'Titanic Ashes' a tale of struggle and blame

Tara Bradbury
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Author Paul Butler reads from his novel

One of the good things about writing fiction based on historical events, says local novelist Paul Butler, is you have the benefit of being able to look at things from a great height; from an angle that's not necessarily obvious when writing fiction set in the present time.

You can put your characters' personal struggles into historical and social context, and analyze them with an insight that might be missing were the story more contemporary.

Butler's latest novel, "Titanic Ashes," is centred around one particular struggle which starts the moment J. Bruce Ismay, former chairman of the White Star Line, steps off the sinking Titanic and into a lifeboat.

Ismay, as one of the highest imaginable points of authority on the ship, went overnight from a highly respected businessman to a pariah, having chosen to save himself rather than go down with the ship.

"There was this incredible fallout," Butler said. "His family were mortified at what they thought was a good thing, that their father survived, but for everyone else it was scandalous.

"I couldn't think of anything more dramatic for me personally than that moment, and the fact that it involved everyone: it involved the people who had a vested interest in accusing him, it involved the people who wanted to protect him, and it involved (Ismay) himself and the motivation behind the choices he made."

Set in a London restaurant in 1925, Butler's novel takes a backwards journey through the 13 years following the Titanic disaster to confront issues of courage and revenge. Ismay and his daughter, Evelyn, are both historical characters, while another, 10-year-old Titanic survivor Miranda Grimsden, is fictitious. The two families knew each other before the tragedy, and soon after it happens, Miranda writes a poison-pen letter to Ismay.

Along with exploring the reasons why Ismay chose to save himself, Butler examines the mysterious reasons for Miranda's letter - which aren't the ones we might expect.

Research for the novel was understandably easy, Butler said, given the range of material written on the Titanic sinking, from survivors' memoirs to newspaper articles. Also easy was putting himself in Ismay's shoes.

"I think a lot of people who try to write novels do this anyway: if there's something that bothers you, something that makes you say, 'Oh my God, what's it like to be that person?' that's what you're drawn into naturally," he explained.

"I didn't have to try; it was pulling me in. I think if you see someone who's attacked, whether justifiably or not, your natural inclination is to think, what's it like to be inside that person's skin?"

Was the backlash against Ismay justified?

That's a complicated question, Butler said - much more complicated than the things written about Ismay in the past, or previous dramatic depictions of him, in which he's often portrayed as a buffoon.

"There are two ways of looking at cowardice in that situation. One is whether it takes courage to live through something, knowing what's going to happen to you afterwards, and the other is whether it's courageous to go down with the ship," Butler said.

Some of the accusations written about Ismay and perceived as fact are false, Butler learned, including that he pressured the ship's captain to make the Titanic go faster so it would achieve a record speed and arrive a day early. It was well-documented that Ismay didn't take kindly to his ships arriving a day early, since it inconvenienced passengers who would be forced to find a hotel room for the night, Butler explained. However, the accusation was often repeated and became accepted as truth.

"When there's a catastrophe, if it becomes convenient that someone be blamed, they generally will," Butler said.

"I'm not trying to be an apologist for any particular character or for what any particular character did, but what I am trying to do is look at it from every angle, internally as well as externally, to see what extent what was said was just too convenient."

Butler, author of books like "NaGeira" and "Easton's Gold" is currently working on an historical novel about Sir Wilfred Grenfell.

"Titanic Ashes," published by Flanker Press, is available in bookstores.

tbradbury@thetelegram.com Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Organizations: Flanker Press

Geographic location: London

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