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Stanford Magazine:

As a wannabe pirate, Morgan Cooke is more nebbish landlubber. The Florida accountant lives a solitary existence, dining alone at World of Tacos and throwing darts in a dockside bar.

Enter Morgan’s estranged father, recently released from prison and eager to search for a booty of gold ingots. Son and dad soon find themselves on Morgan’s company yacht in the middle of the Caribbean, chasing down other pirates in fast boats disguised as shrimpers.

“There are pitched battles at sea and fights in every conceivable place,” says author Keith Thomson about the swashbuckling action in Pirates of Pensacola. “But the treasure is such that it’s worth taking a shot at it, and it’s clearly better than Morgan’s fluorescent-lit workstation existence.”

Thomson is reveling in something of a Walter Mitty life these days as he soaks up reviews of his first novel in Publisher’s Weekly (a “beguiling, energetic debut”) and Kirkus Reviews (a “rollicking debut”).

A screenwriter for Sony, Paramount and Disney, Thomson had been looking for a change of pace from his often frustrating day job, and he’d always fantasized about the pirate life. The day his agent suggested he write a novel, he signed up for an intermediate fiction writing course offered by the Continuing Studies Program (CSP). “I’d heard about [short story writer] Julie Orringer, but I couldn’t believe writers of her quality were teaching,” Thomson says. “I didn’t know you could just sign up.”

That was fall quarter 2002. Thomson workshopped the first 20 pages of his novel in the course, and sold it one year later to St. Martin’s Press. Orringer, he adds, was “the perfect teacher,” and he acknowledges her help in the book.

Among CSP’s evening offerings for adults—everything from Pre-Columbian Archaeology to Why Sinatra Matters—an increasing number of students are discovering its “writer’s studio.” This spring, for example, CSP is offering 17 courses in writing, plus authors reading from their work and a panel discussion about publishing. Beginning, intermediate and advanced fiction writing consistently draw big enrollments, and there’s the occasional class in poetry, playwriting, screenwriting—even Food Writing from Soup to Nuts.

Most faculty are former Wallace Stegner Fellows at Stanford. “A whole team of imaginative young writers graduates from the Stegner program every year,” says CSP dean Charlie Junkerman. “And on the other side, we have a very educated population in nearby communities, 60 percent of whom have some sort of graduate or professional degree.”

Stephen Elliott, a former Stegner Fellow and the author of five novels, has been teaching in the writer’s studio since fall quarter 2003 and currently serves as the Marsh McCall Lecturer and writer’s studio coordinator. He teaches novel writing and fiction. “A lot of what we have are people who may not have written for a while,” he says. “They’re at a point in their lives where they want to be creative again—and not just be in sales.”

The writer’s studio offers the occasional course on how to get a manuscript over the transom at a publishing house, and literary agents provide their own perspective. Instructors also speak from experience. “I tell students that writing is a great hobby, and a wonderful way to learn about themselves,” Elliott says. “But it’s a terrible way to make a living.”

©2005 Stanford Alumni Association

The New York Times

Critic's Notebook:

Avast! Pirates Steal Readers' Hearts

Published: August 26, 2005

It was a strange day in Hollywood when someone decided that a costume drama based on an amusement park ride would sell lots of tickets. Stranger still was Johnny Depp's swishy performance in "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," which, inexplicably, translated into a cascade of doubloons at the box office. A pile of gold, an ancient curse and lots of swordplay, it seems, can still do the trick, 70 years after Errol Flynn slashed his way through "Captain Blood." Mr. Depp, greatly enriched by his high crimes on the high seas, has agreed to reappear as Jack Sparrow in two "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequels.

Hollywood is not alone in its lust for pirate gold. Readers have been served a double helping of pirate books in the last couple of months, for reasons that defy analysis. The cowboy and the gangster, twin pillars of America's self-image, continue to inspire screenwriters and novelists, although the cowboy, these days, seems to be limping as badly as Walter Brennan. But what can explain the allure of pirates? Their role in American history was negligible. As a shaping force in the national culture, they barely exist. Nevertheless, nearly 200 years after the last pirates gave up the trade, readers still hanker, like Jim Hawkins in "Treasure Island," for stories about "hanging, and walking the plank, and storms at sea, and the Dry Tortugas, and wild deeds and places on the Spanish Main."

One reason for the perennial appeal of the pirate may be the sheer variety of pirate types, reflected in the wildly different performances of Mr. Depp and his nemesis, played by Geoffrey Rush, or the drastically different pirates who, in their own ways, defined pirateness for the baby-boom generation. Cyril Ritchard, in the 1960 television production of "Peter Pan," played Captain Hook as a Restoration fop with curled wig, yards of lace and a beauty patch. Robert Newton, as Long John Silver in the Disney version of "Treasure Island," virtually created the downscale pirate captain, with a parrot on one shoulder, a broad pseudo-Cornish accent and a vocabulary that leaned heavily on a single, highly expressive monosyllable: arrr.

