Air and Sea Stories is pleased to welcome S.K. Keogh, author of a series of swashbuckling but nuanced nautical adventures. I’m delighted to interview Susan on the relaunch of the first in the series, The Prodigal.
Here’s how Susan describes her Jack Mallory books:
A story of relentless pursuit, betrayal, and revenge:
As a young boy Jack Mallory knows horror and desolation when James Logan and his pirates murder his father and abduct his mother. Falsely accused of piracy himself, Jack is thrown into jail. He survives seven years in London’s notorious Newgate prison and emerges a hardened man seeking revenge.
His obsession with finding his mother’s kidnapper drives him to the West Indies where he becomes entangled with a fiery young woman named Maria Cordero. With a score of her own to settle with James Logan, she disguises her gender and blackmails Jack into taking her aboard his pirate brig, Prodigal, in his desperate search for Logan. Their tumultuous relationship simmers while Jack formulates a daring plan to rescue his mother and exact revenge upon Logan for destroying his family. But Logan has no intentions of losing what he now treasures more than life itself—Jack’s mother, Ella.
Welcome Susan. The first question I’d like to ask is where your affinity with the sea comes from? What made you first want to tell stories of the sea and the age of sail in particular?
“Purists will roll their eyes, but my interest in the nautical genre began when I saw the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie. It made me want to learn more about pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries and about sailing. Historically-speaking, I had never paid much attention to that era, so it really intrigued me. As I read various books, including the classic A General History of the Pyrates by Defoe, I found myself inspired to write my novel, in particular a story that was a bit of a throwback—one with a clear-cut hero and villain (though my protagonist and antagonist turned out to be a blend of light and dark, I believe), and a three-act structure, having a defined beginning, middle, and end.”
No eye-rolling here – the first Pirates film in particular was a wonderful romp, with some great at-sea action. Now, the Prodigal is a fine nautical adventure in the tradition of Treasure Island and Moonfleet. Were you influenced by any earlier ‘coming of age’ tales set at sea in the age of sail? Why do you think stories about youths thrown into contact with pirates or smugglers continue to have such enduring appeal?
“There was nothing from any of the earlier works that influenced me in that way. During the process of writing the novels, however, I was deeply inspired by the great author Patrick O’Brian and his remarkable Age of Sail series about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. (A humorous aside: I didn’t discover O’Brian’s characters until after I had written the first draft, so it is purely coincidence that I have two central characters named Jack and Stephen. I considered changing their names after reading O’Brian, but by then the names were a part of those characters’ identities in my story. Also, I look on it now as a bit of a tribute to O’Brian. Now, if only I could write like him!)
“I think the premise of youth being thrown into contact with pirates harkens back to so many classics in literature. Huck Finn, Jim Hawkins, Oliver Twist. We see ourselves in them as children, and we live their adventures with them. We wish we could have had similar adventures. We are always looking for our lost youth in one way or another.”
I think we all wish we could write like O’Brian! The Prodigal features a woman who disguises herself as a man to sail on a pirate vessel. Were you influenced by true stories of women sailing incognito aboard warships and other vessels? Were there any particular historical women who were a model for Maria’s story?
“Anyone interested in the history of pirates has heard of Anne Bonney and Mary Read, the most famous of female pirates. They, however, are completely different from Maria Cordero. Maria, like Jack, didn’t choose to become a pirate for financial gain. Piracy was the means to an end for both of them: they were seeking revenge upon a pirate, James Logan, who was responsible for the deaths of their fathers. I wanted a prominent female character for two reasons: 1) to appeal to a female audience that might not otherwise consider reading the book, and 2) the nautical genre needs female characters who serve more of a purpose than the wife of the main male character. I wanted Maria to have her own quest, a quest just as important as the male protagonist’s.”
The colonial period of American history is richly portrayed in the Jack Mallory books. What is it that draws you to this period in particular, and how did you go about creating a living, breathing portrait of colonial life on the page?
“Many Age of Sail books take place in the 18th century or early 19th century, so I didn’t want to churn out more of the same. Also, one of the early settings in the story is a town historically known as a pirate haunt—Cayona on the island of Tortuga. I wanted to use that location, which meant setting The Prodigal in the 17th century when Cayona was still being visited by pirates looking for a safe-haven to refit and relax. Around the start of my story, the town is dying a slow death.
“I needed a reason to have Jack Mallory traveling the Atlantic at the start of the story, and that reason was the same reason that so many people came to America during that time period: they were looking for work and/or religious freedoms that they did not have in their home countries. Most of these people were too poor to pay for passage from England and other countries, so their only option was to indenture themselves to rich plantation owners in places like Virginia or Carolina.
“Having decided upon Charles Town, Carolina (modern-day Charleston, South Carolina) as the setting for most of the land-based scenes in The Prodigal, The Alliance, and The Fortune, I traveled to the region multiple times to research plantation society, rice culture, and commerce. Again, I wanted to show something different, not the cotton plantations which audiences usually see in stories about the Old South. Instead, in early Charles Town, naval stores, cattle, and rice cultivation were the focus of commerce. (Charles Town only figures briefly in The Prodigal but is front and center in the following two novels.)”
Jack Mallory’s story continues with two more books after The Prodigal. Is this a trilogy, or can we hope for more books in the series in the future?
“The Prodigal was originally written as a stand-alone novel, and certainly can be read that way. But I hope my readers, like me, will reach the end of the story and wonder what comes next for the characters. The three books do, however, have a main arc for Jack that is tied up by the end of the third book, giving it the feel of a true trilogy. Looking to the future, I have completed another novel in the series, but it’s a bit of a spin-off in the sense that the main character (whose identity I won’t reveal here because of spoilers) was only a supporting actor in the first three books. Jack Mallory is certainly in the fourth one (working title: The Driver’s Wife), but this time he plays the supporting role. I’m hoping to release this title either later this year or early next year.”
I see you have taken part in some Civil War re-enactments. Can we expect to see some Civil War fiction from you in the future? What’s next for your writing career?
“I am currently in the process of shopping for an agent to represent a Civil War novel I wrote several years ago (research from that novel landed me my first publication credit back in the ’90’s in the magazine America’s Civil War). The manuscript was sitting dormant for a while until I recently resurrected and reworked it. Keep your fingers crossed.”
Good luck with that Civil War novel – I’d be very interested to read that when it appears. Thanks once again for speaking to Air and Sea Stories, S.K.Keogh
You can purchase The Prodigal or read a free sample at Amazon.com.