Western Australia has more than its share of brilliant YA authors, and one of them is Meg Caddy. Her debut novel, Waer, shortlisted for the 2013 Text Prize and the 2017 CBCA Children’s Book Awards, was described by The West Australian as ‘an astonishing debut…The writing is assured, the action is swift and the characters ring as true as Caddy’s psychological insights.’ I loved it!
I’m delighted she’s here to talk about her much-anticipated new release, Devil’s Ballast.
Meg introduces herself as
a short, nerdy, bespectacled D&D geek. She spends her days ordering and selling books and her nights penning novels. Meg has an Honours degree in Literature and History and Not Sleeping Enough. She lives with two rescue cats (Captain and Lieutenant) and an ever-expanding bookshelf.
She’s also a researcher after my own heart, as you’ll soon see!
The blurb for Devil’s Ballast reads:
Anne Bonny was eighteen when she ran away from her violent husband, James, into the arms of pirate captain Calico Jack Rackham. Now she’s ensconced aboard Jack’s ship Ranger, passing as a cabin boy and playing her ruthless part in a crew that is raining down mayhem and murder on the ships of the Caribbean. But James Bonny is willing to pay to get his ‘property’ back. And pirate-hunter Captain Barnet is happy to take his money. The Ranger’s a fast ship: Anne might just be able to outrun Barnet. But can she outrun the consequences of her relationship with Calico Jack?
Devil’s Ballast is action-packed yet nuanced, culturally relevant and sharp as a cutlass. Based on the true story of Anne Bonny, this new novel by the remarkable Meg Caddy brings to life one of history’s most fascinating anti-heroines.
Over to Meg…
2 inspirations for the book
I’ve always been mad for pirates, and for history. I have a clear memory of insisting on the role of ‘pirate princess’ in a game when I was four, and the obsession never went away. There are photos scattered through my childhood, teenage, and adult years of pirate dress-ups. When I was eighteen, I went to England for a gap year and spent every spare moment researching pirates, visiting old ships, and planning pirate stories. I found my way around London using a map from 1720.
I did a number of papers at university on pirates, and when I started my Honours degree I decided to write my thesis on the changing representations of pirates and piracy in the Early Modern Period. The dissertation tied together a lot of research and also uncovered a lot of stories I’d never known before. I started to focus on the micro-societies that functioned on a pirate ship, especially when many of the crews included marginalised individuals. I wanted to write a pirate adventure, and I wanted it to reflect the diverse, interesting, brutal crews that actually existed during the Golden Age of Piracy in the early eighteenth century.
As well as being pirate-obsessed, I’m a passionate feminist. I’m surrounded by badass, clever, dynamic women in my everyday life, from my mother and grandmothers, to my cousins and friends, to my coworkers and fellow writers. For me, Anne Bonny’s story was born from those values.
Unlike most pirates, who met dramatic, well-publicised and often grisly ends, we don’t know what happened to Anne. She was never executed, and it’s suspected that after being arrested, she was rescued by her father’s influence. The most popular rumour is that she went back to Charleston with her father, married one of his business associates, had a ridiculous number of children, and settled down into obscurity until the end of her days. The first time I read that, it broke my heart. It’s a story that gives her a long life, yes, but not one she chose. And then I read other stories of Anne’s life; stories where she’s demonised or fetishised or reduced to a damsel in distress.
The historical accounts, on the other hand, show that she was young, impetuous, cunning, ruthless, and fearless at sea. She demanded her right to her own body, and defended that right fiercely. She had close friends, people who loved her to the very end of the gallows rope. The aim of Devil’s Ballast was to put that in ink, to try and give her a voice that wasn’t heroic or villainous, but human and raw. I hope it’s a good intersection of pirate adventure, and feminist love-story to this woman who knocked back every restriction the world tried to bind her with.
2 places connected with the book
In 2018, when I was in the literary Doldrums and trying to rewrite Devil’s Ballast from scratch for possibly the sixth time, I decided to take a month off and travel to places where Anne lived. I started in Nassau, a small island in the Bahamas, where she lived from the ages of sixteen to eighteen with her husband James Bonny. It was also the first place she personally led a successful boat-heist.
My hotel was a street away from a pirate museum with Anne’s face painted on the side. Everyone there knew her, knew her story, had rumours and legends and connections to tell me. In Australia when I talk about Anne Bonny most people have never heard of her, so it was beautiful to see how alive her memory is in Nassau. I went on boat tours, swam with dolphins, visited museums, interviewed a professor at the university there and generally spent a lot of time breathing Anne’s air.
After Nassau I went to Charleston in South Carolina, where Anne lived from age twelve or thirteen until she eloped with James Bonny. I met with my two American pen-pals there, Kristin and Beverly, and we spent six days living on a boat in the marina. Both Kristin and Beverly are delightful nerds, so they were more than happy to help me track down glimpses of Anne throughout Charleston. We went on a three-hour pirate tour in the pouring rain and travelled out to Goose Creek, trying to find the plantation where Anne used to live. It’s a lake now, difficult to access by road, so we had to trespass over private property to get to the bank—one of the most rebellious things I’ve ever done, for the nerdiest reason possible. I was trying to channel my inner Anne!
Nassau was research directly for the book but Charleston was a pilgrimage as much as anything, a way of reminding myself that Anne was a person with a full and detailed life before she was ever a pirate.
2 favourite pirates
If I’m going to talk about favourites, it’s going to be favourite pirates, and that will always include Bonny and Read, so I’m taking them out of the running here. You can read all about them in Devil’s Ballast (shameless plug). My favourite two pirates aside from Bonny and Read are as follows:
I’m usually a Golden Age kind of girl, which means I keep to the pirates of 1500–1750, but there are always exceptions and Ching Shih (late eighteenth/early nineteenth century) is right up there with some of the most prolific and exciting pirates of all time. At first a sex-worker in a floating brothel, she became more successful as a pirate than Bartholomew Roberts and Blackbeard put together, with over three hundred ships. Some place her followers at as many as forty thousand at some points, both men and women. Originally the fleet belonged to her husband, but after his death she stepped into power and kept it for years before retiring peacefully. She was ruthless and fearless, and her Red Flag Fleet withstood attacks from Chinese pirates, Chinese officials, British bounty hunters and the Portuguese Navy.
Grace O’Malley, or Granuaile, was the original Pirate Queen. She sailed in the sixteenth century, a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I—and they were both red-headed, bad-tempered women who commanded men. Grace’s father, Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille, had a large fleet of ships and Grace grew up with strategy and seafaring. She married, and when her husband died his men were so loyal to her that they followed her back home as her own private army, and she started to amass power and ships. She rallied against the English in Ireland, gave birth on a ship (and supposedly fought off pirates the same week), kicked her second husband out of his own castle, and managed to gain the friendship and support of Elizabeth I, even after a lifetime of disrupting English ships and control. I love her utterly, and I hope one day to have the writing chops to put down her story.