From the swashbuckling adventures of Horatio Hornblower to the political intrigues of Sharpe’s Rifles, historical fiction has long captivated readers with tales of larger-than-life heroes navigating the challenges of their times. Few authors, however, have captured the genre’s blend of drama and authenticity quite like Paul Bryers. Through his acclaimed Nathan Peake series, Bryers has brought to life the tumultuous world of 18th-century naval warfare, blending meticulous research with thrilling storytelling to create a world of danger, courage, and adventure.
In this interview, we’ll explore Bryers’ approach to writing historical nautical fiction, the inspirations behind his characters and stories, and the challenges and rewards of crafting a series that spans continents and cultures. Join us as we set sail into the world of Nathan Peake!
FICTION HORIZON: First, thank you for setting aside time for this interview. What I would like to start with is, what inspired your Nathan Peake series? How do you choose the setting for your books? What historical events and figures are you most drawn to and why?
PAUL BRYERS: My Agent persuaded me to turn a book set in Paris into a nautical fiction. I’d had a British Arts Council grant to explore the catacombs under Paris. Much of it concerned what happened in the catacombs then and now. I said, “how am I gonna make it into a book about the sea.” But, you know, being a writer and also a TV director, you’re used to producing and coming up with ideas that initially seem to clash with your own.
I’ve been reading nautical fiction since I was eight. The first book I ever read was Treasure Island. So I got into that genre at a very early age. I read it at school, in my free periods, and I knew how difficult it was and what fun it could be. I was going to say I loved the sea, but I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the sea. I’m terrified of it most of the time. I knew how difficult it was, as well as what fun it could be, and I ended up doing it. One book led to another. My publishers in the US took over all the rights, and I’m now working with them.
So this leads me to my next question. Do you prefer creating characters influenced by historically accurate figures, or do you prefer creating your own characters? What was the main inspiration behind Nathan Peake?
It’s a really good question. I start with historical figures. Many of the characters in this series are historical figures, and I’ve tried to keep them as accurate as possible. But my main character, Nathan Peak, and many of his associates are fictional. And I usually start off with a character. I even do storyboards because I’m used to doing that with film, so I have a lot of pictures in there.
I’ll often have the real-life characters on whom my characters are based on, and often male and female actors who make me identify with those characters visually. I will take characteristics I know of from them and amalgamate them into the character who emerges. But I have to keep pretty rigorous notes so that the characters from one book to the other are consistent in some way.
That leads us to my third question, and it’s tied to the previous one. How do you balance historical accuracy with the need for a compelling story? How do you keep it both interesting but also historically accurate?
Well, that’s another. Difficult one. Because it’s always a trade-off, it was with films too. And, If I’m going to be really honest, who wins in the trade-off? I would probably say the drama.
I begin with historical facts. I’ll look at the timeline when I start a new book in this series. I’ll look to see what happens. I look at the particular theatre of war that’s happening then, and I’ll then put my characters in my story into it. I keep to the story. So I never change any moral facts of the story that really happened.
But I do add the drama. And I usually make some notes pointing this out at the back of the book. Sometimes you will cheat when you’re writing about historical fiction, but I think it’s fair enough. It’s fiction.
Yeah, that’s what I was about to comment on. It’s fiction, after all. So obviously, you need to do an extensive amount of research for your books. So how do you know when you’ve done enough research to start writing, how does that process looks like?
It’s ongoing. People I’ve previously worked with often joked I did the research after making the film and then had a problem with the editing. It’s not like that with the writing quite so much, but I think I’ve done the research before the book, and it turns out I’m not done.
I did my research at the University. I worked with American history at the University, and I worked with the American War of Independence. I’ve been researching the period, and as I’ve said to you, reading nautical fiction for years. However, it’s ongoing when it comes to a particular storyline I’m working on.
When I’m writing, I’m researching. The Internet has helped enormously because I no longer have to go to a library for a new book in the middle of a chapter. I can simply look at Wikipedia to check the facts. In terms of characters, however, I like to donate some of my own to them. I’m writing one chapter in book nine at the moment, and I stopped yesterday to research it to ensure that the historical facts fit.
What happens when you have two conflicting reports about a certain incident that you would like to cover, but there’s nothing set in stone when it comes to the actual accounts? What happens when you have several conflicting pieces of information that you would like to adapt to a book?
I’d like to think that it becomes part of the story. It’s said that all history is a detective story. I’m not sure I agree with that, but I think all history is the process of getting different stories and different perspectives of the same story.
