Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Interview with Historical Fiction Author Kevin C. Mills

Kevin C. Mills has been an award-winning journalist for over 20 years, writing for for the Lewiston Sun Journal, The Boston Globe, The Portland Press Herald and the Lynn Daily Evening Item. He is a descendant of lighthouse keepers, shipbuilders and merchant mariners. Two of his ancestors, poetess Celia Thaxter and maritime author George S. Wasson, are integral parts of Maine’s early literary heritage.

Hello, Kevin. So you’re a descendant of lighthouse keepers and mariners. That’s so interesting! Please tell us about your book.

Sons and Daughters of the Ocean takes readers back to the age of sail, where fortunes were made and lives were shaped by the fickle winds that raged across the oceans. It is a historical look at a small coastal village – Brooks Harbor, Maine. Its close proximity to the ocean creates an environment in which the shipping industry is the lifeblood of the town. The community is filled with merchant mariners, shipbuilders and crew. Those that don't earn their keep directly from the sea-faring life either profit or benefit from the shipping industry.

Sammy Jones, Albert Miller and Sarah Dyer are products of that environment. Their families have rich maritime histories and all three characters are about to embark on a distinctive course in their lives that change them forever. They are not only products of their environment but also have their fortunes shaped by the ocean's wake.

Jones works on the harbor docks, eager to follow the sea like his father. Miller works his family farm and feels trapped by its borders. Dyer is the daughter of one of the town’s most prominent sea captains.

All three characters tell their individual stories from a first-person perspective. You feel their joy and hurt with their sorrows. You experience their fear and follow their lives from inside their minds and hearts. You don't just read about the age of sail and the people it evolves around, you live that life and step back in time with each of these characters. It isn’t just a historical novel about sailing. It is a tale of adventure, courage, love and destiny.

I love adventure stories like this. Where did you get your inspiration for this novel?

I had spent a couple years researching my family tree and putting together two volumes of family history for various relatives. When those projects were about complete, I was interested in writing a novel. As a sports journalist, I’ve always stayed true to “Write what you know.” So when looking at subject matter for my novel, the stories from my maritime heritage were still fresh in my mind. They made a nice backdrop to start with. I had a number of experiences from various ancestors to draw from and that provided the framework I needed to build from.

I also had read the Civil War trilogy written by Michael and Jeffrey Shaara. I was interested in writing a historical novel much like The Killer Angels and then follow it with a sequel and a prequel.

Sons and Daughters of the Ocean ended up being that book. I’m currently writing Breakwater, the sequel. It follows the Miller family generations later. Following that, I’ll write Sea of Liberty, a story about Eli Miller and the privateering age during the American Revolution.

I love reading historical fiction because I learn so much, especially about American history. You said that this story is based loosely on your own family history of shipbuilders, merchant mariners and lighthouse keepers. Did you have to do a lot of research before writing this story, and what kind of research did you do?

I already had the family tree with dates and facts. I wanted to go beyond those names and dates. I read through other books and diaries, contacted historical societies, dug through family archives and contacted relatives I’d never met. I sorted through various documents, like wills, census records, real estate transactions, schooner wreck reports and bills of sale for schooners. I asked questions and sought answers to those questions.

I also started sailing on the three-masted schooner Victory Chimes for a week each summer. One of my ancestors built the first three-masted schooner of its kind in the Northeast. That was one of the reasons I chose to sail on the Chimes, which is the last of its kind still sailing the Maine coast. By watching the crew and participating, I learned a great deal about sailing schooners. Those trips also gave me a perspective of the Maine coast I’d never seen before, a glimpse like my ancestors had as they sailed the coast. A number of chapters were written while onboard the Chimes, describing actual scenes from along the coast, including the very harbors, coves, island and channels my ancestors sailed.

I also did a great deal of research through reading books about the age of sail. Among the half dozen books or so I researched, three of them were by my ancestor George S. Wasson. His work not only provided great insight and information on the schooner era but also gave me examples of the dialect of that time. 

Wow! You did a lot of research. Leon Garfield said, “The historian, if honest, gives us a photograph; the storyteller gives us a painting.” In other words, a storyteller makes us feel part of the story as if we were actually there, and we can understand what our ancestors went through. Tell me your thoughts about this.

