Episode 51: Steve Goble

Spider John Rush resigned himself to the hard truth–he was returning to a world of cut and thrust, hide and pounce, blood and smoke, pitch and tar. 

He had been foolish to think of leaving that world; Spider John belonged in no other.

— Steve Goble, The Bloody Black Flag

Debut author Steve Goble takes on murder, mayhem — and pirates! The Bloody Black Flag is a swashbuckling adventure with mystery at its heart. Criminal Element gives it a crackerjack review right here, and you can keep tabs on Steve as he writes the second — and third! — Spider John adventures by checking out his blog. You can also follow him on Facebook

Steve and I chat about mysteries, but also about pirates and the great books out there for those of us who love nautical adventures. The gold standard is, of course, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, with Patrick O’Brian’s work a close second. In nonfiction, Steve also gives a shout-out to David Cordingly and his book, Under the Black Flag; Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea; and Captain Bligh’s Portable Nightmare by John Toohey.

And the term “Pirate Noir”? He credits that to mystery writer Craig McDonald, who used it in a review of The Bloody Black Flag. Well said, matey!

As always, if you’d rather read than listen, a transcript is below. Enjoy!

— Laura

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Transcript of interview with Steve Goble

Laura Brennan: Steve Goble may be a journalist and a mystery writer, but at heart, I suspect he may be a pirate. His debut novel, The Bloody Black Flag, has been dubbed “pirate noir,” and the swashbuckling is only matched by the multiple mysteries that surround the pirates and our hero.

Steve, thank you for joining me.

Steve Goble: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate this.

LB: Okay, “pirate noir.” I have to ask, did that come to you in a dream? How did you come up with pirate noir?

SG: Honestly, the phrase belongs to Craig McDonald, one of the authors who blurbed my book. I generally described it as Robert Louis Stevenson meets Arthur Conan Doyle. But he came up with pirate noir and, you know what? I kind of like it.

I guess the inspiration for the book came from my own love of seafaring fiction, pirate stories, Patrick O’Brian, Robert Louis Stevenson, all that kind of stuff. But I also grew up reading Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe, Travis McGee and tons of mystery fiction, too. I don’t know exactly where the idea hit me to combine these two loves into one great mashup book, but once the idea hit me, I couldn’t stop myself. I had to write it.

LB: Fantastic. Well, let’s talk a little bit about you. So you always did want to write fiction?

SG: Oh, yes. I fell in love with books at a very young age and always had that in the back of my mind. I was a kid in school who wrote his own comic books — I couldn’t draw them, but I could write them. I just always had that in the back of my mind.

LB: So how did you then end up as a journalist?

SG: You know, I think part of that is the same thing that draws me to mystery fiction. One of the things I like about mystery fiction in crime fiction is that I think there’s a sense of justice in those books that doesn’t always play out in the real world. You know what I mean? The bad guy tends to get caught, people tend to get what they deserve. And I see journalism as my way of helping to make those things happen in the real world more often. Expose corruption, tell the truth, get the news out there. So I think those are intertwined a little bit.

LB: And you were writing short stories all the while?

SG: Yes, I wrote short stories for a number of small-market magazines that the majority of which no longer exist. And I wrote a lot of different kinds of things. I tried to write some science fiction, and I wrote some what you would call sword and sorcery stuff. Action-oriented things along the lines of, say, Conan the Barbarian. That kind of stuff. And I enjoyed that too, pure escapist fiction, just for fun. But I always had a murder mystery idea in the back of my head. I always thought that if I go to novel length, it would be with a mystery. And eventually the idea for Spider John and the pirate mystery thing came to fruition and here I am.

LB: Well, the reason I ask about short stories is that there’s such energy in The Bloody Black Flag. It’s got the engine, that sort of high-octane writing style of short stories which just pummel you through.

SG: Wow, thank you for noticing that. I appreciate it. I think I learned my storytelling abilities through writing a great deal of action oriented stories. I like to move a story forward. It was a different feeling, though, to try to take that into a novel lengthed book. I felt like I had some learning to do in the process of that. But I think I’m incapable of writing a story that doesn’t involve a good deal of action and forward motion. As a reader, I tend to gravitate towards writers like Raymond Chandler and some of the hard-boiled detective fiction writers who have an ability to give you just enough setting and description to make you feel like you’re there but not spend three pages describing a castle. I like that kind of forward motion and strive for that in my writing.

LB: Let’s talk about The Bloody Black Flag. So first of all, someone who hasn’t read it yet, what would they need to know?

SG: Well, for one thing, I think my description of Sherlock Holmes meets Robert Louis Stevenson is an apt one. But I think the book works on a couple of different levels. If you’re coming at it from a mystery fan perspective, I think I give you all the clues you need to try to solve the crime before Spider John does. And if you just want pirates swinging off the rat lines and wielding swords and firing their pistols, I think I give you plenty of that, too. I hope it will appeal to people in both camps.

I think people should probably not expect Pirates of the Caribbean. I think I do have a little bit of humor my story, but it’s definitely not played for laughs. I tried to portray pirates as real people with different motives and reasons for being out on the high seas. I still try to pay homage to all those things that people expect when you hear pirates: you have to have some bloodshed, you have to have some swords and guns and all that. And some salty language. But I hope I didn’t write caricature pirates, if that makes sense.

