Books·Magic 8 Q&A

The strangest thing historical writer Stephen Bown has done while researching a book

The author of Island of the Blue Foxes answers eight questions submitted by eight other writers.
Stephen Bown is the author of Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on Bering's Great Voyage to Alaska. (Craig Douce)

Stephen Bown is an award-winning historical nonfiction author. His book, White Eskimo, was shortlisted for the Canadian Authors Association Award for history and won the William Mills Prize for Polar Books, which honours the best Arctic or Antarctic nonfiction. Bown's latest book, Island of the Blue Foxes, is an account of the Great Northern Expedition, which was set in motion by Russia's Peter the Great during the early 1700s and explored Siberia and Alaska.

​Below, Bown takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A and answers eight questions from eight fellow writers.

1. Billie Livingston asks, "What's the most peculiar thing you've done in order to research a story?"

For my book on the famous Danish-Greenlandic ethnographer and explorer Knud Rasmussen, there was a good deal of material that was available only in Danish, a language that I don't speak or read. I spent several months using various computer programs to scan, convert and translate the material into English. Then I asked a Danish friend to polish the translations. It was tedious, but it achieved the desired result.

2. Bill Waiser asks, "Do you work from an outline or freestyle?"

Definitely an outline — and then even a sub-outline, and perhaps a sub-sub-outline. I'm a real planner.

3. Donna Morrissey asks, "What are the biggest hurdles to overcome in your personal life while you're creating a book?"

It used to be finding the time in the afternoon (my best writing time after puttering all morning) to get my thoughts down, before my kids came home from school and began doing what kids do. I'm glad I had the time with them, but it was a little stressful at times. They are older now and know when to leave me to my work.

4. Vivek Shraya asks, "What is the worst criticism you have received about your writing and how has it impacted you and your writing?"

I received an email through my website from someone who took the time to write that my book was the worst, most horrible book he had ever read, that the descriptions made him nauseous and other nasty things. The book in question was about scurvy in the Royal Navy, so I had to agree that conditions for sailors on 18th century ships were appalling — but surely an author can't be blamed for the fact that life was rough for a lot of people in past ages. I just deleted the message and forgot about it until now.

5. Durga Chew-Bose asks, "What is your ideal writing snack?"

Tamari-roasted almonds!

6. Robert Currie asks, "What book by someone else do you wish you had written, and why?"

Longitude by Dava Sobel — it sold a bazillion copies (and was also good). But also Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari because it is so well written and filled with incredible and accessible insights and wisdom into the reasons for the structure of human society and behavior over thousands of years.

7. Esta Spalding asks, "What was your favourite book as a child? Has that book influenced the way you write as an adult? If so, how?"

As a young man my favourite book was Cugel's Saga by Jack Vance — a somewhat cynical and amusing fantasy travel account set millions of years in the future, when the sun is dying and the earth is a giant necropolis of past civilizations. From his own extensive travels in Indonesia and Borneo in the 1950s, Vance was exposed to societies shockingly different from his own, which clearly helped him see the absurdities and pretensions of humanity. There is a certain smirk underlying his language and the actions and speeches of his characters that has helped me open my mind to understand the decisions and actions of the true historical individuals that I write about. 

8. Chevy Stevens asks, "Is there another genre or style of book you would like to write? Why haven't you?"

My career has been in historical biography and adventure. Someday I would like to write young adult fantasy and I have many ideas. But I've been busy with my nonfiction writing and with my family. It will be a learning curve to perfect a new genre and I guess, since I have no time, it will have to wait.

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