I didn’t know any of these ancestors, obviously. I had plenty of facts and details of their lives but knew hardly anything about their personalities. I took the foundational knowledge of these people and let their characters evolve and develop. It kind of brought these ancestors of mine to life for some of us, I think. But I think these characters serve as models of all people from that era. I think any reader can read their stories and feel as though they’re learning about their own ancestors in that time.

Writing the characters from the first person truly puts the reader in that character. So I think the book provides an accurate portrayal of people during the age of sail. The people I’ve heard from have loved the book. Whether they be related to me or not, I think the style of the book makes the reader feel as though they’re connected to these characters. 

Now it’s time to tell us something about the real you that we’ll never forget.

My first experience writing about sailing was while working for a paper in Lynn, Mass. While in college, the co-operative education program set me up with jobs with the Boston Globe and Lynn Daily Evening Item. During the summer, the Item had me cover the sailing beat out of Marblehead. It was akin to sticking the newbie with the least desirable assignment. Much to their surprise, I took a liking to the coverage and spent the summers covering things like Marblehead Race Week and the Finn Class Olympic Trials. I recently ran into the current sports editor at the Item, who told me that they’ve never been able to replace me in the 20 years since I served as their sailing scribe.

Back then, I wasn’t even aware of maritime history of my ancestors. During those summers of covering sailing, I actually knew absolutely nothing about sailing. In fact, the first time I ever went sailing was years later when I had an afternoon sail on a Maine schooner in Penobscot Bay. I suppose it’s kind of like me covering professional hockey for 10-plus years and never having stepped on a sheet of ice wearing skates.

I understand what you mean. Thank you Kevin, for this wonderful interview. For those interested in learning more, you may visit Kevin’s Website and Facebook.


Linda Badurek said...

Hooray! Another book written from the inspiration of the author's own family history research!
Hooray! Another book about one of my favorite places: Maine
Hooray! Another book about one of my dreams: Sailing the Maine Coast and seeing those beautiful little towns from the water... their best side!
Hooray! Another book I might win and enjoy by the fireside... even if it is summer now... I can dream!
Linda Badurek: badurekl@gmail.com

Laurean Brooks said...


I'd love to read this book! Family history and sea adventures intrigue me. And you are doing a prequel and a sequel? That should be fun.

Enter me in the giveaway, please. landtbeth@yahoo.com

apple blossom said...

please enter me in this book giveaway thanks

ABreading4fun [at] gmail [dot] com

Anonymous said...
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Cheryl said...

I would love to read this book. The Shaara Civil War trilogy is one of my favorite series and our family loves lighthouses. My girls and their father climbed the Cape Hatteras Light in 2009.

Thanks for the chance to win. Best of luck with your book.



Diana said...

This sounds wonderful. My family (on my father's side) is from Maine and descended from the original shipbuilders there. My dad grew up in Camden, Rockport. Thanks for this chance to win this book!


karenk said...

what a wonderful book to read this summer...thanks for the chance :)

kmkuka at yahoo dot com

Kat said...

Sounds like a book I would love to read!

katsaddress AT gmail DOT com

Verda Hebner said...

Please, enter me in your give-away. I want to read the book. The one about the sea.... verdawn7@gmail.com

Anonymous said...

Good Luck with the new book Keven!!!

Steve Caldwell from the old land(Gorham)

Jennifer Dove said...

Wow, what a wonderful opportunity to take a history gathering task and bring it to life, fully with you taking time on the three mast schooner each summer. I for one love historical fiction when the author can really let us feel, smell and live, if you will, those remarkable moments that shaped our history. Thank you for the interview, I am very excited to dive into the lives of three characters and their intimate relationship with the ocean.

Jennifer Dove jdovefamily@gmail.com

Jolynn_Reads said...

I really like Historical Fiction Books


E Maxim said...

Excellent article depicting the basis of Kevin's novel. Working with Kevin at the paper reading his sports adventures the last 13+ years I know he dedicates himself to his writing subject. Being a history buff myself (not maritime), I am intrigued by all of Kevin's research and look forward to reading this! Eric Maxim --- mudville36@yahoo.com

Linda Weaver Clarke said...

Congratulations, Verda! You are the winner of this awesome book. I know you'll enjoy it. Thanks for visiting my blog, everyone.