LB: Oh, I don’t think you did at all. Let’s start with Spider John Rush. He is somewhat of an unusual hero: he is a pirate who doesn’t actually want to be a pirate.

SG: Yes, exactly. You know, I don’t think a lot of people who became pirates grew up thinking, wow, I want to be a pirate. A great number of the men who found themselves in that horrifying profession weren’t there necessarily by choice. They had left, perhaps, the British Navy because they were tired of low or no pay for harsh treatment. They learned their trade in the Navy, but if it wasn’t wartime, a lot of these people were just sent off. Some of them ran away from cruel conditions and found nowhere else to go, and ended up as pirates.

Of course there were others, too, who felt that they were sticking it to their betters and to hell with the King and we’re going to do what we want and rule ourselves. So there were a lot of different people in the trade and Spider got into piracy because it was better than being tossed overboard when his own ship was attacked. He was a carpenter aboard a whaler and because he had a skill that the pirates needed, they let him live. So he became a pirate.

LB: Do you know, that’s fascinating. I did not know that’s how pirates worked.

SG: Well, you know, they’re people. I think part of this maybe comes from my career in journalism, but I really try to avoid stereotypes and blanket thinking. Not all pirates are the same. Not all journalists are the same. Not all writers are the same. And so I wanted each of my characters in the book to be his own man or her own woman and not play into the clichés, you know what I mean?

LB: No, I do. And one of the things I really like in The Bloody Black Flag is the different kinds of relationships between the men on the crew. There are relationships that are for necessity and then there are friendships that form, but then there are also uneasy alliances.

SG: It’s much like any other workplace, isn’t it?

LB: Well, except that you end up with your throat slit!

SG: Yes, so far that’s never happened to me in any of my journalism jobs. Yes, you’re right, I wanted it to feel like real people on a real ship. So I worked pretty hard at that. But you know what’s interesting to me is, I also was, in writing it, very cognizant of the expectations that people would have and they picked up a book called The Bloody Black Flag, supposedly filled with pirates. I didn’t want to use a lot of, “Argh, matey!” kind of dialogue because that just — anytime I approached that, it took me right out of the story. And I just said, no, I’m going to keep it simpler.

But you have the stuff of legends to play with here: Blackbeard and Calico Jack Rackham and all these other famous pirates. So I created a character named Odin who sailed with Blackbeard, and he’s the kind of guy who tells all these tall tales, of things that he saw Blackbeard do — or claims he saw Blackbeard do. And so I got to play with some of the mythology of piracy as well through that character without necessarily making my own plot or my own story a cliché-riddled mess.

LB: Historical novels as a rule require an awful lot research. I wouldn’t even know where to start researching 18th-century pirates.

SG: No one ever is going to write a better pirate novel than Treasure Island. So let’s just, right there, that’s where I fell in love with it. But there’s a gentleman named David Cordingly who is an expert in maritime history and he wrote a book a few years ago called Under a Black Flag, which explores the myths and the reality of pirate life, and looks at how pirates are portrayed in movies and comic books and novels, etc. So that was a good starting point, but there’s also a fair amount of research out there involving the trials that pirates endured when they were caught. There’s a book called The Pirate’s Own Book which is a collection of these sort of transcripts from trials and letters that known pirates wrote to other people. They were habitually secret about their communications, they purposely hid from people so you don’t really always know exactly where a particular pirate was at a particular time or anything like that.

But through reading those trial transcripts and letters you can get a feel for the people behind the myths a little bit, and the kinds of things they worried about. There were also lists of cargo stolen from various vessels. The ship would be hit by pirates, the survivors would eventually reach port somewhere and report what they lost and what they saw, and give their accounts of the attacks. So through these kind of things you can get a look at how pirates operated and what they did, even if you can’t necessarily nail down that Ned Low or Anne Bonny or some other particular pirate was definitely in this spot at this time. There’s a lot of wiggle room there.

LB: But it gives you a real sense of what a pirate’s life would have actually been like.

SG: I think it gives you enough of a sense from our perspective here in our comfortable living rooms on dry land. But, yes, you can never really know or feel in your bones what it’s like, but you can at least imagine and get an idea.

LB: Well, I don’t need to imagine the food anymore after having read your book!

SG: (Laughter.) A much kinder to my pirates in the work in progress now, actually. They actually have a French cook. But, yes, the food aboard ships was not good in any circumstance, and on a pirate vessel perhaps worse. You had to take what you could steal. And you had to make do with what you had. You couldn’t always just pull into a friendly port and resupply. So, yeah, the bread was bad and the pork was bad. My pirates have some chickens aboard so they do have at least a chance to get some fresh eggs and things like that. But, yes, I wouldn’t want to live on that cuisine.

LB: The Bloody Black Flag is not just a swashbuckling murder mystery, it is the first in a series of swashbuckling murder mysteries. Did you always envision this to be a series?

