In her new novel, The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, Valerie Martin uses imagination to explore the human dimensions of a classic unsolved maritime mystery—one which intrigued Arthur Conan Doyle.
What about the Mary Celeste interested you?
I first learned about it when I was in fifth grade in New Orleans—it was in the Weekly Reader magazine. I’m sure the article just sketched in the details of the mystery—a seaworthy ship found floating aimlessly, the crew mysteriously missing, evidence that they had left in a hurry. I didn’t think much about it for 50 years. Then, a few years ago, I came across the information that the missing “crew” included the captain’s wife and two-year-old daughter. I was surprised by this, as I thought women were considered unlucky at sea, so my interest was sparked. What appealed to me about the Mary Celeste was the visual image of the derelict ship, a few sails set, her hatches open and her wheel unlashed, drifting in and out of the wind on an open sea. My novels often begin with some visual prompt from the recesses of my brain. This one had been floating around in there a long time.
What did including Arthur Conan Doyle as a character add?
Any book you pick up about the Mary Celeste has a chapter about him. The Admiralty trial in Gibraltar, where the ship was delivered for a salvage claim, took place in 1872 and was front-page news all over Britain. Twelve years later, Doyle, then a struggling young doctor with dreams of being an author, wrote a short story that purported to be the tale of a survivor of the Mary Celeste. It paid Doyle enough for a month’s rent, and he was compared to Robert Louis Stevenson, so he was delighted. He’d arrived. So here was the creator of the world’s most famous detective, cutting his teeth on the very story I myself planned to take a run at. How could I resist?
You’ve written about the notion of using fiction to deromanticize the world. Can you elaborate on that?
I’ve identified this as my goal in an essay, but it’s a bit misleading, as I’m completely torn between the desire to return the reader to reality on one hand and to take her for a wild ride to places unknown on the other. But when I’m out to deromanticize, I try to take a subject—the Old South, for example, or the ultimate fate of tigers (namely extinction)—and suggest that the romantic view is insufficient. The slaves, I would suggest, were not singing in the fields because they were happy, and tigers, in spite of their beauty, power, and intrinsic wonderfulness, would make very bad next-door neighbors. We still receive a romantic education, in school and out—look at television, think about what a reality show is really teaching you—and it ill prepares us to live in the world. I get accused of being grim and depressing, but I’m just trying to see what’s out there.