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.

Preparing to launch Part 3 — guest blog by Rick James

Well, con­trary to Susan and Harold’s exper­i­ences with book sign­ings, I actu­ally looked for­ward to my book launch of West Coast Wrecks & Other Maritime Tales with a good deal of con­fid­ence. Per­haps too much.

For one, I have no short­age of taste­ful, bet­ter qual­ity shirts in my closet. (Christmas presents over the years from Mom and also cour­tesy of Paula’s broth­er who man­ages the fash­ion­able out­door store, REI, in San Francisco). Plus I had just bought a new pair of black jeans. And since I don’t live in Merville like Harold, my fin­ger­nails stay reas­on­ably clean.

But I do make sure I get a hair­cut just be­fore a present­a­tion. Oth­er­wise, my un­ruly, white locks tend to make me look like a de­ranged Albert Einstein.

Also, I cred­it my abil­ity to stay re­laxed be­fore a group to the fact that I’ve giv­en a fair amount of slide shows and present­a­tions over the years. And for some bizarre reas­on, I’ve be­come a more so­cial an­im­al as I age and ac­tu­ally en­joy stand­ing up in front of a group. (This been a sur­prise to Paula who of­ten re­minds me that I used to be a quiet and retir­ing Fanny Bay recluse.)

Last fall I had my book launch at the Vancouver Maritime Museum. And, gad sakes! some 60+ people turned up and they were all out there in front of me!! Man, I was pumped and I think my pub­li­cist from Harbour Publishing was sur­prised too. Turns out she mis­judged the num­ber of people who would at­tend and had­n’t pur­chased enough pastry items; a dis­ap­point­ment for those late get­ting to the good­ies table.

The PowerPoint present­a­tion went over exceed­ingly well. A good indic­ation of suc­cess was the com­ments af­ter­wards and ques­tion peri­od that las­ted for about 15 minutes. The worst thing that can hap­pen at the end of a present­a­tion is that every­one sits there with a dead­pan, bored ex­pres­sion on their faces.

So I was brim­ming with an over­whelm­ing sense of suc­cess and good­will as I made my way to the book sign­ing table where a crowd had already lined up. Then it happened; about sev­en signed cop­ies along.

As I looked up at this big, middle-aged, bald­ing guy with a pony tail I asked, “Who should I make it out to?” And he an­swers, “Rick James!” I did a double take and replied, “No, that’s me, the au­thor, I mean, what’s your name?”

Rick back in the 1970s be­fore he de­veloped his pub­lished au­thor persona.

Rick James!” he de­clared again. “Don’t you remem­ber me from the old days in Victoria? How could ya for­get, I mean, we not only have the same name…” And con­tin­ues in an overly loud voice, “Oh man! We even used to smoke dope to­geth­er at Keith’s place on Burdett back in the early 70s!”

Thankfully most of the folks around the table were old friends or work col­leagues who were prob­ably already aware of my past. Still, I could tell some people were startled. You know, the strangers I had man­aged to con­vince over the past hour that I should be looked upon as a respect­able West Coast mari­time his­tor­ian and writer. Who knows what they thought after the oth­er Rick James fin­ished talking?

So there you go, no mat­ter how well pre­pared – and groomed – a per­son is for a book sign­ing, some­thing totally un­ex­pec­ted can still bring you to back to real­ity with a jolt.

Making the BC Bestseller list — guest blog by Rick James

Ever since the re­lease of my book, Raincoast Chronicles 21: West Coast Wrecks & Other Maritime Tales, in October, I’ve been very eager to pick up a copy of the Vancouver Sun every Saturday morn­ing.  Why? This is when the B.C. Bestseller list, com­piled by the Association of Book Publishers of B.C., is fea­tured in the paper’s Weekend Review.

I must say, it’s been heady times see­ing the out­come of my ef­forts up there on that list for over four months now; es­pe­cially after pound­ing away at the key­board in the base­ment in isol­a­tion for so many years.  Still, my mak­ing the ‘list” didn’t hap­pen all on its own.

Rick at the Royston hulk breakwater

I can’t say enough about Harbour Publishing who have done an ab­so­lutely fab­ulous job of pro­mot­ing the book. Howard White’s staff went the ex­tra mile en­sur­ing that book re­view ed­it­ors in all the big pa­pers on the coast, as well as vari­ous ra­dio show hosts all had their re­view cop­ies and in­vit­a­tions to in­ter­view me.

