Author and fierce feminist Ruth Francisco chats to The Bandwagon about Catfish Pearl, and her writing process.
Ruth Francisco worked in the film industry for 15 years before selling her first novel “Confessions of a Deathmaiden” to Warner Books in 2003, followed by “Good Morning, Darkness,” which was selected by Publishers’ Weekly as one of the ten best mysteries of 2004, and “The Secret Memoirs of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.” She now has ten novels, including the best-seller “Amsterdam 2012,” published as an ebook. She is a frequent contributor to The Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and currently lives in Florida.
What inspired you to start writing?
I started this venture into pirate lore when I was on a panel of Florida authors in Tallahassee. One of the other writers was explaining some peculiar local jargon, such as “square mullet” (marijuana smuggled in bales) and “catfish pearls” (a calcification of calcium carbonate behind the gills of a sail catfish). When I heard “catfish pearl,” I sat straight up, sparks shooting out of my head. “Catfish Pearl! That’s the name of a female pirate!”
Sometimes a character chisels at your brain and won’t let you rest until you write her story.
I started to research local history during the golden age of pirates. I live near one of the first Spanish Missions in Florida, and came across an amazing story. The Apalachee Indians who lived at Mission San Luis, invited the local Deputy Governor and his family to a fiesta at a neighboring mission. During the church service, the Apalachee trapped the Spanish inside and slaughtered them. The unborn child of the Deputy Governor’s pregnant daughter was cut from its mother’s womb. There is no record of what happened to that baby. Seemed to me the perfect beginnings for my heroine Catfish Pearl.
From there, research, and the indomitable spirit that emerged from merely the name Catfish Pearl, led the way.
Tell us more about your book.
From a feminist perspective, female pirates seem like the first feminists. Anne Bonny and Mary Read, Grace O’Malley, Cheng I Sao, Rachel Wall. In reality, some were never pirates at all, merely scofflaws who fell in with pirates. But in mythology, they are feminist heroes, leaders of men, planning dangerous exploits, controlling ruffians and rogues and their own destinies. The common thread among all of these women, both in reality and in mythology, is that they did what they had to in order to survive. They refused to be victims.
I wanted to write a book about survival, how a scrappy, clever girl makes the best of every situation, lives through kidnappings and slavery, physical abuse, loss of family, loss of identity, and emerges stronger and smarter, capable of forging her own empire. It is this element of survival that makes the mythology of the female pirate queen so alluring, even to modern readers.
What do you wish you’d known about the publishing process?
I knew nothing when I started, which, at the time (pre-electronic books), was probably a good thing. I would never have had the courage to even find an agent. Now, things are very different. The old route of writing a few short stories, submitting them to magazines, then writing a book, finding an agent through queries and writer’s conferences, relying on the agent to sell your book, is long gone. Now, even agented authors with a string of traditionally published books have a hard time getting published with a publishing house. So what do I suggest?
- Write a blog about something you feel passionately about and develop a following. Participate in other blogs. Use social media to promote your blog. (I used to suggest writers keep a diary; blog writing also makes you write every day, but gives you an audience.)
- Before you embark on a novel, take a serious look at the marketplace, and see if you can find a home in Romance, Science Fiction, Horror, or Mysteries, genres that are easier to break into. Imagine your book as part of a series. The trick here is to be absolutely unique and fresh, but at the same time fit into the genres.
- See if you can write comedy, satire, or parody. Humor breaks all the rules. If you can make people laugh, doors will fly open for you. Wit and comedy spread through social media like nothing else (for example, Saturday Night Live’s Trump parodies). You may doubt your comic gifts, but try it, read it, study it. It will make you a published author.
- Self-publish on Amazon, but first make your book as good as possible. Edited, a good cover, a good blurb. Then self-promote. Use Twitter and Facebook and other social media, participate in blogs, help other writers.
- Agents? Are they necessary? Perhaps not, but keep yourself open to one. Bear in mind, agents and publishers will only be interested if they see something they know will be a best seller. Originality, brilliant writing, great story–nothing matters unless they see a big market for it. Don’t approach them unless you can honestly see your book as a huge seller.
Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
Set aside time to write every day. Be disciplined. Don’t check your emails before you sit down to write. Be curious and aware. Listen to the way people actually talk. Read your work out loud. Read newspapers and nonfiction for fresh ideas. Just today there was a story on AOL about the wives of dictators around the world. How fascinating! What they must put up with. The compromises and sacrifices. How do they live with themselves? Why do they stay? Could make a fascinating book. Every day the news will give you ideas. Keep a list. See if one ignites.
Also, I can’t impress enough about trying to write comedy and satire. In this political climate, there is a huge (yuge!) market for it. We need brilliant feminist comic voices.
What are you currently reading?
I read mostly non-fiction in my leisure. Since I’m currently obsessed with pirates, I’m reading “A Pirate of Exquisite Mind” about William Dampier, a 17th century explorer/buccaneer. I believe the more you know, the more convincing you are as a writer. Take for example how incredibly knowledgeable George R.R. Martin is about medieval history, and how it brings a brilliance to his writing the transcends the genre.
Who are your feminist heroines?
Elizabeth I of England, both in fiction and reality. To whip a country into shape, dominate and control a completely misogynistic society, politically out-maneuvering them all. Talk about survivors! She demonstrates what current feminists are grappling with. What sacrifices do women have to make in order to compete in a world not only still dominated by men, but configured on traditionally male power structures? Elizabeth gave up any hope for love or family. Can we have it all? Really? What are you willing to sacrifice?