In The Ship of Dreams (Atria, Dec.), historian Russell illuminates the Edwardian world and the tragedy of the Titanic.
Why did the world need another book on the Titanic?
There are some fantastic studies about the sinking of the Titanic, but I was really interested in looking at it as a symbol of a diminishing era, to shift the context to make the ship a product of its time. That book had not been written, and I thought I could produce something useful on that topic.
Why did you believe that you could write this book?
I’d always had a connection to the Titanic from having been born in Belfast. My great-grandparents had told me stories of its building, and of the building of its sister ships, rising above the skyline. I felt I could marry my skills as an adult historian to what I had learned as a child. I knew I had to sieve through the research, because this was not going to be froth—it had to have heft.
What role do the ship’s blueprints play in your writing?
A great deal. With the blueprints from Linen Hall Library here in Belfast, I could magically resurrect the Titanic. I could navigate myself through the ship, say, from the grand staircase to the squash court. Having the physical blueprints meant that I could deal with “eyewitness” accounts that were colored by trauma and hysteria. I could see that cabin C-37 was very close to the stairwell and guess that the Countess of Rothes may have changed her room from C-37 to C-77 because she assumed 37 would be noisier.
Which of your characters did you most closely identify with?
Of the six I focused on, there were none I disliked, though I found the actress Dorothy Gibson frustrating. But there is indeed such a thing as a “literary Stockholm syndrome”—that is, identifying with a particular character. For me, it is Lucy Noëlle Martha Leslie, the Countess of Rothes. I experienced a wonderful learning curve piecing together her life as a suffragette and nurse. I found inspiring her desire and commitment to give back to society what she had been given.
You describe the Titanic’s impact with the iceberg as barely a nudge that some people slept through. How did you decide how to write that moment?
I did not want to detail the crew and the bridge and the boiler—that’s been done. I kept the moment of impact just to what the six people saw. I deliberately did not seek survivors’ memories, massaged for newspapers. I stayed with the actual accounts rather than the hyperbolic. That made it easier to shy away from the temptation of bombast. I wanted to underplay that moment, not to be constrained by stories but to restrain myself to what furthered the angle of the book. In many ways, that challenge was more thrilling to me as a writer.