Guest blog: Why did I write about the Titanic?
There are 78 books about the Titanic scheduled for publication in the UK this year, up from 68 last year and 10 the year before. Back in 2009 when I was commissioned to write a non-fiction book about the honeymoon couples on the Titanic, I was under no illusions that I would be the only writer to remember the centenary. In fact, I’m surprised there aren’t more because it’s one of the world’s most compelling true stories.
My own fascination with the Titanic began in childhood. You could say that shipbuilding is in my blood because both my grandfathers worked in John Brown’s Shipyard on the River Clyde in Glasgow, one as a welder and the other as an engineering draughtsman. My dad spent university holidays working there and often talked about the ships, although there were few being built by the time I was born. I had heard of the Titanic, the luxury ship that sank on its maiden voyage, but it wasn’t until I saw A Night to Remember as an impressionable teenager that the sheer horror of the sinking got under my skin. My god! These people had two hours and forty minutes in which to make decisions that determined whether they lived or died. It must have been horrific!
From that moment on, I always wanted to write about the Titanic so when my honeymoon couples book was commissioned I nearly fell off my chair in excitement and got stuck in straight away. I became such a dedicated Titanorak that my friends began to ration the amount of time I was allowed to talk about it to no more than 10 minutes an evening. Before, I had always been a big reader of fiction but now I’ve got dozens of novels stacked up under the bed unopened because for the last three years I haven’t read any book that is not about the Titanic. Seriously.
So I delivered Titanic Love Stories to the publisher and still I couldn’t let go. I wanted to understand what it must have been like on that ship. What did it feel like to arrive on the boat deck when the last lifeboats had gone? What did it feel like to sit in a lifeboat listening to the sound of 1500 people dying in the water around you? How could you ever get over the experience? It seemed the only way to explore this was through fiction so I wrote the novel Women and Children First, in which I tried to imagine it through the eyes of Reg, a steward, Juliette, an English lady in first class, and Annie, an Irish lady in third class. It was an emotional experience and I often found myself in tears at the computer.
I’m trying to move on from my Titanic period now but I know I will never forget it. It’s part of our cultural memory: the arrogance of these men who sailed at 22 knots through an ice field; the disorganized way the lifeboats were loaded so that many went off half-empty; the fact that the rich were prioritized over the poor. The meaning of the word ‘titanic’ has changed for us. Before April 1912, it meant ‘colossal, strong, all-powerful’, after the Greek gods called Titans. Now it has become synonymous with catastrophic disaster, one that could so easily have been avoided.