WA author Norman Jorgensen's pirate tale The Smuggler's Curse is a rollicking read.
"I cannot believe it. My mother has gone and sold me. Sold me — her only child! And to the most notorious cold-hearted sea captain ever to sail the wild, west coast. What sort of a mother would do such a thing, knowing I will be carried away in a black-painted sailing ship to face untold dangers and probably death a hundred times over on treacherous seas and in exotic ports?”
So begins Norman Jorgensen’s latest rollicking read, The Smuggler’s Curse, a swashbuckling tale of terror in the tropics partly inspired by one of the West Australian author’s all-time favourite books, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
Jorgensen’s previous historical novel for younger readers, Jack’s Island, found best friends Jack and Banjo facing the threat of a Japanese invasion on wartime Rottnest. Set in the late 19th century, The Smuggler’s Curse finds Red Read leaving his mother’s inn of the same name before being forced to follow the infamous smuggler Captain Bowen through thick and thin, from Red’s Broome home to Singapore, Sumatra, Fremantle, Albany and even the Pilbara coastal town of Cossack.
Surprisingly, Jorgensen, who was himself born in Broome and learnt to sail in his father’s dinghy at the age of 13, says he hates writing picture books. He is of course being facetious — but there may be at least an element of truth to what he says.
“It’s because you’ve got the whole story in your head,” he says. “So you write it. Say you describe a character wearing a red jumper. The illustrator comes along and draws a character with a red jumper. So you don’t need to write that. It comes out. You describe a dog. The illustrator draws the dog. That comes out. And so on. It can be very frustrating.”
“I hadn’t set the novel in Australia at all at first,” he says. “My editor asked me if I would consider doing so and that it would be easy.” He thought Broome would be a good location because in the 19th century it was “a wild, tempestuous place where men went to get away from their families”.
The trouble was he’d set the novel during the early 19th century, with the Napoleonic War and the illegal trading with France as backdrops. Broome wasn’t even gazetted until the 1880s.
“So we had to shift the time period forward,” he says. “Then I had the novel opening on this jetty which didn’t even exist until 1895. Now, by this time we’re well into the steamship era.” Which of course didn’t preclude using sailing ships, which were still being used extensively at the time.
“The point is if you’re writing an historical novel, you can do what you like with your imaginary characters but you can’t change history. I get annoyed at people who do that. Even if I do occasionally do it myself,” he suddenly recalls, laughing.
The other area that is sometimes problematic when it comes to writing for children is violence. Needless to say, in a book filled with smugglers and pirates and guerilla warfare, someone’s bound to get hurt. Jorgensen has an appropriately novel approach.
“I write a book like this as if I were a 12-year-old,” he admits. “Which isn’t that hard as most people reckon that’s about my mental age. But I ask myself, ‘What would a 12-year-old find acceptable?’” Quite a lot, it turns out.
The solution? Make it comic violence, never graphic.
As for writing for children in general, Jorgensen says it’s the immediacy of feedback he loves the most. Again, reading out loud in schools helps.
“That’s why I wrote this in the first person, present tense,” he says.
“I wanted the reader to be right there with Red. And I was able to test passages out on the kids. It’s fantastic because you can sense when their attention’s flagging or when it’s totally engaged.
The Smuggler's Curse is published by Fremantle Press ($17)