Nicola Pierce is No Ghost Writer With Spirit of the Titanic
Children's author had prior experience with ghosts. Listen to a reading from chapter one below
‘There are some calls that you are meant to make,’ Nicola Pierce, author of the children’s novel Spirit of the Titanic, says. ‘And some offers that you are just meant to take.’
In Pierce’s case, the call was from Irish publishers Maverick House and the offer, five years later, was from O’Brien Press, publishers of Spirit of the Titanic.
‘I had heard that John Mooney of Maverick House was looking for an editor,’ Pierce explains. ‘When I called him about it, he asked me what I knew about Bangkok. I said I knew where it was.’
That was good enough for Mooney, who promptly offered her a job ghost-writing the story of The Last Executioner in Bangkok. ‘He would shoot the Death Row prisoners there,’ Pierce says. ‘Until they brought in the lethal injection in 2002.’
It was a dream job for Pierce, who had always wanted to be a writer but never – despite working for O’Brien Press in marketing – thought she could do it. It turned out that she was ‘just one of those people that need a deadline’ and she spent the next five years as a full-time writer.
Not just for Maverick House. She also ghost-wrote the 2009 book Mother from Hell for her old employers, O’Brien Press. When she sent the final manuscript in to them, Michael O’Brien called her back and said, ‘Would you be interested in writing a children’s book?’
It had never been something Pierce had considered – and was a far cry from the works she had been ghost-writing – but some offers you are meant to take.
‘When he told me he wanted it to be about the Titanic,’ she says, ‘I immediately said “the first Titanic death”. I knew the story from Tom Hartley’s tour of Belfast cemeteries and it had always stuck with me.’
The next 12 hours were spent working out how to tell the story of the Titanic, using Samuel Joseph Scott, a boy who died before the ship was ever launched, as the protagonist. Eventually, Pierce decided to make him a ghost who had loved the ship so much he stuck around after death. ‘It meant he could go anywhere in the ship. It all came together from there.’
Working on the book, it was the details that Pierce's research turned up, and her reaction to them, that surprised her the most. After all, it is a story that everyone thinks they know.
‘It was the family separations that got to me,’ Pierce admits. ‘Everyone knows that it was women and children first, but when you read about the details, when you think that for the last 20 minutes those men knew they were going to die... It plagued me.’
One detail in particular that caught her attention was the fact that men were trading business cards on the deck of the ship, each man promising that if they survived, they’d contact the other man’s family and vice versa. Pierce blinks. ‘I’m getting all teary again,’ she laughs at herself.
The reaction to Spirit of the Titanic has been overwhelming, with Pierce invited to every literary festival going. She tries to demur credit for that, saying ‘It’s not me, it’s all the Titanic’. Most recently she was in Belfast to witness a stone finally being put on Scott’s grave as part of the Féile an Phobail Festival.
This event was given added meaning when the members of Samuel Joseph Scott’s family arrived to witness it. ‘They didn’t know he was buried there,’ Pierce says. ‘His niece was there, a lovely woman in her 80s. She’d never met Sam, but her father – Sam’s brother – used to tell her about him.’
The next event on Pierce’s timetable is the Aspects Irish Literature Festival in Bangor in September, where she will be part of the Bloomfield Young Aspects Programme. Working with children is obviously something that gives Pierce a lot of pleasure.
‘The most popular question is how old I was when I wrote it,’ she laughs. (42, as it turns out.) ‘But they always have something to tell me or a question to ask.’
One boy approached Pierce at a signing in a bookshop recently to earnestly explain that only two of the Titanic’s chimneys were working, so the cover illustration – showing three plumes of smoke – was incorrect. At a school, another little girl asked if the passengers couldn’t have lifted the ship out of the water when it started to tilt.
‘They love the idea that Captain had to go down with the ship,’ Pierce says. ‘Particularly after I talk to them about all the different stories that surround him and why people came up with them.’
Pierce is currently working on a second children's novel for O'Brien Press. She dodges the question of 'what it is about', but admits that it is based in another historical incident. 'I like the framework,' she smiles. It will be hard to oust Spirit of the Titanic from her affections though.
'It is the first of my books with just my name on it,' she says, petting the copy she brought with her. 'That makes it precious.'