This week, the spotlight is on Miriam McNamara, the author of The Unbinding of Mary Reade, a novel based on the life of a female pirate who lived during the golden age of piracy. The real Mary Read’s mother masqueraded Mary as a boy for inheritance reasons, and Mary later moved through the world as both a man and a woman and had relationships with both men and women. When Miriam discovered this, she was intrigued because so many elements of Mary’s story “involve issues of gender and sexuality that are so relevant in my own life and in today’s cultural conversation.” Miriam plunged into historical research, filled in details that have been lost to history, and created her own spell-binding telling of Mary’s story.
Many of us have been waiting for The Unbinding of Mary Reade since it won the Norma Fox Mazer Award for a Young Adult Work in Progress in 2012. In fact, it was named one of the “Most Highly Anticipated LGBTQA YA of 2018” by Barnes and Noble’s Teen Blog. And if that wasn’t enough, Printz Award Winner An Na says, “The Unbinding of Mary Reade is a rollicking, breathtaking adventure full of heart, passion, wit, and intelligence. I was turning pages fast as a wind fills a sail, marveling at the talent that is Miriam McNamara.”
Miriam herself lays claim to an adventurous life as well. Born in Ireland, she was raised in the South, received her MFA in the North (from the highly-respected Vermont College of Fine Arts), and now lives in the Midwest. She joins us today from Minneapolis to tell us What Was on Miriam McNamara’s . . .
List of Most Curious Discoveries While Researching: Oh, there were so many discoveries! One of my favorites is that when wooden ships from Europe went to the warmer waters of the Caribbean, they became infected with a thing called shipworm that ate through the hulls and could eventually sink them. Europeans had to be careful to clean and tar their hulls regularly. This led to a great scene in the novel where the pirate crew careens their ship to clean its hull. Another amazing discovery was how democratic pirate crews were during an incredibly authoritarian time. Pirate captains only took a double-share of the loot, and they could be voted out of power if they lost the confidence of their crew. Both of these facts play out in the novel as well.
Desk: Many maps! Old maps of the Caribbean, and maps of London city streets at the time. I drew pictures of their outfits, particularly Mary’s (I had one reader that was unconvinced Mary could hide the fact that she was biologically female, so I drew out a sailor’s outfit at the time to convince her). I drew diagrams of the ships, and of Mary’s tenement in London. And there were many, many nonfiction books about piracy, ships, the Caribbean during the Age of Expansion, London history, etc piled up around the place.
Notes on the Blessings of Historical Fiction: I like to think of writing historical fiction as very similar to writing fantasy, except that instead of inventing another world, the other world has already been invented—you just have to discover it and all of its nuances. I love reading historical fiction because I get immersed in strange and foreign world, and writing historical fiction was like that, except that the immersion was so much more intense!
Notes on the Torments of Historical Fiction: The blessing of historical fiction is also its torment. You are confined by so many specifics, and it is so easy to get a detail wrong. I would write some quick detail into the story—someone lighting a fire in a hearth, for instance—and then I would wonder how one lit a fire back then. I’d go down a research rabbit-hole, learn just how complicated lighting a fire was, realize I didn’t have time for it in the scene I was writing, and have to cut that detail out. I would be left with no fire in the scene, and an hour of writing time gone that I was never getting back. It’s funny but also so frustrating! It really slows the writing process down.
Bookshelf: My favorite nonfiction book about this time period is The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man who Brought them Down by Colin Woodard. Another book I drew from in my research is the book that Mary’s story originally comes from: A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates by Captain Charles Johnson. A favorite YA girl-disguised-as-a-boy-on-a-ship book is Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer, and a favorite LGBTQ historical romance that inspired my novel is Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.
Similarities with Mary Read: I’m a very different person than Mary was, but I share her fascination with the spectrum of gender and sexuality (and her confusion, especially when I was a teen), her attraction to sweet boys and fiery girls, and her questioning of the way things are.
Calendar: I just finished readings at my favorite bookstores in Minneapolis and Asheville, North Carolina. I don’t have any more coming up right this moment, although I am looking into it!
I’ve done a couple of online interviews if you are hungry for more of the story behind the story—check out my Once Upon a Retelling interview: or my interview at the VCFA Wild Things blog. I’m also very excited to be working on my second novel, scheduled for release next June! It’s another historical LGBTQ young adult romance, this one set in 1930. It’s about a girl who runs away with a barnstorming (aerial) circus and becomes a wingwalker.
Kitchen Table: I’ve been doing one of those vegan meal subscriptions, which has been really fun. They send you the ingredients and the recipe and then you make it yourself! It’s almost always delicious, and it helps me make sure I eat my veggies and beans (even though I still like to eat cheese and meat on occasion J).
Mind: When I was growing up I never saw a queer character like me or many of the people I loved in the pages of a book. Never! And I read A LOT OF BOOKS as a young adult!! So when I started writing this story I was determined that I would write a book that would make a difference. In the time it took me to write it, so much has changed. Gay marriage was legalized. The We Need Diverse Books movement happened, and I’ve seen many more books about queer teens published. However, there is still so far to go. There is still very little representation of genderqueer protagonists, trans people, queer or trans people of color, asexual and intersex characters. There is still not enough rep in general! Queer teens should be able to find themselves in the pages of a book. I guess I’m just happy that I wrote and got to publish the book that I set out to write, and that I’ll continue to get to do so, and I hope that YA publishing continues to move in the right direction.
You can keep up to date with Miriam McNamara by visiting her online at miriammcnamara.com and by following her on Twitter at @McNamaraMiriam. If you would like to order The Unbinding of Mary Reade, simply click on the book below:
A clever, romantic novel based on the true story of a girl who disguised herself as a boy to sail with the infamous pirates Anne Bonny and Calico Jack—and fell in love with Anne Bonny.
There’s no place for a girl in Mary’s world. Not in the home of her mum, desperately drunk and poor. Not in the household of her wealthy granny, where no girl can be named an heir. And certainly not in the arms of Nat, her childhood love who never knew her for who she was. As a sailor aboard a Caribbean merchant ship, Mary’s livelihood—and her safety—depends on her ability to disguise her gender.
At least, that’s what she thinks is true. But then pirates attack the ship, and in the midst of the gang of cutthroats, Mary spots something she never could have imagined: a girl pirate.
The sight of a girl standing unafraid upon the deck, gun and sword in hand, changes everything. In a split-second decision, Mary turns her gun on her own captain, earning herself the chance to join the account and become a pirate alongside Calico Jack and Anne Bonny.
For the first time, Mary has a shot at freedom. But imagining living as her true self is easier, it seems, than actually doing it. And when Mary finds herself falling for the captain’s mistress, she risks everything—her childhood love, her place among the crew, and even her life.
Breathlessly romantic and brilliantly subversive, The Unbinding of Mary Reade is sure to sweep readers off their feet and make their hearts soar. (Sky Pony Press, publisher of The Unbinding of Mary Reade.)