Thievery: The Iceberg
On Thursdays, I invite my favourite writers to share the inspirations behind their stories. Here’s one from author and journalist Andrea Mullaney.
‘The Iceberg’ was published in Alt Hist #6.
She looked so young. Seventeen, they’d told me, but I might have taken her for fourteen. Not at all like someone accused of a war crime.
The pug-faced wardress must have noticed my hesitation.
“Aye, that’s her – looks like butter wouldn’t melt, doesn’t she? But don’t be taken in. She’s a hardened liar.”
The slim, cool figure, perched schoolgirl-style on the edge of the cell bench, must have been able to hear: the grill on the door was open and the war dress hadn’t bothered to lower her voice. But the girl showed no indication of it, her gaze fixed on the bare stone floor at her feet, her hands neatly folded in her lap. I tried not to lower my own voice in compensation.
“I’ll see her now, please.”
The Inspiration:The Inspiration:
Autolycus in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale calls himself “a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles”, which is about the best description any writer could have. He’s actually a thief, which seems rather appropriate.
I ‘stole’ an extraordinary true story for ‘The Iceberg’. I came across it, randomly, in a newspaper letters page a couple of years ago. Someone had written in to correct a reference in a previous article, which I didn’t see, about the band which played on the Titanic and mentioned in passing that a young woman related to one of them was later charged with a war crime. I seized on this with the ruthless excitement of a thieving writer and immediately went online to try to find out more.
Discovering the facts of Kate Hume’s bizarre and rather sad case was fairly straightforward, for they were reported widely at the time and are known particularly to the large community of Titanic obsessives (Amazon shows more than 4000 books on the subject: pretty much everything connected to it has been explored. There have been academic articles written about the pets on board).
But the facts seemed to me like, well, the tip of the iceberg. Why on earth did this Scottish teenager do what she did? What did people think of it at the time? Clearly there was some sort of connection to the trauma of the tragedy, a couple of years before, but what exactly? It seemed like a psychological mystery and I decided to tell it by showing Kate’s lawyer struggling to understand it himself as he tries to put together her defence, while finding himself drawn to this girl, who by all accounts was intelligent, calm and yet (understandably) emotional at times. I saw her as someone with so much going on beneath the respectable surface she presented to the world. But then, we’re all like that, aren’t we? And like the ‘practically unsinkable’ ship itself, her attempts to control her environment, to keep up that façade, inevitably foundered.
I workshopped the story over a number of weeks, in sections, and one of the most interesting results was seeing the guesses that people made about the story before certain details were revealed. They could have just gone off and looked things up but I’m glad they didn’t, because this isn’t really a true story. I’ve kept to the facts of the case – the details about Kate’s family background and even the lawyer, John Wilson’s, visit to her on Boxing Day 1914 are, as far as I know, all accurate.
But neither left a written testimony. I don’t truly know what either of them was really like. I stole their names and their roles in a historic case – remembered chiefly because of a connection to a more popular tragedy that has inspired many more stories and films – and I made up the rest. I had to come to my own conclusions about Kate and I hope that, as someone who clearly had a vivid imagination herself, she would forgive me for all my assumptions and mistakes.
It seems appropriate that the story ended up being published in a magazine, Alt Hist, which mixes historical fiction and alternate history stories, so it sits alongside tales where Hitler survived WWII and Russia invades Cold War Berlin. For, to be honest, mine is as fictional as they are.
I’m currently working on a historical novel, The Ghost Marriage, which was sparked, again, by an aside about a certain Chinese tradition in a non-fiction book about something else entirely. Since then I’ve immersed myself in ‘proper’ research to understand the period and place. But one of the characters forced herself into the story after I saw an arresting Victorian portrait photograph; part of the story was inspired by misheard lyrics from an old ’70s pop song; a vital scene is based on a memorable walk I took as a teenager on holiday in Tenerife but mashed up with something taken from my favourite bit of my favourite novel. All these stolen, snapped-up bits and pieces blend together – hopefully – into something new.
Read ‘The Iceberg’ in Alt Hist.