Four writers, four questions #4 Rick James

The last in­stall­ment of Four writers, four questions.

What are you work­ing on right now?

For the past five or so years, I’ve been im­mersed in re­search­ing and writ­ing about West Coast rum run­ning, a fas­cin­at­ing top­ic which soon be­came an ob­ses­sion. In January 1920, the National Prohibition or Volstead Act was of­fi­cially de­clared in the U.S. of A. Meanwhile, voters in British Columbia de­cided, that after three years, they’d had enough of their government’s own failed at­tempt to cur­tail the con­sump­tion of al­co­hol and brought it to an end in a plebis­cite that year. As a res­ult, with li­quor leg­al on one side of the bor­der and out­right il­leg­al just over the line, rum run­ning into the United States from British Columbia soon proved an ex­tremely luc­rat­ive enterprise.

My primary fo­cus has been to ex­plore how rum run­ning was op­er­ated out of British Columbia and down along the U.S. coast and even into Mexican wa­ters. Basically, my goal is to provide not only a com­pre­hens­ive his­tory of the vari­ous ves­sels and char­ac­ters in­volved in the mari­time li­quor trade, but also to ex­plore the ma­jor eco­nom­ic and polit­ic­al con­sequences of what quickly proved a very re­ward­ing en­ter­prise for all in­volved. 

Why is this mean­ing­ful to you?

018Maritime his­tory has al­ways been of par­tic­u­lar in­terest to me es­pe­cially hav­ing been born and raised on Canada’s West Coast and spend­ing a lot of time out on the wa­ter ever since I was a boy sports fish­ing with dad on south­ern Vancouver Island. For most of my life, I’ve lived, worked and con­tin­ue to ex­plore this unique coastal en­vir­on­ment. In the late 1980s, I delved deep­er into these wa­ters by re­search­ing our coast’s mari­time his­tory and at­tempt­ing to identi­fy the fas­cin­at­ing col­lec­tion of fif­teen old ships that made up Royston’s hulk break­wa­ter. (Up un­til the time, nobody had kept a re­cord of what was bur­ied there were.) This soon led to vari­ous re­search and writ­ing en­deav­ours first ap­pear­ing in the Victoria Times Colonist and Western Mariner magazine.

What is your process?

A good por­tion of my re­search time is spent in vari­ous archives thumb­ing through old news­pa­per mi­cro­films at­tempt­ing to un­ravel coastal tales and mys­ter­ies. I think the key to my suc­cess is that I’m some­what of an ob­sess­ive com­puls­ive in­di­vidu­al when it comes to re­search. God only knows how many hun­dreds upon hun­dreds of hours I’ve spent fer­ret­ing out ori­gin­al, primary source ma­ter­i­al or flip­ping through reels upon reels of old news­pa­per mi­cro­film chas­ing down a first-hand ac­count of ship’s sink­ing. I’ve also spent one heck of a lot of time search­ing through lib­rar­ies and archives all the way from the read­ily ac­cess­ible B.C. Archives in Victoria, the Vancouver Maritime Museum and right down to the J. Porter Shaw Maritime Research Centre in San Francisco.

Then there’s the ac­tu­al pro­cess of sit­ting down in front of my key­board and mon­it­or and sort­ing through the mess of pho­to­copied re­cords and news­pa­per stor­ies all stacked on my desk and try­ing to bring some semb­lance of or­der to it all. (This part of the pro­cess has al­ways been a prob­lem for me since I’m some­what of a hy­per per­son­al­ity and find it hard to re­main seated for any length of time.) But once im­mersed in a tale that grabs my in­terest, I’ve learned over time that I can really pound out text; es­pe­cially when I’m onto a real good story line.

 Why do you write?

I still think of my­self as a stu­dent rather than as a ‘his­tor­i­an’ and my greatest re­ward is learn­ing about dif­fer­ent events, many of which are fast dis­ap­pear­ing from loc­al memory. But when comes right down to it, be­ing able to piece a story to­geth­er and then share your sleuth­ing re­search with oth­ers via pub­lic­a­tion really keeps me in­spired. And many a time, fol­low­ing a stor­ies pub­lic­a­tion, I’ve re­ceived a phone call or a let­ter in the mail from an old salt to say he really en­joyed the story, but just wants to set me straight re­gard­ing a fact or two. I find that par­tic­u­larly re­ward­ing. But still, as all writers know, see­ing one’s cre­at­ive en­deav­ours out there on news­stands or in book­stores to be read by all, is per­haps a bet­ter re­ward than the cheque re­ceived from a publisher.

Rick James’ work has ap­peared in nu­mer­ous peri­od­ic­als in­clud­ing British Columbia Magazine, The Beaver: Canadas History Magazine, The Sea Chest: Journal of Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society and Western Mariner. He is also the au­thor of Raincoast Chronicles 21: West Coast Wrecks & Other Maritime Tales and the Underwater Archaeological Society of B.C. pub­lic­a­tion: Ghost Ships of Royston, as well as co-au­thor of  its Historic Shipwrecks of the Sunshine Coast, and Historic Shipwrecks of B.C.s Central Coast re­ports.

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