SG: You know, I don’t know that I did immediately. The first nugget was, murder mystery on a pirate ship. That’s pretty much where I started. So then I had to invent the character. I made him a carpenter because a carpenter can wander about the ship a little bit, more so than somebody who’s stuck at the helm for his entire watch, or upon the mast as lookout. A carpenter can wander about and ask some questions. Then I had the character, so then I had to come up with, okay, who gets killed and why, and all that. And I really thought of it as a one-off.

But as I was writing it, I really started to like Spider a lot. He’s a decent man in a very bad situation, trying to be the best guy he can be in a world where people get killed almost casually. So I really started liking him. And the rest of the cast — Odin, who I mentioned earlier, and a young man named Hob, who Spider almost adopts, in a way. I really started liking these guys and wondering, well, what’s going to happen to them after this? And at that point it was, okay, yup, I’ve got a series here.

It’s going to be a challenge to sustain it. I know that going forward all the books are going to have murders and all the books are going to have pirates. Now, they may not all take place on a pirate ship; as a matter fact, book three, which I’m just beginning to work out the details of now, so far looks like most of it’s going to be on dry land in England. But, yes, I just really fell in love with these guys and I couldn’t find other books out there like this one. I tried to see if anyone had written a pirate murder mystery before, and I came up empty. So I think I’m on to something, or at least I hope I am. And, yes, I’m looking forward to seeing where it all goes.

LB: I saw on your blog that you wrote a blog post about how your minor characters were staging a mutiny.

SG: (Laughter.) What I meant by that is that they became real people in my head, with their own ambitions and plans and didn’t always want to do the things I thought I wanted them to do to further my plot. One of the things that usually takes me out of the story when I’m reading is if an otherwise intelligent character does something that seems silly and stupid just because that makes the plot move forward. Or if you have a character who doesn’t assert himself or herself in a situation simply because that would make the plot messier.

My guys started thinking on their own and I realized that, as I was writing, wow, in this particular scene Odin would react a certain way to this and cause some problems that I hadn’t anticipated. But once I looked at it through Odin’s eyes, yeah, he might actually get them all thrown off the ship. I need to account for what Odin’s doing here. And the same with Hob, the young boy who, in the second book, is carpenter’s mate. He’s actually working with Spider, reluctantly. He would much rather be a pirate than a carpenter. But he has his own dreams and ambitions and thoughts and they get in the way little bit. I think it made book two a little richer, a little more complicated, and I like these characters more now than I did when I started. So I’m having fun with it.

LB: So people reading your wonderful maritime pirate adventure, what other books do you recommend if they just can’t get enough?

SG: Well, we mentioned Treasure Island, start there. If you’ve not read that, you need to. But there’s some real life stuff out there, too, that fits in with what we talked about, the research, etc. Nathaniel Philbrick wrote a book called In the Heart of the Sea in which he depicts the real life tragedy aboard a whaler in the 1800s. The ship was called The Essex and it actually was pummeled by a massive whale that just tore the ship apart, and then had to take to boats across the sea and try to find safety. It’s a gripping real life story, the inspiration for Moby Dick, it’s just a great book that gives you the feel of the hardships that, not just pirates, but anybody at that time working on a vessel. It was all wood and rope and canvas and trying to survive on the sea. It was always an adventure.

Captain Bligh’s Portable Nightmare, a book by John Toohey. People have heard of Captain Bligh, of course. He was the captain on The Bounty who ended up being tossed overboard in a boat with a handful of his own loyal men and had to cross most of the Pacific in what is probably one of the more unbelievable exploits on the high seas. And the things that these men went through, the deprivation of food and water and just to survive — that’s pretty damn good book, too. I recommend that to people.

LB: Fantastic! How can people keep up with you online? Where can they find you?

SG: SteveGoble.com is my blog. I don’t write a lot there, but I try to post at least every couple of weeks or so. Most of it is stuff I’m reading and mini reviews of that nature, but occasionally inside looks at what I’m doing with my books, etc. I’m also on Twitter. I love Twitter. Steve_Goble. And Facebook: Steve Goble Author.

LB: So, what is next for you?

SG: Well, the book actually hits the stores tomorrow, as we’re speaking, today on a Monday. The book’s in the stores tomorrow.

LB: It will have been out a week when this goes live.

SG: Okay. So, tomorrow, item one on the agenda, we go to a bookstore, we find my book on the shelf, post pictures on Facebook. I’ll be a nervous wreck all day. Then later tomorrow we’ll have friends and family over and celebrate. Then I begin my continued tour of book places and stores and libraries, etc., trying to sell this one while finishing up a book two, which right now is in the hands of my first readers. These are people who take my first draft and read it and tell me where I messed up. The number one piece of advice I can give to anyone out there who wants to be a writer: find people who know good stories and are honest enough to tell you what you did wrong. They are so valuable. So, yes, I’m going over notes from them now to make book two better.

I have a modern day cop series in the works that is going to explore a lot of political themes, you know, the sort of cultural divide that people find themselves in today. And a lot of that’s going to be driven by the journalism career, I’m sure. And plotting the third Spider John book, where things go very, very wrong for Spider and his friends.

LB: Fantastic. Thank you so much, Steve, for joining me today.

SG: Thank you for having me. This was fun.