Shelagh's Summer Specials: Writing the Titanic

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In this April 10, 1912, file photo, the Titanic leaves Southampton, England, on its maiden voyage to New York City. Five days into its journey, the ship struck an iceberg and sank, resulting in the deaths of more than 1,500 people (Associated Press)

Shelagh Rogers interviewed many fabulous authors this past season on The Next Chapter. Every now and then, she would have a conversation so compelling, juicy, riveting or fascinating that it deserved more time than the radio show could allow. So, The Next Chapter has offered up extended versions of those conversations as special webisodes and podcasts.

Every Thursday in July and August, CBC Books will bring you Shelagh's Summer Specials, an encore presentation of those great full-length conversations.

Shelagh's Summer Special this week is her conversation with with two authors who have written books about the Titanic for young people. Sarah Ellis's book is entitled That Fatal Night: The Titanic Diary of Dorothy Wilton. Hugh Brewster's book is called RMS Titanic: Gilded Lives on a Fatal Voyage. An edited version of this interview originally aired on the April 9, 2012, episode.

We hope you enjoy!

You can hear The Next Chapter on CBC Radio One every Monday at 1 p.m. and Saturday at 4 p.m. (a half hour later in Newfoundland).

"It was sad when the great ship went down."


It's hard to believe that the RMS Titanic sank 100 years ago. Her life was short -- she sank just five days after embarking on her maiden voyage -- but her legacy has been great. The story of the Titanic has been captured in countless songs, films and books, and it has become embedded in our collective consciousness. But what makes the story of the Titanic so compelling? Of all the storied ships throughout history, why has this particular ship captured our imagination? The Next Chapter invited two authors fascinated with the Titanic, Sarah Ellis and Hugh Brewster, to the studio to find out.

Ellis was fascinated with the Titanic and its aftermath as a narrative vehicle more so than the sinking itself. Her book for young readers, Dear Canada: That Fateful Night, deals with a young girl's struggle to move past the accident and overcome her survivor's guilt. "I thought of the Titanic really as an excuse for getting inside my particular character," she told The Next Chapter host Shelagh Rogers. "There's that time in life -- 11, 12, 13 -- where you grow up in leaps rather than gradually. Often it's a crisis that precipitates such a leap. And if you're looking for a crisis, the Titanic is it."

Brewster, on the other hand, has long been fascinated with the story. His book, RMS Titanic, is just the latest in a long career in publishing and writing books about the doomed ship, including Robert Ballard's The Discovery of the Titanic and the book that would inspire James Cameron's film, Titanic: An Illustrated History. For Brewster, the sinking of the supposedly unsinkable ship is contemporary society's most powerful parable.


"I think the Titanic resonates deeply with human experience and it appeals to everyone young and old," he said. Brewster points to how the Titanic has become the go-to metaphor for impending disaster and it's possibly more prevalent in popular culture than Bible stories and ancient Greek and Roman myths. It's used to discuss most man-made disasters, from the political to the technological. "If we didn't have it, we'd have to invent it."

What makes the Titanic story so enduring, however, is its ability to adapt and evolve. "The Titanic is often seen as the warning bell for a complacent society steaming towards disaster," Brewster said. In the 1920s, it was seen as foreshadowing the greater disaster come, the First World War. In the 1980s, the Titanic was seen as a story of technological innovation and the potential dangers of the upcoming digital era. In the economically struggling 2000s, with the centenary taking place in early 2012, the Titanic is seen as a stoic reminder that difficult times can happen at any time.

"It will always come back as each new generation discovers it and reinterprets it," Brewster said. "It's the unsinkable subject."

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