1. Marshall, what inspired you to pen Sulu Sea?
I was inspired by my love of the sea and all the wonderful stories about the sea that have been written over the years, especially Far Tartuga, by Peter Mathiessen. At the time, my wife Betty and I were living aboard our boat Fandango and sailing through the very waters Mathiessen described so beautifully. I had just earned my 50-Ton Master’s license and the story about a sea captain just seemed to fall into place.
2. What is Sulu Sea about?
The novel is about Joaquin O’Hara, a sea captain whose cruise ship, Sulu Sea, runs aground on a reef and sinks with great loss of life. His reputation ruined, he goes into a decline, drinks to excess, and becomes skipper of a small coastal freighter trading among the islands. He is hired by a beautiful Colombian woman to carry her and several crates of her personal belongings from Cartagena to Miami. Once at sea, O’Hara discovers she is the runaway wife of a powerful drug lord and the crates contain several million dollars she has stolen from the cartel. As they seek to elude agents of the cartel, a powerful bond forms between the aristocratic Colombian woman and the disgraced captain. Together they seek to discover what really happened on the night the Sulu Sea went down and, perhaps, clear O’Hara’s name.
3. This is your debut novel at age 87. Late bloomer?
I suppose at 87, I am a late bloomer as a novelist. But there have been a lot of little blossoms along the way. Over the years, I have achieved some success as a playwright, a writer of teleplays, film, documentaries and short stories. I believe all those stories, plus my experience as a sailor, prepared me to write this novel. When I read Sulu Sea today, I recognize little pieces of my past, and scenes that might have been impossible to write earlier in my career as a writer.
4. Although it’s the first novel under your own name, I understand you ghostwrote four novels, one of which served as the basis for a successful television miniseries. What is it like to see your work successful but no one can know it’s yours?
I admit there are certainly times when I wish I could take credit for the novels I ghost-wrote, it would be of tremendous help, for instance, in publicizing Sulu Sea. But I console myself with the fact that the work wasn’t entirely my own. Although the language and many elements of the plot were mine, I was basically hitchhiking on someone else’s ideas. And they were very sound ideas, ones I would never have come up with on my own. It also was a very good learning experience, figuring out how to create a world for the characters and weave them together into a compelling story.
5. As a former journalist and writer of over 200 film and television scripts, including one for an ABC News documentary that won an EMMY, what have you found to be the secret formula for writing interesting stories?
I believe it is essential to search for the human element in any story. Whether the story is about art or history or science or the environment or is purely fictional, it is critical to find and disclose its connections to the lives of the human beings the story touches. I also believe it is important for the story to have a point of view, that it offer some useful truth, and that the reader’s life has been somehow enriched by the telling. In the case of Sulu Sea, I think it reveals much about redemption. No matter how low Captain O’Hara was driven down into darkness, he found the power within himself to climb back into the light.
6. In your new thriller, the adventure revolved around a disgraced sea captain looking to clear his name. As an avid sailor yourself, is the authenticity of the action in the book derived from your boating experience?
My first-hand knowledge of the Caribbean helped me create an authentic world in which the action takes place. As a sailor and as a writer, I had been to those places and could describe them in a way that readers could imagine that they were actually there. Because of my love of the Caribbean, I hope I was able to reflect that love through my characters. My experience as a sailor was helpful in describing what it was like to be at sea and how the characters reacted to certain conditions, especially hurricanes and storms.
7. You once lived on a boat for nine years and actually crafted the first four chapters of Sulu Sea while on the boat. What draws you to the life at sea?
Ever since I was young, I have devoured books about the sea. There was a section in our school library that contained books by Melville, Conrad, Jack London, and a wonderful series by Nordhoff and Hall, who wrote Mutiny on The Bounty. I read everything I could get my hands on, even the dull parts of Moby Dick. Jack London led me to the adventures of the lone sailors. Joshua Slocum, Bernard Moitessier, Robin Knox Johnson, all who sailed single-handed around the world. I knew I would never dare what these sailors did, certainly not alone, but maybe, in the future, I could experience just a taste of the life they lived.
8. Your book takes places in locations you have sailed to and spent many days in. What is the allure of that part of the world?
I find that the Caribbean region offers two different and opposite appeals – the appeal of stillness and of energy. There is the stillness of hidden white beaches, deserted islands, blue lagoons, soft breezes stirring the palms. It is a stillness that enters and eases the mind. You are swept into an almost sensual languor. Yet, within that setting are people noted for their creative and political energy. It is an energy reflected in their music, their art, and in their revolutions, even in the frequency of their crimes. Few regions could be so peaceful, yet so infused with the possibility of danger. It is an irresistible combination.