"Arrr" may be pure fiction, but pirates did come in many varieties, as the English historian Peter Earle makes clear in "The Pirate Wars." His highly entertaining survey of piracy begins with the Elizabethan era of Sir Francis Drake and moves, quite rapidly, to the Barbary pirates of North Africa, whose raids in the Mediterranean did not end until the 1830's.

Each era had its own brand of pirate and its own definition of piracy. The English pirates of the 16th century seized enemy ships with royal permission. They were, Mr. Earle writes, "the illegal but often much admired fighting extension of militant Protestant English expansion and not yet 'real' pirates." Like their Spanish and Dutch counterparts, they carried out foreign policy, amassing great fortunes when they succeeded. In time, and especially after peace treaties threw many a crew out of work, privateers turned into pirates, attacking any ship that sailed. Often, their activities were supported by powerful nobles in coastal towns. These shady grandees helped bankroll pirate voyages and reaped a healthy percentage of the profit when the booty was unloaded and sold.

Early on, in the Jacobean period, pirate society was rigidly hierarchical and class-ridden, with poorly rewarded common seamen laboring under well-born officers who took home most of the prizes. Gradually, however, piracy became egalitarian. Captains ruled only so long as they enjoyed the support of their men, and prizes were shared equally. Here lies another clue to the popularity of pirates: the seductive picture of a band of outlaws, free as the wind and governed by their own democratic rules in a world of kings and princes.

Mr. Earle points out, however, that the "Treasure Island" brand of pirate existed in a specific time (the 1650's to the 1720's) and a specific place, in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. These pirates, he writes, "were indeed virtually the only pirates in history to exhibit those characteristics which we expect 'real' pirates to have."

"The Pirate Wars" sheds light on many of those characteristics. The black flag, we learn, was first observed flying over the ship of Emanuel Wynn in 1700, but not all pirate ships adopted the color, although many did decorate their flags with skulls, crossbones, hourglasses, bleeding hearts and other symbols of impending death. Walking the plank, far from being standard practice, did not make an appearance until the 1820's, an invention of Cuban pirates. Mr. Earle makes no mention of parrots, peg legs or hooks.

Legendary pirates like Blackbeard, Henry Morgan and Jean Lafitte were pests, but the nameless Barbary pirates constituted a real threat to the United States in the early 19th century. Frank Lambert, in "The Barbary Wars," gives a concise overview of the centuries-long depredations of the state-sponsored pirates of Algiers, Tunis, Morocco and Tripoli, who not only seized ships but enslaved their crews. (It was the so-called Sallee Rovers, or pirates operating from Salé in Morocco, who put Robinson Crusoe on his island.)

For the petty states of North Africa, piracy was purely business. Their economies depended on it. If they could have acted in concert, the European powers could have eliminated the threat, but mutually suspicious, they preferred to buy off assorted pashas and beys, hoping to buy immunity and steer the pirates in the direction of their competitors.

The United States, once independent, lost the protection afforded by Britain's treaty with the Barbary states, and when an American ship was seized in Tripoli harbor in 1805 and its crew enslaved, Thomas Jefferson faced an international crisis. The first American troops were sent abroad, in a wild expedition described by Richard Zacks in "The Pirate Coast."

The hero of Mr. Zacks's tale is William Eaton, a military officer turned ambassador, and, spiritually, more than a bit of a pirate himself. For years, Eaton chafed at the attacks on American merchant ships, and the craven European response to piracy in the Mediterranean. On first arriving in North Africa, he sent a smoking letter home to America railing against the dey of Algiers. "Can any man believe that this elevated brute has seven kings of Europe, two republics and a continent tributary to him, when his whole naval force is not equal to two line of battle ships?" he fumed.

Eaton's response to the Tripoli crisis was to organize an armed force, including eight marines, and set off across hundreds of miles of desert. His intent was to topple the pasha of Tripoli and replace him with his deposed brother, who had agreed to a no-tribute policy toward America. He nearly succeeded, before wishy-washy diplomats struck a deal with the pasha and paid him off.

Eaton's derring-do, against all odds, makes for a stirring tale whose only legacy has been the "shores of Tripoli" reference in the Marine Corps Hymn. That may change. Until war in the Middle East put the project on hold, Ridley Scott was set to film Eaton's mad campaign, with Russell Crowe in the starring role.

The Barbary pirates were not the only ones to take an unsentimental, businesslike approach to the job. The Lafitte brothers, too, seem curiously modern in their temperament, at least as described in "The Pirates Lafitte," William C. Davis's meticulously researched history of the two brothers, Jean and Pierre, whose legend is far more romantic than their actual deeds.

