Joan Druett could charm the fuzz off a kiwi.
Ricocheting from her own writing career to subjects as diverse as ghostly encounters on Nantucket, Patrick O'Brian's legacy and Viggo Mortensen sightings "here in Middle Earth," as she puts it (the final installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was just finishing up filming nearby), the phone conversation between the maritime historian, at home in Wellington, New Zealand, and PW fairly crackles with Druett's energy and wit. Her singularly expressive voice invites the speculation that if Hollywood were to cast someone to play her on-screen, that someone might be Maggie Smith.
"I had nightmares as I worked through the [whaleship Sharon's] journals, and things gradually became clearer," Druett says, her inflection rising and falling with a vigorous Smithesque swoop. "Can you imagine being stuck on a little ship in the middle of nowhere with a killer?"
In the Wake of Madness (Algonquin), Druett's latest work of nautical nonfiction (and a BookSense 76 May/June pick), continues her lively interpretation of primary source material from the Age of Sail. Here, however, in what PW called "a terrific account of an unusually eventful voyage," Druett also solves a centuries-old mystery. Delving into the recently unearthed diaries of two of the Sharon's crewmembers, she reveals the truth about a sadistic whaling captain and a grisly 150-year-old murder, mutiny and coverup.
"It was like something out of a horror movie," she says with an audible shudder.
In the Wake of Madness joins a shelf of titles that have put Druett on the literary map in the past two decades. Adept at both fiction and nonfiction, published by both small historical society presses and major players on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific, Druett is perhaps best known for her exploration of the role of women at sea. She's made a veritable cottage industry of the subject, most notably with Hen Frigates (Simon & Schuster, 1998), her breakout book, which profiled 19th-century women who accompanied their merchant captain husbands to sea. Others in this vein include She Captains (Simon & Schuster, 2000), which spotlights bold seafaring women from antiquity forward; Petticoat Whalers (Collins Publishers New Zealand, 1991; University Press of New England, 2001), which examines the lives of whaling wives; and She Was a Sister Sailor (Mystic Seaport Museum Publications, 1992), which weaves Druett's insights about the shipboard diaries of one whaling wife with essays offering a broader historical perspective.
In the last few years, Druett has branched out from titles dealing with this seafaring sorority to more general books on nautical life, including Rough Medicine (Routledge, 2000), a chronicle of shipboard surgical practices during the years of the South Seas whaling trade.
"I ran out of material for these women-at-sea things," she says matter-of-factly. "And medicine at sea is sort of my hobby."
Given her considerable success in the nautical niche, Druett never set out to be a maritime historian. A former high school biology teacher, she fell into the role—quite literally.
"I'm an accidental historian," she quips, recalling the day in 1984 that she and her husband, Ron (a maritime artist whose illustrations often grace her books), were bicycling on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. They stopped to rest and, seeking shade, Druett stumbled into a hole left by an uprooted tree. There she discovered a grave from 1850, on whose headstone was the name of the wife of a New Bedford, Mass., whaling captain.
"A woman on a whaler!" she writes of the episode in Petticoat Whalers. "It was quite incredible."
Though Druett knew that 19th-century captains of merchant vessels had brought along their wives, she had no idea that whaling captains had done the same.
"It felt as if history were tapping me on the shoulder," she explains, a feeling she says has continued to dog each step of her literary career. For In the Wake of Madness, that "tap" manifested itself in a series of coincidences, including chancing upon a scribbled account of the murder by the cooper of the Sharon while she was searching a microfilm for something else.
Horrified at what she read, Druett transcribed every word, although it had nothing to do with what she was researching at the time, and she couldn't stop thinking about the tale.
"It haunted me," she says.
In addition to these kinds of "taps," as she calls them, her path to preeminence in nautical publishing may also be a case of the right person being in the right place at the right time.
Born in Nelson, New Zealand, on the South Island, 64 years ago, Druett and her parents and younger brother soon moved to the small town of Palmerston North, on the North Island, where her father pursued work as a builder.
"It was an extremely crimping place to grow up, a really small town," she recalls. "Perhaps because of that, Palmerston North produced a large number of writers. Everyone was a big reader."
Druett herself was a precocious four when she wrote her first book.
"My mother and the woman next door, a grade-school teacher, had become very friendly. Between the two of them, they taught me to read at a very young age, and so I wrote this book for my mother for Christmas. I still have it, it's about five pages long, and it's got illustrations, and what amazes me is that the spelling is perfect."
She pauses for a well-timed beat, then adds with a chuckle, "It's been a downhill trek from there on out!"
In her teens and 20s, Druett wrote science fiction stories under the pen name "Jo Friday" for a magazine called Worlds of If, edited by Frederik Pohl.
"I would send off stories and get paid in American dollars," she says. "It was wonderful."
Her parents divorced around the time she went to college, and in order to finance her education Druett agreed to a deal offered by the government at the time that paid her school fees and a small stipend in exchange for three years of work as a teacher afterwards.