9. Your story revolves around the love between a beautiful, aristocratic woman and a damaged, often drunk, sea captain. Wouldn’t that love connection be rather unlikely in real life?
I believe the love between Captain O’Hara and Gabriela, though unexpected, was absolutely believable. She was beautiful, sexy, smart, funny, unavailable and mysterious. Of course, he would be drawn to her. What man would not be? But what about her love for him? There is probably something to the old saying that “all women love a bad boy,” that they are attracted to wild, and dangerous men. But it is likely Gabriela was also drawn to O’Hara because he was damaged. He had a broken wing and maybe she could help him fly again. And so, they were drawn together into a strange and profound relationship, in spite of their differences, and in spite of the agonizing events that would seem certain to drive them apart.
10. How would you describe your writing style? Which authors would you compare yourself with?
I have been told I am a very visual writer. I suppose it comes from all the years looking at life through a camera. I also try to involve the reader’s other senses, sounds and scents, even tastes. A book about the sea is ideal for this, because no other place stimulates the totality of our senses so completely, moment to moment, even our sense of the unknown. It was Longfellow who wrote: “My soul is full of longing for the secrets of the sea.” In my writing, I try to reveal that longing. I also am in love with language, the music of it, the meter. Hopefully, readers can hear that music in the pages of Sulu Sea. As for comparisons with other authors, I don’t really know how to compare. Each has his or her story to tell, their own song to sing.
11. Sulu Sea is a literary, fast-paced thriller that has lots of twists and turns. Who do you see playing the lead roles of a movie based on your book?
For Captain O’Hara, I see Daniel Craig. He is just the right age and could play a role that required him to be an expert seaman, a lover, a scruffy drunk, and a skilled and fierce fighter, sometimes all at the same time. His huge Mate, Toussaint, the former Haitian priest, could be played by the fine English actor Idris Elba. You may remember him from The Dark Tower, and The Avengers, Infinity Wars. I would love to see the young Mexican actress Jennifer Gomez, play the sultry Gabriela. The greatest challenge would be casting Valentina, the exotic 6-foot four, former Russian brigade commander. There are not that many tall albino women in the acting pool.Possibly, the stunning Russian albino model Zahar.
12. How are books like yours a welcome escape for people who have been in isolation during the pandemic?
The pandemic held us all captive for more than a year. So much of the enjoyment of life was denied us, contact with friends and family, the joys of entertainment outside the home. Adventure books like Sulu Sea are a welcome escape from that enforced imprisonment. Here, for a few hours, you can step aboard the little freighter Galway Bay, have a martini with Captain O’Hara, and sail away to the misty isles with Toussaint, Valentina and Gabriela. Now you can dive the magnificent reef at Swan Island, ride out a hurricane, fight human traffickers and drug lords with the legendary guerrilla El Tigre, even make love in the ancient Mayan Temple of the Warriors.
13. Your assignments over the past five decades have taken you across the globe. Where does that adventurous spirit come from?
Maybe it began when my mother, a doctor’s daughter, eloped with a penniless singer in a Vaudeville group. Their first child, my older brother, inherited the musical gene from my father, and as a pre-teen, traveled throughout Europe as a member and soloist in the Vienna Boys’ Choir. Later he traveled to strange places as a Fulbright Scholar at the Sorbonne. Then, after being highly decorated in WWII, he became a reporter and contributing editor of Time Magazine. My three daughters have trekked Europe, Asia, and Africa. My son is an intrepid diver and has dived reefs as far away as Polynesia. I suppose travel and adventure are in my family’s DNA, especially Betty Sue, my wife and shipmate, fine navigator, diver, and private pilot who soloed when she was seven months pregnant with our youngest daughter.
14. Where does the title for your book derive from?
A number of years ago, I was assigned to write a script about an around-the-world voyage offered by Royal Viking Cruise Line. Obviously, it was impossible to have the film crew make the whole voyage, so, we filmed aboard ship from Bali, in Indonesia, to Hong Kong. In order to make the passage, it was necessary to pass through a body of water called the Sulu Sea. At the time, there were stories of pirates there, kidnappings and civil unrest, and just the name conjured up thoughts of mystery and intrigue and strange adventure. When it was time to name the cruise ship in the novel, Sulu Sea seemed perfect.
© 2021 Marshall Riggan
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