Q&A: Andrew Wilson, Author of Shadow of the Titanic

By Megan Hahn Fraser

April 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the tragic sinking of Titanic. Below, LJ reviewer Megan Hahn Fraser interviews British author Andrew Wilson (@andrewwilsonaw), whose book Shadow of the Titanic earned a starred review (a captivating read that begins where most other Titanic books end). Archives played a key role in Shadow‘s creation, of course, and many of the survivors’ stories are beyond sad, but your patrons will be intrigued nonetheless.

For more on Titanic, don’t miss Fraser’s A Night Remembered,” a roundup of new books marking the centennial.‚ Margaret Heilbrun

MHF: Would you describe your research process for Shadow of the Titanic? How did you go about identifying sources, doing interviews, and conducting research in archival material?

AW: I tend to follow my nose‚ my natural curiosity drives the research process. I like to do a lot of detective work in my books, and I really enjoy the process of tracking people down and piecing together seemingly disparate bits of information.

My first step with a work of nonfiction or biography is always to seek out primary sources that exist in archives. So with Shadow of the Titanic I quickly identified that Walter Lord’s archive was held by the National Maritime Museum in London. I knew that in researching his book, A Night To Remember, he had corresponded with Titanic survivors over the course of 50 or so years, but nothing prepared me for the extent of the documents‚ or their richness. It really was a biographer’s dream‚ a true treasure trove of material (letters, diaries, memoirs) most of which had never been published before. The bulk of that archive formed the heart of my book. What is amazing is that Walter Lord used about one percent of the material‚ the rest was just there waiting for someone like me to come along and read it.

After that, I tracked down the families and friends of survivors. I also interviewed Millvina Dean, the last survivor of Titanic, a few months before she died in 2009.

I tried not to read too many secondary sources on Titanic because I wanted to come to the subject as if I were writing about it for the first time. And I hope this approach comes across in the book.

MHF: Do you have a favorite or most exiting find from the Walter Lord archive?

AW: The breadth and depth of that material is astounding. It took me nearly a year to read and organize the documents that I came across. I loved the unpublished memoirs of the survivors‚ the testimonies of people like Edith Russell, Renee Harris, and Karl Behr, which really do give an extraordinarily fresh perspective on a familiar story. When I read their memoirs, I felt I was speaking to these survivors, even though some of them had been dead for a number of years.

I also loved coming across people who seemed to have disappeared from history, such as Constance Willard. Seemingly, no one knew what had happened to her until I read the correspondence in the archive that detailed her life at Las Campa√±as Hospital, an expensive and discreet institution in California that specialized in the treatment of mental illness. At one point, the room next to Constance’s was occupied by Judy Garland.

MHF: I imagine that readers would hope that Titanic survivors all went on to live long, happy lives full of good fortune to make up for living through such a terrible event, but your book shows that wasn’t the case for many.

AW: Yes, in one chapter, The Dark Side of Survival, I focus on the people whose lives were damaged by the fact that they had survived the disaster. One of the case studies is Jack Thayer, a 17-year-old first-class passenger who waited until the very last moments before he jumped off the ship. He went on to live a happy and successful life, working in banking and at the University of Pennsylvania, before he experienced a personal crisis. After the death of his mother, Marian Thayer, who had lost her husband in the sinking, and then his own son, killed in action in the Pacific in 1943, Thayer started to suffer from depression and in 1945 at age 50 he killed himself by slashing his wrists and throat.

With the help of two of his daughters, I was able to reconstruct what had happened to him, and so the resulting section is a mix of information gleaned from archive material at the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia, Thayer’s own writings, and oral testimony from his family. It’s a tragic tale, but I hope it’s not sensational.

I was also particularly touched by the story of Annie Robinson, a stewardess on Titanic, who had already survived one iceberg collision. In 1914, two years after the sinking of Titanic, she was traveling on another liner, Devonian, when she suffered a flashback of the night of the disaster and its terrible aftermath. As the boat was sailing into Boston harbor, Annie Robinson ran up on deck and threw herself off the ship. She was the first of ten Titanic survivors who went on to commit suicide after the disaster.

MHF: There were ten in all?