Druett attended Victoria University in Wellington—where she recently worked on In the Wake of Madness as a Stout Research Fellow—and then teacher's training college in Christchurch.
At the conclusion of her teaching tour of duty, Druett opted for some overseas adventure. First, she tried to emigrate to the U.S. ("but they wouldn't have me!"), so she chose Canada instead.
"I was in Toronto, at Victoria University believe it or not, and I was just so happy there," she recalls. "I had this marvelous job in the publishing department—nothing as exalted as editing; I was the 'printer's devil,' the printer's assistant. This was in the '60s, and I would go trooping about in mini-skirts and high heels in this small printery, which was quite medieval."
Eventually, she returned to New Zealand, bringing home what she calls "a souvenir"—her British-born husband, Ron Druett.
"We had about 10 cents between us, and two young children, and when they went off to school, so did I," she says. "I went back to teaching."
In addition to her work as a high school biology teacher, Druett also continued to write the occasional feature and travel article, and her flair for telling dramatic stories caught the eye of an editor at the now-defunct Reed Publishers.
"She came to my house with a bottle of wine and said, 'I've got a proposition for you. We want to do a book about how plants and animals came to New Zealand. You're a biology teacher and a journalist, and we think you should do this.' "
She wrote several chapters and an outline, sent it off "with huge confidence"—another vocal swoop—"and it was rejected. I took umbrage. I sent off the whole kit and caboodle to another publisher, who bought it on the spot that same day."
It was a decision the original publishing house soon came to regret, for the book, Exotic Intruders (Heinemann, 1983), went on to garner Druett a PEN Award. A prestigious Fulbright soon followed.
"By this time, I had fallen over the grave on Rarotonga, and was madly wanting to get to the States to research these whaling wives," says Druett, who calls her 1986 Fulbright experience in New England "wonderful and amazing."
Her older son, Lindsay, was out of high school by then, but she and her husband brought their younger son, 14-year-old Alastair, with them on their four-month sojourn to such places as New Bedford and Nantucket, Mass., and Mystic, Conn.
"I needed to keep my son busy after school, so I got him to read all the children's whaling journals at the Old Dartmouth Historical Society [in New Bedford]," she explains. "He became really absorbed."
Alastair was also with her in an attic bedroom at an inn on Nantucket when Druett had her ghostly encounter—a recalcitrant, tightly wedged door whose handle suddenly turned by itself and opened with ease, admitting a blast of icy air.
"You should have seen the looks on our faces," she recalls with ghoulish glee.
Though shaping the huge archive of materials that she returned home with into Petticoat Whalers took several years, the industrious and prolific Druett meanwhile produced a trio of historical novels—Abigail (Random House, 1988), the story of a whaling captain's daughter; A Promise of Gold (Macmillan U.K., 1990), about the California Gold Rush; and its sequel, Murder at the Brian Boru (HarperCollins, 1992).
Still, it was her books about women at sea that most struck a chord with readers—not to mention a series of enthusiastic editors, from Denise Roy at Simon & Schuster to Antonia Fusco at Algonquin.
"I have been extremely fortunate in that I've always found an editor who's in love with my topic," says Druett.
Her feminist subject matter was also timely, she says, primed in part by the success of Patrick O'Brian. "Patrick O'Brian has been both a huge help for nautical writing and a huge hindrance," muses Druett. "While he made publishers aware that there is a readership for nautical material, he has almost a cult following, and there's also a sense that he's had the last word.
"Other writers tend to be compared to him all the time," she says, adding wryly, "though this is perhaps a bit easier than being compared with Melville."
O'Brian's books "are very male-oriented, and I think this aroused a huge interest in the female side"—perhaps giving a boost to books like her own Hen Frigates, she says, as well as to such titles as Ahab's Wife and Ship Fever.
Druett remains an avid reader, mostly of nonfiction, with an occasional foray into science fiction (Terry Goodkind is a favorite).
"I am fascinated with the Arctic, though I would never want to write about it," she says. "I tend to go back to the old 19th-century stuff—C.S. Forester's Hornblower series, Richard Henry Dana, Smollett. And I do like Melville—I think I'm the only person in New Zealand who has read the whole unexpurgated version."
She's currently launching into a second book with Algonquin (working title: Perseverance Harbor), a story she describes as another "appalling" voyage, similar in some ways to In the Wake of Madness, "though not nearly as dark." In addition to writing, Druett reviews nautical titles for such magazines as Sea History, lectures and travels. She's looking forward to her upcoming author tour, which will find her crisscrossing many old haunts in New England.
"When I go back to the States, it's really like old home week," she says.
Looking back over the path her life has taken since that serendipitous stumble into the hole on Rarotonga, Druett wouldn't change a thing—though she does admit that if she hadn't been a writer, she might have liked to have been a builder like her father or a butcher like her stepfather ("it's as clever as cooking, and very underrated").
"Finding my agent, Laura [Langlie], always finding editors who are in love with what I'm doing—it's a tremendous privilege," she says. Plus, she adds cheerily, "having a husband who can illustrate my work—my 'souvenir' turned out quite useful."