Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Author Greta van der Rol discusses bringing historical figures to life

In the previous post, guest blogger Greta van der Rol talked about her research of the events before and after the wreck of the Dutch ship Batavia. In this one, she'll give us some insight into how she developed her characters from that information:

"Okay, so I had a pretty good idea of the recorded facts and the historical and visual context. But that’s not a novel, is it? Characters make novels.

Always, always I went back to the journal to try to see into these people’s minds. Most historians support the notion that the Batavia’s captain, Adriaen Jacobsz, was in a plot with Cornelisz to hijack the Batavia, kill Pelsaert and go pirating. Drake-Brockman supported that belief, so did Dash, although Godard (another amateur) had his doubts. But it seemed strange to me for many, many reasons, not least because there is no record of Jacobsz having been executed.

My picture of Pelsaert soon became one of a man trying to salvage his own reputation. He and Jacobsz had a history, they despised each other. Reading the early part of the journal, where Pelsaert describes the initial wreck, I raised an eyebrow as Pelsaert used ‘I’, implying he gave orders that would have been given by the captain. The same thing happened during the longboat’s journey as Pelsaert claimed credit for things I felt were beyond his knowledge. Jacobsz deserved the credit and received none. It was also important to remember the man for whom Pelsaert was writing this journal – the formidable Jan Pieterszoon Coen, Governor of the Indies. A harsh and puritanical man, he was unimpressed (to say the least) at the loss of a ship and its cargo. One could expect Pelsaert to be at pains to present his own actions in the best possible light.

In contrast, my picture of the captain was of a tough, strong, capable man. A hard drinker, a womaniser sure enough. But a true leader, somebody these hardened seamen would follow. Zwaantie, the young woman who won Jacobsz’s affection, is depicted in the journal as a tart. But again, some of the evidence for that conjecture comes from Cornelisz. I think the mere fact that Jacobsz took Zwaantie with him in the longboat indicates a little more than a casual fling.

The journal reveals Cornelisz as a psychopath, silver-tongued, charismatic and an accomplished liar who would say anything to save himself. The main evidence for the existence of the piracy plot implicating Jacobsz comes from Cornelisz. There is corroborating evidence given by some of the other henchmen, but men said things like “I didn’t know about a plot until after the wreck” or evidence was extracted through torture. I began to wonder if I could build a case that Cornelisz deliberately wove a tale of a plot to seduce his followers. He needed sailors to pull off his plan to capture a rescue ship and he was a merchant. What better way to add validity to his plan than to implicate the popular captain? Pelsaert, of course, jumped at the notion of a plot.

The other two characters, Lucretia and Wiebbe Hayes, are merely bit players in the journal. Dash and Drake-Brockman gave me the wherewithal to paint Lucretia as a real woman, a grieving mother going off to join her husband in a far-off land. Combine that with the perilous situation of a high-born lady left with a mob of louts and it’s easy enough to imagine how difficult it would be for her. I took the opportunity to use her as the eyes of the victims, if you like, interpreting events on Batavia’s Graveyard from her point of view.

Dash also gave me a start with Hayes, probably a junior son of a fairly well-born family. From there, the unwritten story emerges in the journal. A leader who could pull together such a disparate bunch of men and forge them into a group that could threaten armed thugs.

Of course I made some things up. It’s a novel, after all. I guess every historian has a duty to examine the facts and interpret them and in a way, that’s what I’ve tried to do in this book. One reader (who knew the history) describes the novel as dramatization rather than fiction. I’ll take that, with a bow."


Many, many thanks, Greta! To say that I was impressed by this novel is a huge understatement. It was riveting. A bit adventure and thriller - something you usually don't get in a historical novel. If you haven't yet heard of it, do check it out on Amazon.com or see my review on Die a Dry Death below.

Until later,


1 comment:

Anita Davison said...

As an author who is also trying to instil a human personality into a well known historical figure, I too have learned how hard it is to make a two dimensional name into a real person with flaws, personl characteristics, likes and dislikes and a sense of humour, yet still portray them as the reader expects. Fascinating interview too.