The Extraordinary Blog Tour of Katy Willacott - Author Q&A with Sharon Gosling

Blog Tour - Q and A with Sharon Gosling

The Extraordinary Voyage of Katy Willacott


Good morning, and welcome to the Book Worm Hole as we head off for the start of an extraordinary blog tour!

I am thrilled to be able to bring you a questions and answers session with one of my favourite authors, Sharon Gosling. Sharon writes some magical middle grade, scary young adult and gorgeous adult romances. Last week I reviewed her last adult novel, The House Beneath the Cliffs, I'll be sharing my review of her next adult novel, The Lighthouse Bookshop, in just a few days, but today we're here to talk about her latest middle grade, The Extraordinary Voyage of Katy Willacott.

I absolutely adored this book, and you can find my review of it here. You could also check out my reviews of The Golden Butterfly, The House of Hidden Wonders and the most viewed post on my blog ever, a post Sharon wrote about Victorian Spiritualism for the House of Hidden Wonders blog tour, which can be found here

So it gives me the greatest pleasure to talk to Sharon about some of the inspirations behind her new book, The Extraordinary Voyage of Katy Willacott!



 My first, and possibly most important question: How is Newt?

Newt the cow-pat kitten is very well, thank you! Extremely energetic, very cute and currently hampering my attempts to answer this Q&A by chasing my fingers across the keyboard. Apologies in advance for any weird typos…

I’d love to talk to you about your inspirations for The Extraordinary Voyage of Katy Willacott.

I know you included real historical figures in your last middle grade, The House of Hidden Wonders. Are any of the characters in your new book actual figures from history?

Well, the short answer is no – sadly Katy Willacott was not a real person and neither were any of the people she met on her adventures. However, the book does mention a few real historical figures and the character of Fran Brocklehurst is based on Nellie Bly, America’s first female investigative journalist. Fran serves as Katy’s inspiration, and when they meet she tells Katy about other extraordinary women who have found a way to forge ahead in world ruled by men. Among these is Mary Lacy, a 19-year-old servant girl who in 1775 dressed as a boy called William Chandler so that she could enlist and train as a shipwright in the British Navy. She was so respected for her work that she retired with a full Navy pension that was paid under her birth name. Katy then uses the same name – William Chandler – so that she can join the expedition to Brazil.

Katy Willacott is full of inspiring female characters. Who or what inspired these bold explorers and scientists?

One of the themes of the book is something that Fran says to Katy when they meet: ‘Extraordinary women doing extraordinary things. There are more of us than folk realize. There always have been’. The framing of this sentiment was partly inspired by science fiction author Kameron Hurley’s 2014 Hugo-winning essay 'We Have Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves Narrative’. At its heart Hurley’s essay dismantles the popular idea that women as fighters is a somehow modern fictional construct, pointing out that there have always been women who fought beside men – it’s just that they often weren’t recorded. The same is true in all aspects of the sciences. Women have always been as instrumental in the growth of human knowledge as men, it’s just that they traditionally haven’t been the ones writing the histories and as a result they are very often omitted from historical record. 

Take, for example, Jeanne Baret. In 1765 (1765!), Baret disguised herself as a man so that she could join her renowned botanist lover, Philibert Commerson, on a circumnavigation of the world on behalf of Louis XV. She was Commerson’s ‘assistant’, which essentially meant she did all the legwork, especially when he became ill. Did she get any scientific credit for that? She did not. It wasn’t until 2011 that she had a species of plant named after her, despite being responsible for the collecting of many, many type specimens – i.e, the first time a plant was officially recorded by Western scientists. Specimens collected by Baret will still be in herbariums around the world today - and the collector will be listed as Commerson, who would also have named the specimen. That voyage, by the way, made Baret the first woman (that we know of) to circumnavigate the globe. 

