionally getting things very wrong.
How have you found life as a published Author?
It’s tougher than I thought it would be. The JK Rowlings of this world obviously do very well, but most writers I know struggle to make it pay. There are about 5 million books for sale on Amazon in the UK, so making your work stand out is a big challenge. I am a reasonably successful author, but this has only come from treating it as a full time job. I start at my laptop each day before 8am, and I rarely shut it down before 7pm. A good portion of my time has to be spent on marketing. I do this via social media, giving talks, doing book signings, writing articles and producing a weekly blog. I do all of that before I even start to write my books.
What advice do you have for one of our readers who might be interested in becoming a writer?
The starting point for a successful writer is that you must be able to invent exciting, interesting and compelling stories to put into your book. You will need several good plot lines for most books. If you are planning a series, you will need some standalone ones that will be resolved in each book, and others that run across several books. Having a strong story to tell has never been more important. The harsh reality is that anything less will not sell, however well written. Jane Austen only had to compete with other novels, or taking a turn around the garden; today a book has to be more entertaining than Netflix!
Once you have your story, you then need the ability to set it down on the page. The technique of fiction writing is quite different from normal writing. But it is a craft that can be learned, either via a creative writing course or self taught, as I am. When I read a book that I like, I look for how the author achieved his effect. It may spoil the pleasure of reading a bit, but it makes me a better writer. Like most skills in life, it gets easier the more you do it. I have almost half a million words published now, but I am still learning.
The final hurdle to clear is the highest, getting published. This normally requires a literary agent, since very few publishers will accept scripts directly. Even with a well written and entertaining novel, the odds are long. My agent was accepting about one author in every three hundred that approached him. There is the self-publishing route but very few make this work financially for them. The brutal truth is that if a book is not good enough to be accepted by a publisher, it is unlikely to sell.
About the Author
Philip K Allan comes originally from Watford and still lives in Hertfordshire with his wife and two teenage daughters. He has an excellent knowledge of the 18th century navy. He studied it as part of his history degree at London University, which awoke a lifelong passion for the period. A longstanding member of the Society for Nautical Research, he is also a keen sailor and writes for the US Naval Institute’s magazine Naval History.
He is author of the Alexander Clay series of naval fiction. The first book in the series, The Captain’s Nephew, was published in January 2018, and immediately went into the Amazon top 100 bestseller list for Sea Adventures, where it has stayed. The sequel, A Sloop of War, was published in March 2018, and was similarly well received, winning the Discovered Diamonds Book of the Month. He has since published three further books in the series, On the Lee Shore, A Man of No Country and The Distant Ocean.
His books are available worldwide through any good online retailer, such as Amazon. For more information visit www.philipkallan.com
What they are saying about The Captain’s Nephew
This is the best book I have read in several years.
Ian Cowie, Sunday Times columnist
The author writes with admirable precision and fluency. His plot construction and narrative flow are tight and compelling, never losing momentum...
Jeffrey K. Walker in Discovering Diamonds
...one whirlwind of a ride, excellently detailed, and had me clinging to every page. It's beautifully written with wonderful details that will have the readers sitting on the edge of their seats until the very end of the book.
James Brewer - The Manhattan Book Review
A captivating story in the best traditions of historical nautical fiction
Alaric Bond - author of the Fighting Sail series
...even landlubbers will find something to adore in The Captain’s Nephew...told by a storyteller well-versed in his craft, it is a tale to re-visit time and again...
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