I can deal with that to some extent by having the voice of Nathan, who sees different perspectives on something, and I don’t make things happen in the way that it’s – say, “black and white “truth. Take the character of Napoleon, for example, an attractive character in these books, except that he’s a tyrant as well.
So, I like playing with those things. And you hope that the reader will decide rather than say this is what somebody did. Two books ago, it was Toussaint Louverture and the story of modern Haiti and then San Domingue, and there are so many different versions of what happened. Some of the versions certainly portray the French as the worst kind of colonial power, and that was under Napoleon. You get some decent French people about it, as they were at the time, the Navy refusing to do some of the mass killings that they were ordered to, and then you have the opposite accounts.
It’s like the war in Ukraine today, you know, we take a line on it according to our politics and personal feelings about something. But if you’re writing about it, maybe you have to have the other point of view.
Now that you’ve touched upon the character of Nathan Peake. So far, the series has eight installments. Your last book was released in 2022. So how do you handle the challenges of writing a whole series? How do you keep the story fresh?
Well, I never knew I was going to do a whole series. As I’ve said, the first book was just one idea of putting a particular guy, a young man, in a situation in Paris. He meets the English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. He meets Thomas Paine. He meets Danton and Pamela. It was steeped in the politics of the period, and that’s all I wanted to do.
That was my thing. Each time I had to approach another book because they were commissioned, there was an element of reluctance as well to it. Until I really got immersed in it. I’d never wanted to write a series this long. There were other things that I could have been doing other things that interested me along the way. So keeping them fresh and engaging probably happens in order to make me feel fresh and engaged with them rather than the reader.
I hope it works, but otherwise, I’d get bored. So I think a lot of it is to do with Nathan’s personal problems. You know, as a character that has continuity throughout the whole series. And as I’ve said, because I follow the timeline of the wars, which went on for about 1516 years, then I come across a fresh incident that hopefully engages me, and I’m very careful about those. For example, I thought I’d found the story in Sicily in the book I’m doing at the moment.
What was happening then, in 1806, just after Trafalgar? And then I found another story that was going on in the Americas. I hadn’t realized that the United States, under Jefferson as president, abolished the international slave trade before Britain. And several of the northern states had abolished slavery. And I’ve got very interested in that, partly because of what’s happening today with slavery; amazingly and horribly, it’s still an issue, but also because of the clashes between people, the power of the people who owned slaves and owned plantations, and what they could do to really stop the, what you might call nowadays, the democratic process, the process of Congress, the process of Parliament in the UK, so those sort of things.
They definitely engrossed me. I’ll change my mind about where I’m going with something when I come across a story that I think will keep me engaged.
That’s the perfect example for my next question. Actually, I just wanted to touch upon something. You obviously write about a historical time that is completely alien to us. It’s completely different when it comes to political correctness and human rights.
How do you approach that? How do you balance the current modern sensitivities and horrendous stuff that happened in the past? You mentioned the feminist character, so obviously, the books are a little more left-minded. They are obviously not what the past would look like. So how do you approach that? How do you balance those modern sensitivities and the historical context?
Well, from a personal point of view, I avoid certain words that probably would not have been avoided. I’m not being honest about what probably the dialogue was like then.
In terms of the ideas that are going on and the approach to things, you know, like misogyny, racism, nationalism? It’s not so very different from now. That, again, is incredible because it was that kind of age of ideas during which people were dealing with these things. Was misogyny in 1789 in Paris worse than it is now in London? Who knows? But there’s a lot of misogyny around now, so you can write about how you might feel now, and it won’t be out of kilter with what was happening then, during that time.
A young man or a young woman, an old man, or an old woman for that matter, in that time, would be dealing with similar issues in their head, even if they expressed them in a different way, even if they’re not so careful with their words.
So as I say, I have to be careful with my words. I don’t want to get into that at all. I feel uncomfortable with it. I was reading about this recently with the current controversy that’s going on in fiction at the moment over Roald Dahl. His language and his ideas are uncomfortable, and they were uncomfortable even then. I have to be careful with my words now, but I will say that just to give you an example of what he would write.
There’s a word “wog.” It’s a word we just don’t use now, and there’d be a footnote to it for the readers; wog means “wily oriental gentleman.” It’s an abusive term. And so, I enjoyed those books as a child. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying them. But I think there is something wrong with using those words because they perpetuate prejudices. So I’d be very careful about them in my context.
Take Cortez, for example, a brilliant soldier and adventurer but racist. So you’re dealing with this kind of thing all the time and you’re striking a balance. But I would rather be false to history than offend people, particularly in terms of misogyny. I think that’s more difficult in the 18th century than racism. How can I say that when there was slavery?
