PW: The events of your book The Sea Shall Embrace Them, occurred more than 150 years ago, yet the characters vividly come to life and the story is uncannily dynamic—a kind of dramatic interpolation of the events. Had you anticipated taking this approach from the start?
DS: As a writer of narrative nonfiction, I look at history for a dramatic story, and a story must have all the elements of good fiction—all the conflicts, the rising action, the darkest hour and so forth. The stuff of English 101. The story of the Arctic is possibly one of the most dramatic because of various elements setting the story in motion. It's more than a disaster story. It's concerned with the technology of the time, the push and pull of business, and the class differences. The rivalry between the Collins and Cunard shiplines, for example, represents mounting tensions between the U.S. and Britain. The Cunard ships were outfitted to carry guns, and their ships appeared to be a threat to national security. Conversely, the Collins line was concerned with establishing a national identity and taking market control of transatlantic passage. My publisher touched on the point that this sounded like the rivalry between Apple and Microsoft, and I have to agree. I think we're seeing some of the same elements today.
PW: What were some of the difficulties facing your project?
DS: Narrative nonfiction is one of the hardest things to do. Fiction writers have a great deal of liberty to sculpt their stories. I'm constrained by the reality of the situation and by history, yet I have to bring everything together using the tools of fiction in effort to make the story interesting to the reader.
PW: The dialogue throughout comes purely from eyewitness accounts established by the record. Did you take any liberties in arranging what was said or how things occurred?
DS: My previous book, Flying Cloud, was noted by reviewers as "not taking any undue liberties" with its history—something I don't want to open myself to at all. And I've therefore become sensitive to taking any liberties of that kind. As a writer, it irritates me to find authors changing dates or quotes to suit their agenda. I'm currently working on a piece about seafaring during the American Civil War, and am running into this same problem. It's careless, and dishonest to the reader. The record of the Arctic tragedy, however, was a matter of luck. Fortunately, the survivors were very articulate or else I wouldn't have the ability to re-create the action in the way that I did.
PW: What are your interests in telling this story—or any other history—in this manner?
DS: I primarily want to show what it was like for the people involved. I don't think history should be dry and scholarly. If your reader can't understand the past, then they can't understand the present. And the past is what shapes us as people today. I want to make history accessible to people who wouldn't otherwise read history books.