AW: Yes. Dr Henry Frauenthal jumped from the seventh floor of a hospital building in 1927; third-class passenger Juha Niskanen shot himself, also in 1927, after failing to find gold; professional gambler George Brereton put a gun to his head in 1942; second-class passenger John Morgan Davies took an overdose in 1951 after going through a divorce; Phyllis May Quick, who had been only two years old at the time of Titanic, shot herself in 1954; and Frederick Fleet, the man who had first set eyes on the iceberg, hanged himself in January 1965, two weeks after the death of his wife.

I also devote a chapter to White Star Line chairman Bruce Ismay, whose life was ruined by surviving Titanic.

MHF: I enjoyed reading the smaller stories in your book‚ for example, survivor Marion Woolcott making talismans out of the coat she wore the night of the sinking for her sons when they left home during World War II‚ as much the larger, more flamboyant stories such as about Madeleine Astor and her multiple marriages. Are there any vignettes that you didn’t include in the book that you wish you had?

AW: There were so many wonderful, small details and anecdotes I just couldn’t include. For example, here is a letter I couldn’t use from Alexander Macomb, a young naval officer, written in April 1912, who heard the news of the sinking in New York. It’s still as vivid and touching today as it was 100 years ago.

Dear Mother,

The terrible news of the sinking of the Titanic reached New York at about eleven o’clock last night and the scene on Broadway was awful. Crowds of people were coming out of the theaters, cafes were going full tilt, and autos whizzing everywhere when the newsboys began to cry ‚ÄòExtra! Extra paper! Titanic sunk with 1800 on board’. You can’t imagine the effect of those words on the crowd. Nobody could realize what had happened, and when they did begin to understand the excitement was almost enough to cause a panic in the theaters. Women began to faint and weep, and scores of people in evening clothes jumped in cars and taxis and rushed to the offices of the White Star Line, where they remained all night waiting for news. The scene in front of the steamship office was a tragedy in itself. As the list of those known to have been saved was printed on a large bulletin board you could hear cries of joy and relief from various points of the throng massed in front of the office. When they started the list of those who had not been heard of cries of ‚ÄòOh!’ ‚ÄòOh God!’ could be heard everywhere, and the hysterical women seemed to fill the whole city with their screams. I have never seen anything so heartrending in my life.

Of course, you have read all about the disaster in the Boston papers, so I won’t describe it, but the latest news here is that at least 1200 persons were drowned, and about 900 saved. The survivors are coming to this city on the Carpathia which will arrive Thursday night, and you can imagine the scene when the vessel gets in. I wouldn’t miss it for anything. It seems certain that Mr. Astor was drowned as a wireless message reports his body picked up but young Mrs. Astor was rescued and is on the Carpathia. It is rumoured that she expects an addition to the family. Isn’t that sad? Vincent Astor offered any sum to the steamship company if they would give him news of his father, but nothing definite could be learned. The most appalling thing about the accident is the fact that after all the Titanic‘s boats were filled with passengers there were still 1200 people left on the ship with no means of escape, except life preservers which could not have kept them alive in that ice water for more than a few hours! ‚Ķ We leave for the Navy Yard early tomorrow morning. Good-night, Alex

MHF: Do you think of other angles on the story of Titanic that have yet to be written?

AW: I think you could write a whole book about Carpathia and its journey back to New York with the survivors on board. In my book, I quote one first-class passenger on Carpathia who observed, for four days the company lived together…in this strange assortment of undress costume, some in ball gowns, many in night dresses and only a few fully clothed. It must have been a very strange, unsettling journey for many of the passengers.

MHF: Wonderful primary sources. And what is your next project?

AW: I’ve been commissioned by Simon & Schuster (Scribner’s) to write a book about the early life of Sylvia Plath. Many people may feel that the life of Plath is a well-told story, but I’ve uncovered new archive material, and I’ve interviewed people who have never talked about Plath before.

MHF: Aha, more detective work in archives! What are your thoughts, as a researcher, about the tight budgets and funding shortages being faced by libraries and archives these days?

AW: Archives like the ones I, and many other authors, use form the heart and soul of many nonfiction books. They really are essential to the research process. Many works of biography and history could not be written without them. Without access to these libraries and archives, authors like me would not be able to connect in the same way with figures who often leave gripping, first-person accounts of significant literary figures or important historical events. The continuing support of libraries and archives is essential to the richness and vibrancy of culture.