Doomed voyage of Titanic that sank deeply inside a writer’s imagination

Author Dan James (also known as Dan Waddell)
Author Dan James (also known as Dan Waddell)
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We’re about to be hit by a wave of Titanic-related books and TV programmes. Sheena Hastings talks to the writer of a novel set aboard the ill-fated ship.

DAN Waddell has always had a morbid fascination with disasters and what he calls “totemic events”. This near-obsession includes such “where were you when...?” moments as the assassination of President Kennedy – although the 39-year-old hadn’t actually been born at the time of the killing in Dallas that sent such shockwaves back and forth across the globe.

On a big family holiday in America to celebrate the 70th birthday of his father Sid (the darts commentator) a couple of years ago, he picked up Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels. The book is an account of the three-day Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, told through the eyes of fictional characters. Dan, already the author of several non-fiction books and two successful crime novels published by Penguin, had been looking for a new idea for a format. The concept of setting fiction against the backdrop of historical events was an appealing one – especially given his interest in cataclysmic moments.

He mapped out a series of events he could use for future books, but an obvious place to begin in the timescale available was with the sinking of the so-called unsinkable ocean liner Titanic on April 15, 1912, tying the book to this year’s centenary. Dan – who was born and brought up in Pudsey, Leeds – quickly put together an outline of his story set aboard the ill-starred ship whose maiden voyage proved to be its last.

Waddell’s association with Penguin had ended after The Blood Detective and Blood Atonement, novels that followed the investigations of DCI Grant Foster and family history expert Nigel Barnes, but his literary agent managed to sell the new thriller format to another publisher.

Such is the way with the book business these days, says Waddell, that when you depart from a genre you’ve already established yourself in to write in another genre or sub-genre, you’re required to do it using a pseudonym. Hence the author of the thriller Unskinkable has been repackaged as Dan James, not to be confused by we cloth-brained readers with crimewriter Dan Waddell. Got it? I think we have. Hopefully, when he becomes more of a household name he’ll be allowed to use whatever name he pleases.

The vast and luxuriously- appointed Titanic sank into the North Atlantic in the space of a few hours taking 1,517 of 2,200 passengers and crew down with her. Waddell’s interest in the story had first been piqued when, as a little boy, he watched Roy Ward Baker’s 1958 docudrama feature film A Night To Remember.

“It’s the only true film of the Titanic story even though, compared to James Cameron’s version the ship looks like a toy boat in a sink,” says Dan. “I’m fascinated by the arguments about what went on that night, but my main interest lies in human stories.

“What you can do when you fictionalise the characters is get inside the heads of those people, rather than getting bogged down in the whys and wherefores of how the ship came to sink, such as the ‘single iceberg theory.’”

Research for the book took him six months and involved reading around 40 books (“some fabulous and some really bad”), as well as survivors’ accounts. The online Encyclopedia Titanica provided a mass of factual information, from passenger lists and how much they paid for their tickets to maps of the ship’s layout.

“Looking at various forums on the web, many of them monopolised by military architects and engineers, I was amazed at how people are still arguing. I had some knowledge already, but I learned so much more about aspects of the story such as the rigid class system on board, which meant that when it came to filling the inadequate number of lifeboats third class passengers were told to stay below decks and hardly anyone argued. Those who were on deck – mostly first class passengers – got in first, and I read many accounts of how posh women objected to ‘rough’ sailors being allowed into the boats.”

The novel mostly revolves around mysterious former special branch detective Arthur Beck, who is leaving England to start a new life.

Unfortunately, he finds himself on the same ship as the terrorist and serial killer who had been his nemesis while in the police force. Beck is drawn to feisty American journalist Martha Heaton, who’s covering the maiden voyage and hungry for a meatier story than the society gossip the ship otherwise provides.

She knows Beck is mixed up in something big, but he’s not telling. Meanwhile, all sorts of portents of disaster are dropped in, from overheard mutterings about an unquenchable fire in the bowels of the ship to the mounting speed of the untested vessel, despite warnings that she is sailing into icy waters where icebergs are a certain hazard.

The Titanic disaster holds a morbid and enduring fascination, even though there have been bigger maritime disasters in terms of lives lost, says Waddell.

“I suppose it’s because there is so much to the story and it has attracted so much media attention – although I think the Cameron film threw everything including the kitchen sink in, even the many myths.

“I felt I didn’t want to mess around with known facts, although there are other elements that are still debatable. I didn’t want to get involved with real people’s stories, either, as they have families who might be offended.”

Looking into accounts of how some people behaved during that terrible night set Waddell questioning how he would have reacted.

“A lot of people will, I’m sure, wonder ‘What would I have done?’ You like to think you would have let those more vulnerable than you get into the lifeboats, rather than save your own skin.

“I think the Titanic story has been kept alive partly because it’s an event that marks the end of a mythologised gilded age before the First World War, and the disintegration of a class structure that meant the poorer people on the ship suffered most.”

Unsinkable by Dan James is published on March 29 by Arrow, £6.99. To order from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 0800 0153232 or go to www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk

VOYAGE TO TRAGEDY

RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912, after colliding with an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York.

The sinking caused the deaths of 1,517 people in one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in history. The luxury liner carried over 2,200 people – 1,316 passengers and about 900 crew.

Passengers included some of the wealthiest people in the world, such as John Jacob Astor IV and Benjamin Guggenheim, as well as more than a thousand emigrants from Ireland, Scandinavia and elsewhere.

Titanic carried only enough lifeboats for a third of her total passenger and crew capacity.