The Lafittes, who made their way from Bordeaux to Louisiana after the French Revolution, struggled as merchants but prospered as illegal slave traders and traffickers in stolen goods. Buried treasure, blood oaths and the black spot played no role in their activities. Expert in the art of evasion and concealment, they set up a black market in the swamps and islands near New Orleans and, after the War of 1812, on Galveston Island.

The Lafittes seem much more like slick operators than buccaneers. Perhaps their smoothest bit of deception was convincing Andrew Jackson to finagle a pardon for them and their pirate brethren as a condition for fighting on the American side when the British closed in on New Orleans in December 1814. The Lafittes did a brilliant job of overselling their potential contribution, which amounted to very little. American victory brought the promised pardon, and the Lafittes, who were finding New Orleans less welcoming day by day, shifted their operations elsewhere and continued to ply their trade.

All the color missing from the Lafittes can be found in "Pirattitude!," a helpful guide for those who wish to adopt the pirate lifestyle. The book traces its origins to International Talk Like a Pirate Day, a stunt dreamed up by the authors, John Baur and Mark Summers, who prefer to be known as "Ol' Chumbucket" and "Cap'n Slappy." If those nicknames strike you as hilarious, "Pirattitude!' should be a nonstop yuckfest.

First step: mastering the five A's. These are the building blocks of piratese, and they are, apparently in reverse order of importance, avast, ahoy, aye, aye-aye, and the amazingly flexible arrr, which, the authors claim, can mean, among many other things, "Yes," "I agree," "I'm happy," "I'm enjoying this beer," "My team is winning" or "My team is losing" and "I am here and alive."

Having absorbed the five A's, students can move along to the very useful mix-and-match guide to formulating pirate curses. By selecting an adjective from column A and affixing it to a noun from column B, the apprentice pirate can coin such terms of abuse as "barnacle-bottomed bilge monkey." Slappy and Chumbucket may be on to something here, another clue to the perennial appeal of the pirate. Unlike the tight-lipped tough guys and monosyllabic cowboys who let their guns do the talking, pirates, once they get past arrr, exploit the resources of the English language. Even their parrots have colorful vocabularies.

Pirate blood runs strong. Morgan Cooke, the docile accountant at the center of Keith Thomson's comic novel "Pirates of Pensacola," discovers it running through his veins when he's reunited with his father, a direct descendant of the infamous Henry Morgan. In no time, he's battling bad guys like Emildeau and Faldeau Lafitte, descendants of guess who, and chasing after buried treasure.

Alex Hawke, the hero of Ted Bell's thriller "Pirate," can also trace his ancestry to pirate royalty, the mythical Blackhawke. British and very Bondlike, Hawke lends his considerable talents to his own government and to the United States, as need requires. He was, the author writes, "rather like one of those 18th-century scoundrels from whom he was directly descended, adventurers who plundered ship and shore in the name of the king."

Hawke needs every bit of pirate DNA in his system. The Chinese are in cahoots with the French, now ruled by Luca Bonaparte, a radical leftist descendant of Napoleon who has wrested control of the state by having a gay Chinese assassin murder the French prime minister and president. Germany is up to its neck in this too, as well as the Mafia. Hawke has his hands full, as will readers, who will find that, at more than 500 pages, "Pirate" has one virtue: it will last for the full length of a flight from New York to Los Angeles.

Marlon Brando, too, fell under the spell of the pirate life. With a film in mind, he collaborated with the British director Donald Cammell on "Fan-Tan," a blowsy, overheated novel set in 1920's Hong Kong. It's a vanity production, in which a Brando-like figure stumbles aimlessly, speaking a strangely contemporary language, as he embarks on a search for plunder in the China Sea and has exotic "Last Tango" sex with a dragon lady straight out of Charlie Chan. There is no buried treasure, but pearls find a very unusual hiding place. Like many of Brando's later roles, "Fan-Tan" dwells in a strange land beyond the reach of criticism. There's only one possible reaction.


Sacramento Bee:
From the blog to the book

By Rachel Leibrock
Sunday, May 15, 2005

Wendy McClure just wanted a place to type out her thoughts. It was November 2000 and the Chicago children's-book editor had started a new diet and needed a place to expound on body image. So she posted an online journal, called it Pound and started writing.

That was nearly five years ago -- long before the term "blog" was part of the mainstream pop culture vocabulary.

Today, McClure's site brings in upward of 3,000 daily hits. She also has taken her popularity off-line with her new memoir, I'm Not the New Me. It arrived in bookstores last month.

A blogger writing a book? Isn't there something strangely converse going on here? After all, people visit blogs because -- instead of being static, like books -- they're regularly updated, sometimes on the hour.