But I also went the ex­tra mile on my own since since I wasn’t con­tent to just sit back and leave it en­tirely in Harbour’s hands. And I real­ized that they, like all pub­lish­ers, only have so much money avail­able to send an au­thor gal­li­vant­ing around the land­scape to book store read­ings or PowerPoint presentations.

So I vo­lun­teered to head over to Tofino and up to the North Island, where I was con­vinced there was an ex­cel­lent mar­ket, on my own dime. I was right, and much to Harbour’s cred­it, they con­trib­uted to ex­penses after all.

And what about so­cial me­dia you ask? That must have been a ma­jor factor in the book’s suc­cess. Right? Well, as much as some friends and col­leagues are totally con­vinced this is the way to go, I avoided it.  No blogs, Facebook, or even a webpage!  While it might seem I’m a total throw­back to a dif­fer­ent day and age, I have nev­er been fully con­vinced that this route was ever worth pur­su­ing.  (God for­bid, I waste enough time try­ing to keep with emails!)

I must ad­mit though, I did rely on some so­cial in­ter­ac­tion. But it was the old school kind. Since I was up and down Vancouver Island a lot this winter, I made it a point to stop at each and every book­store I was go­ing by. Whether it was Chapters in Nanaimo or Ivy’s, the small in­de­pend­ent on Oak Bay Avenue in Victoria, I  walked in, in­tro­duced my­self and vo­lun­teered to auto­graph any cop­ies of my book they had on hand.

I did this, not once but twice and even three or four times over the past four months.  And has it paid off? You bet! Here it is mid-January and I’m still sit­ting at #6 on the BC Bestseller list!


Technical troubles? Find a teenager.

It wasn’t work­ing. Rick gamely pushed but­tons and I began a ser­i­ous read of the  in­struc­tion manu­al. Still no suc­cess. Behind us I could hear the audi­ence shift­ing restlessly.

We were at the Port Hardy Museum where Rick was sched­uled to present an il­lus­trated talk on his new book, West Coast Wrecks & Other Maritime Tales. The laptop was on and con­nec­ted to the pro­ject­or which was also on. The screen was up but the only thing show­ing on it was Searching for in­put… 

After a few minutes Rick said, “I think we need a young per­son,” and left the mu­seum. I told the audi­ence we were hav­ing tech­nic­al prob­lems and to bear with us. I re­turned to page 12 of the manu­al and wondered how long I’d be stuck at the front of the room on my own.

But in only a few minutes Rick came back with a tall teen­age boy. Josh clicked a few keys, wiggled a few cords and with­in 20 seconds the show was up and run­ning. Turns out we’d plugged one of the cords into the wrong hole.

Okay, I ad­mit Rick and I are of a cer­tain age and didn’t grow up in the di­git­al gen­er­a­tion. But hey, the col­ours on the end of the cord and the hole matched and it fit!

Rick launched into the story of the wreck of the Geo. S. Wright. Then someone vis­ited the ladies wash­room and happened to turn on the light at the ex­act same mo­ment a mu­seum vo­lun­teer plugged in the kettle. The mu­seum was plunged into darkness.

After flip­ping nu­mer­ous switches in the break­er box power was re­stored. But the Power Point show wouldn’t come up. I dashed back to Café Guido where Josh’s boss was kind enough to let him dis­ap­pear again.

As we crossed the street to­wards the mu­seum I asked the teen if he liked books. “I love them,” he replied.

Back at the mu­seum Josh did his slight-of-hand tech­ie ma­gic and a beau­ti­ful rendi­tion of the Geo. S. Wright ap­peared on the screen. The audi­ence cheered and I handed Josh a copy of West Coast Wrecks.

Is he the au­thor? Josh asked look­ing at Rick with a big smile. “Yes,” I said. “And he’ll come over to the café to sign the book when he fin­ishes his present­a­tion.” There was an even big­ger smile this time.

I learned three things from this experience.

#1. Always make sure you have the plug hooked up to the right thingiemejob.

#2. Even in this di­git­al age young people still like real books.

#3. And, per­haps most im­port­ant of all, if you’re ever hav­ing tech­nic­al troubles, find a teenager.