3rd Aug 2012
For Books’ Sake Talks To: Charlotte Rogan
Growing up in a family of sailors provided knowledge of maritime tradition and etiquette that proved invaluable to Charlotte Rogan’s début novel.
The Lifeboat is a wartime tale of a group of passengers trapped on a lifeboat for three weeks after a mysterious explosion sinks their ship on the way to New York.
Narrated by 21-year-old newlywed Grace Winters, The Lifeboat documents a young women’s battle for survival, only to find herself fighting for her life again as she is put on trial for murder on her return.
The inspiration for the novel came from an old legal text documenting the trials of shipwrecked sailors. “I was intrigued not only by the physical challenges and moral dilemmas involved in lifeboat situations,” explains Rogan. “
But by the idea that the law tries to tell a story in a way that allows us to judge it from the calm and security of a courtroom. How can we judge people who have faced situations we can hardly even imagine?”
The deceptively simple premise of a group of survivors trapped together in a lifeboat quickly evolves in to a gripping examination of human nature.
Rogan started writing the novel shortly after reading the maritime legal cases, and recalls how present they were in her mind when Grace’s voice first manifested itself. ‘There is little about the story that stemmed from some organizing intention or prior field of expertise,” says Rogan.
Despite no specific expertise in this period of history, Rogan was always certain that 1914 was the ideal setting for this story. “The time frame of the story… seemed natural, as it was only with the advent of steamships that women started to go regularly to sea,” she explains.
“I also wanted to avoid the present-day era, where modern communication systems would have made immediate rescue far more likely.”
Rogan’s background growing up in a family of sailors makes her characterization all the more intriguing. The ship’s officer, Mr. Hardie, is a natural leader whose authority both intimidates and comforts the survivors. He is summed up beautifully through Grace’s eyes;
“Mr Hardie had a rough seaman’s voice. I could not always understand the things he said, but this served only to increase my faith in him. He knew about this world of water, he spoke its language, and the less I understood him, the greater the possibility that he was understood by the sea.”
So are any of the characters based on members of Rogan’s family? “My characters tend to start with a line of dialogue or a voice,” explains Rogan. “So while they are not modeled on anyone I know, traits or mannerisms of people I have met might occasionally attach to one character or another.”
The need for leadership in crisis and the nature of authoritarian leaders like Mr. Hardie became an important theme for Rogan. She was particularly intrigued by Nathaniel Philbrick’s In The Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, a non-fiction account of castaways from a 1830s Nantucket whaling ship that later inspired Moby Dick.
“According to Philbrick, survival psychologists have discovered that in the first stages of any disaster, the most effective leaders are decisive and authoritarian,” says Rogan.
“As time wears on, however, people start to want leaders who can build consensus and boost morale. It was interesting to find research that confirmed a dynamic that was already brewing among the passengers in my lifeboat.”
At times, this novel is not an easy read, as the fight for survival accurately depicts the sort of moral dilemmas everyone prays they will never have to face, like leaving behind a desperate child because your lifeboat is full to capacity.
When asked whether these scenes were difficult to write due to their traumatic nature, Rogan argues that the difficulty lay in trying to accurately and subtly convey the emotional impact on the characters rather than “getting bogged down in exhaustive detail”.
“I found myself trying to look out through the peephole of Grace’s eyes rather than attempting to achieve some accurate overview of shipwreck and aftermath,” says Rogan. “We have all experienced how even when a hundred things are happening around us, our attention tends to be riveted on some tiny detail or shocking vignette.”
Of course, these moral dilemmas become even more poignant when seen through Grace’s eyes, as she is forced to defend her actions and decisions to a judge and jury, who know little about the reality of such an ordeal.
Although quick not to label Grace Winters as simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’, Rogan speaks affectionately about her protagonist. “Grace is complex, and she certainly didn’t emerge from my imagination fully formed.
I discovered her over time, rather the way the reader discovers her. Once I realized she was ambiguous and maybe unreliable, though, I had a lot of fun making more of that.”
For a wartime tale set at sea, it could be argued that this novel stands out a little due to its notable cast of female characters. Was this a conscious decision by Rogan, or simply organic to the plot?
“It was the custom of the day to save the women and children first, so it was natural for the boat to contain relatively few men,” explains Rogan.
However, as the power struggle between men and women provides an important subtext to the events on the lifeboat, Rogan admits that the amount of female characters provides more than historical accuracy.
There is a vast different between the positions of power held by the male and female characters, and this is not necessarily reflected in intelligence or ability.
As Rogan notes, despite the male characters’ apparent expertise, “the men who have taken charge of things aren’t having much success in getting them rescued”.
“It interested me that even in a heavily female ‘society,’ men were still expected to call the shots,” says Rogan. “In 1914, women did not have much opportunity to pursue careers or take leadership roles, and even one hundred years later, most panels of experts are predominantly male.”
It is unsurprising that Rogan has a critical eye for the periods in history (and indeed, the present day) where women are marginalised. A Princeton graduate, Rogan worked many jobs in the fields of architecture and engineering before staying at home to bring up triplets and becoming a self-taught writer.
Rogan is extremely modest of these achievements, though, stating; “the people who amaze me are the ones with full times jobs and a house full of children who also manage to write a book. What I did seems very minor compared to that.”
When questioned on exactly how she even began to balance bringing up triplets with writing a novel, she replies simply, “I prioritized, and said no to a lot of things”.
On her literary influences, Rogan refers to a page found on her website that lists her most-read and most-loved texts, from the classic (Jane Eyre, Adam Bede) to the personal (In the New World: Growing up with America from the Sixties to the Eighties). She affectionately describes them as “books that astonished me, books that inspired me, and books that taught me how to write”.
Rogan notes that these texts are not just influential to her writing as simple style guides, they are read intently as a way of immersing herself in a literary mindset. “A visit to an art museum can also do this for me,” she adds.
As with many writers, Rogan admits she is a little superstitious about talking about future projects. However, she does divulge that the setting of her next novel will be South Africa, explaining, “my husband and I lived for about a year in Johannesburg, and we fell in love with the country and the people.”