True, but I'm Not the New Me is joining a growing list of born-from-blog book deals. Over the last few years, this genre has produced everything from novels and memoirs, such as Mimi Smartypants' The World According to Mimi Smartypants, and how-to manuals like The Weblog Handbook by renowned San Francisco blogger Rebecca Blood. Actor Wil Wheaton has even published two books compiled from entries off his popular Web log.

Although McClure's book is based largely on her online journal entries, the 33-year-old writer says she didn't just throw together some Pound entries (www.poundy.com) and "slap a book cover on it."

"I felt like I had a bigger story than just that," says McClure, on the phone recently from her home in Chicago. "There was a bigger theme about identity and body image."

Still, it certainly seems that McClure had an edge over other would-be writers. She didn't have to labor for a book deal by going through an endless exchange of proposals and rejections. Instead, she wrote her initial proposal after a friend mentioned her Web site to a publisher. Ultimately, the book was the subject of a bidding war by those hot to get a writer with an established audience and talent.

Megan Lynch, an associate editor at Riverhead Books, was already a fan of the Pound site. She knew McClure had something to say that went beyond just counting Weight Watchers points and believed McClure's words could easily make the jump from the Internet to the printed page. Reading McClure's journal, Lynch adds, she recognized a "real writer," not just a way to cash in on the blogging trend.

"I fell in love with Wendy's book proposal -- it was enough to show me that her abilities went beyond blogging," Lynch says. "We would have published her book either way -- but the success of her Web site helped."

Readers can expect to see more bloggers-turned-book authors in the coming months. Jessica Cutler -- the Senate mail clerk who, in May last year, shocked Washington with her titillating tell-all online diary The Washingtonienne (archived at washingtoniennearchive.blog-spot.com), will publish a novel in June by the same name. Another Capitol Hill novel, Dog Days, by political gossip columnist Ana Marie Cox (www.wonkette.com), is due in October. In March, look for Jen Lancaster's memoir, Bitter is the New Black, based on the author's cheeky but intimate Jennsylvania.com blog.

Jerome Kramer, editor-in-chief of the online book magazine The Book Standard, agrees that one reason the trend is strong is because publishers can turn to the Internet to find a "pre-built audience."

"They're looking for proven models and tried-and-true sources from which to create books," Kramer says. "Publishers are getting into this pop culture-to-press thing and blogging is hot."

And, adds Kramer, on the phone from his Manhattan office, the medium is still rich with untapped talent.

"Blogging only reached the critical mass tipping point about two years ago -- and it's still tipping," he says.

Pamela Ribon was one of the first notable bloggers to nab a book deal. Her darkly funny 2002 novel, Why Girls Are Weird, based loosely on her own experiences as a well-liked online diarist, hit the Amazon Top 200 fiction chart six months before its publication date.

The Austin, Texas-based author has another novel due early next year and she credits her journal for helping her find an audience -- although these days it sometimes works the other way around.

"I still get a few e-mails a day from someone who has stumbled upon the book and then found the Web site," Ribon wrote in an e-mail to the Sacramento Bee. "The blog keeps me in constant contact with my audience, so I have a good idea who I'm writing for."

Indeed, it's not always a case of putting the blog before the book.

Keith Thomson didn't have an online presence before he signed a deal for his high-seas caper, Pirates of Pensacola, but the format helped generate enough interest to push the title to the top of Amazon.com's "early adopters" pre-sales list.

In turn, Thomson says his blog, a fictional chronicle of his book's characters and adventures, brought him invaluable support and feedback -- he used reader responses to tweak the final version of the book.

The format, he says, is "the great new minor leagues for writers" seeking an audience and a book deal.

"If you're an agent and hear about 10,000 people who are excited about a blog -- I think you'd have to pay attention to that," he says.

Lynch, the Riverhead book editor, agrees. But, she adds, if anyone is looking to blogs to revolutionize the publishing industry, think again -- this isn't really a case of new school publishing vs. old school.

"Blogging is a new form, but I think you can compare it to ... something like the success of a (Sex and the City author) Candace Bushnell," Lynch says. "That was the ... model of someone who had a regular column and got a book deal from it. That's what it's like now with blogs."

"I got a fancy degree," she says, "and when I finally do publish a book? It's because of this wacky Internet thing."

The Blog Herald:

Blogs Driving Consumer Buzz

Readers of a blog [Gus Openshaw's Whale-Killing Journal] from author Keith Thompson, the writer behind the soon to be published novel, “Pirates of Pensacola“, have driven the yet to be released novel to the top of Amazon’s Early Adopter list, based upon sales.

The blog, hosted on the Lycos’ Tripod blogging service, has surpised the publishers of the novel, who were not aware of the sales power of blogging.

Thompson has remarked that it is usually very difficult as a writer to get decent feedback, but the anonymity provided by blogs permits bloggers to be much more open than even family and friends.