This erasing of women from history is, of course, many times worse for indigenous women in colonised parts of the world such as Brazil, where part of this book is set. As I researched I realised that even finding accurate names for such characters, let alone life histories, is virtually impossible, not least because in the rare instances where indigenous women are mentioned in historical texts, its invariably because they married a white man and their name was changed from an indigenous name to a Western one. This didn’t just happen with surnames, but with given names too. 

We have always fought. We have always been there. I guess that was my overall inspiration. Writing stories that put women and girls in these kinds of roles is just reflecting an unrecorded reality.

There are some powerful themes around our responsibilities towards other cultures. Why did you choose this message and centre it around museum acquisitions?

As with the idea of writing women as explorers and scientists, it wasn’t really a choice – it’s just reflecting reality. It’s a hard reality to think about, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. I spent a lot of time as a child wanting to explore jungles, wanting to rediscover ‘lost’ civilisations. But those civilisations never needed to be discovered in the first place and a lot of them are now ‘lost’ because people from my area of the world barged into those areas of the world without any consideration for the people who already lived there and mainly with the goal of exploiting whatever they could. We can’t pretend any different now, just because it was so long ago and it’s inconvenient to think about. The repercussions of colonialism haven’t gone away for the peoples whose lands were colonised. If you are going to tell any story in that space, it has to incorporate those themes. Not to do so is unrealistic and disrespectful. The current state of our climate is due in large part to those same attitudes that drove colonialism – the idea that it’s okay to take whatever you want, whenever you want it, just because you can. We still haven’t learned those lessons and the planet is suffering as a result.  

Regarding museum acquisitions – I grew up loving trips to The British Museum and the Natural History Museum. As a student in London I went to the British Museum every day to eat my lunch and wander the collections. I still go there whenever I can. Museums of all types are wonderful and valuable for so many different reasons. But to pretend that everything in them was acquired in an appropriate way would be absurd. To ignore that history because we love having those institutions would also be absurd. In so many cases, so much more could have been learned by listening to the voices of the people in the places from which those artefacts were taken. Museums all over the world are trying to correct those mistakes, particularly when it comes to misattribution, which is great. But to pretend that it never happened in the first place would suggest we haven’t learned why it should never have happened in the first place. 

The voyage is central to the book and I know the ship, the SS Alerte, is based on a real vessel. Can you tell me about its real-life adventures?

The Alerte was indeed a real ship and actually the description that Katy’s grandfather Ned gives in the book is the ship’s real provenance. She was built in Cowes on the Isle of Wight in 1864 by a shipwright called Ratsey and she did indeed make the sailing between Southampton and Sydney in 103 days. In 1889 she was bought by E.F Knight for a treasure-hunting expedition to Trinidade – not the one in the West Indies, but the rocky, uninhabited islet off the coast of Brazil. Knight, an experienced sailor, skippered the Alerte himself with four paid hands and nine ‘gentlemen adventurers’, each of whom contributed £100 to join the expedition. They were convinced that they would be able to find a fabled lost treasure that had been stolen by pirates in 1821, during the war of independence in Peru. The loot had come from a Spanish ship attempting to return to mainland Spain with a cargo of gold and silver taken from churches. The pirates left the cache on Trinidade and intended to return, but never did. A classic lost treasure story. 

Anyway, perhaps unsurprisingly, Knight and his expedition did not find the treasure, but Knight wrote about the adventure in a book called The Cruise of the Alerte, which is well worth a read. Knight himself was an extraordinary character. In later life he became a war correspondent, lost an arm, and then wrote a book about how to sail one-handed. I wish I’d been able to join the Alerte’s expedition – although I suspect I would have had follow Katy’s example and dress up as a man in order to do so!



Thank you for that fascinating insight, Sharon. I hope you all enjoyed that as much as I did!
And don't forget to check out the rest of the blog tour. It's going to be extraordinary.

Comments

  1. What a brilliant interview. Sharon Gosling has provided a wonderful insight into the background, inspiration and importance of writing not only this book but writing of and for women in a world that is so wrongly perceived as being a 'mans' world. Thank you, Liam, for also asking about NEWT, what a star! 🙂 🐈‍⬛ 🧩

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