If it comes to everyday life, the misogyny of the period, the assumptions that people would have made about women and what women can do, and given that my first book was very much about Mary Wollstonecraft, I needed to make some historical accuracy sacrifices to avoid using horrible language.
So this is one historical aspect that you needed to sacrifice?
I don’t know, because your question is so interesting. I don’t think that the five or six major women characters in a series would have been quite how I portrayed them. Maybe Mary Wollstonecraft was, you know, who knows?
I’ve read a lot about them. I mean, the character I’m writing about now, the main character in Book 9, is the daughter of a feminist and revolutionary called Olympe de Gouges, who was guillotined in Paris in 1793. And so there’s accuracy. I’ve read about her philosophies and feelings; you know you can identify with them and see them in the modern world. So they’re not entirely like the people who existed then, but they would likewise not be that different today.
So you mentioned book nine. What can readers expect? Do you have something concrete, shaped up, or currently in the draft? Is a new series on the horizon?
Yes, well, there is something in the works, and it’s related to what we’ve been discussing earlier—the experience of immersing myself in the time period. During COVID, I had some ideas that came to me about a book set in the present day that was influenced by two of the films I’ve been working on. I ended up writing this book called the Vatican Candidate, which I edited right up to Christmas before I started the next Nathan Peake. So that’s very much in my mind. It comes out in the summer.
Also, there’s a book in the present day dealing with the last week of World War Two. But that’s not really history. It’s in many people’s memories, so that was a bit of a release. I liked doing that.
Now there might be the beginning of a new series. It’s being billed as that. Involving 2 characters, a youngish researcher from Brooklyn in her mid-30s and a man from Britain who’s in his 40s, these two characters might be the beginning of the new series.
I don’t know. I’m not really letting myself commit until I see how the first one does. I don’t like to totally turn my back on what’s happening around us. I think the male character is a bit like what Nathan Peake would be like if he was alive now.
This is something I want to ask. How come you never made a spinoff series about some other characters from the books?
A spinoff series? That never occurred to me. Well, I would have liked to make a spinoff series about Mary Wollstonecraft, who’s not just a character in the first book, but is in two or three others. Or perhaps a series about her real life. In the first book, she comes over pretty well. But in one book where she tried to commit suicide twice, I don’t think that I’ve done a good job on her. I don’t think I’ve been fair to her. She was very much the victim of an American agent called Gilbert Imlay, who married her in what was probably a fake marriage ceremony, and they had a child.
Anyway, she would have been a spinoff. She had several adventures subsequently, which would be very interesting to write about. But I haven’t done it. I don’t think I’ve had the time. I’ve been producing. You know, I’ve been doing these books at the rate of about one a year. I had the children’s books as well. I did four of them. So it became quite a deadline problem for me.
I believe the amount of research alone that has to occur takes up weeks or months.
And other travel. I like to write books on the locations because it reminds me of filming. And so you’re picking the places out and spending time there, which is probably why spinoffs never happened. But the spinoffs did occur to me with Mary Wollstonecraft, but I thought it probably would be better if somebody else, and in this particular case, a woman, wrote them.
And I did talk to a couple of other writers about them who were very interested in her story. I have to say, though, that, you know, I was amazed when I talked about her initially to publishers, and they said, “oh, you’ve gotta write about somebody that people know about, “and, to them, she was too obscure a character. And I find that weird, really.
Anything to add about the books about the upcoming series? Something for the fans to look forward to? A sneak peek, perhaps?
I’ll keep this short. One, the first part of your question, what I think I’d like to add is about the relevance to somebody, particularly a younger reader, of Nathan Peake. Over the course of 12 years that I’ve written about him, he went from 23 to 35, and his issues are still as relevant today as they were then.
The issues with politics, war, and ideas that were around then and are around now. There are the same ideas of equality and liberty, and love. He has had six love affairs over those 12 years, and the grief
that came with them, the guilt that came with them, it’s things like that that keep me engaged and fresh with the books because they’re different each time, and they’re interesting to me rather than the story of the ships and the sea.
This is related to the next book since his latest love is pregnant, and she’s a sculptor and the daughter of the Olympe de Gouges. This is the issue with their relationship. She doesn’t want to marry him. So that’s the ongoing issue with the book. And also, in terms of the storyline, it is very much about slavery. And because Britain and America in that year both abolished the slave trade, there were enormous political repercussions. I mean, it was what it was, one of the major issues that led to the American Civil War 50 years later.
You can check out the audio version of the interview below.