Developing the first fiction title for the National Maritime Museum’s publishing list has been a fascinating and challenging experience. We are used to publishing catalogues, guidebooks, and books about the collections, but this was a new idea, that as far as we are aware, no other museum has tried.
A member of staff suggested that, to celebrate the Museum’s 70th anniversary this year, we commission a set of short stories loosely inspired by the sea. The sea as ‘literary muse’, if you like. We loved the idea and jumped at the chance to do something innovative and different.
Having spoken to our contacts, we commissioned sixteen contemporary authors – including Sam Llewellyn, Erica Wagner, Chris Cleave, Jim Perrin, and Tessa Hadley – and gave them a fairly loose brief. ‘Just write something that is inspired by the sea’, we said – and the finished book, which publishes today, on World Maritime Day, is the result – sixteen beautiful, funny, strange and challenging stories.
Some are inspired by the NMM collections – like Erica Wagner’s ‘In Time: A Correspondence’ – making reference to a watch from the wreck of the Titanic. Others interpret and build on real historical events – like Jim Perrin’s ‘A Snow Goose’, a haunting and disturbing story inspired by the search for Franklin. Others, such as Martin Stephen’s ‘The Anniversary’, touch on World War 2, taking inspiration from models of Bismarck and King George V.
In many of the stories, the sea seems to hold a somewhat menacing quality, and seems to be a metaphor for the unknown – and sometimes – the horror and fear of death. In others, the sea is a context for adventure, and freedom, such as in Chris Cleave’s ‘Fresh Water’, where a bored night-school teacher decides to up sticks and go in search of adventure on a sailing trip in the Med with the enigmatic and slightly mysterious pupil Danny Zeichner. Or in ‘Devonia’, by Des Barry, a touching and sharply realistic sketch of a school trip on a cruiseliner in the 1970s, the sea is the setting for the blossoming of first love. Nick Parker’s ‘Museum of the Sea’ is a wickedly subversive take on how museums are put together and is a fitting conclusion to the collection.
It’s been a joy working on this book and it has been constantly surprising and challenging to learn how the sea can inspire creative writing on so many different levels. The best part has been hearing colleagues’ and friends reactions to the stories. The short story as a genre is definitely thriving amongst contemporary writing talent and deserves a higher profile than it gets.
The real highlight for me has been getting the book on the Today Programme (on today, 8.00-9.00 – try ‘Listen Again’ if you miss it) – with Eric Wagner in conversation with First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Jonathan Band about the book. A coup for any publisher, let alone a Museum publisher.
Let’s hope this takes NMM Publishing from strength to strength and in new and interesting directions. Whatever the content of each of these fantastic stories, the sea holds not only an immense physical power, but an emotional resonance that cannot be ignored.
Rachel Giles is Head of Publishing at the NMM. The NMM’s publishing imprint was launched in 2004.
Sea Stories is available to read in the E-Library, and can be ordered from the NMM Online shop.
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