Skip to main content


October 23, 2008

Margaret Cezair-Thompson: Discussing The Pirate's Daughter

Posted by carol
Today's guest blogger, Margaret Cezair-Thompson, shares some insights about her novel The Pirate's Daughter. Set on a small island off the coast of Jamaica, it's the story of two women --- Ida, a local girl who has an affair with swashbuckling movie star Errol Flynn, and their daughter, May, who meets her father only once.

Margaret is one of the featured authors at this weekend's book group expo, which is taking place in San Jose, California, on Saturday and Sunday. She'll be participating in the panel discussion "Managing Your Mother" about characters who are burdened by the choices their mothers have made. Click here for more information about book group expo, including a schedule of events.

Talking with readers, I've come to appreciate the continuing relationship one can have with a book. There are questions that linger not just for the reader but for me, the writer. I'm given the opportunity, for example, to reflect more on a certain character. Or a reader will share some memory of Jamaica and I'll be able to revisit a special place in the book --- Oracabessa, where Nigel Fletcher lives (yes, Fletcher is based on Ian Fleming) or the bar where Errol Flynn and Mr. Joseph have that first drink together. A reader told me the other day, he was sure he'd been to that very bar.

I've been asked is if the novel is in any way autobiographical. I'm not the daughter of a pirate or swashbuckling movie star; however, like May Flynn I grew up with a charismatic father, a man who led a well-publicized career as a lawyer-statesman. I recall times during my childhood when I'd look in the newspaper to find out where my father was --- Zimbabwe? London? I empathized with May's feelings about her father --- the fascination with his life, and yet the need to be recognized as a person in her own right. Another thing: like May, I belong to that generation of Jamaicans who came of age when our country was coming of age, emerging from colony to nation. It was an exciting yet troubling time to grow up. Our music evolved from salty Calypsos to strident Bob Marley reggae; at the age of five, I watched as the national flag was raised for the first time; but at nineteen, I saw soldiers and army tanks roam suburban avenues during a State of Emergency.

The thing I share most with May Flynn is a passion for literature. I was wary at first, about creating a character who was so like me in her literary inclinations. But while working on the novel I'd often read adventure stories like Treasure Island to my son at bedtime, and this reminded of that time in my own life when I fell deeply in love with books. I wanted to put some of that into the novel --- a young girl's escape into the great adventure narratives of another era --- how literature can rescue and define us when we're young.

Another question that comes up is: why Errol Flynn? I can think of several answers, but the main reason is that he was actually there in Jamaica. This makes all the difference for Ida Joseph. Fiction is often based on the question "what if?" It's not unusual for girls to become infatuated with movie-stars. But what if the irresistibly handsome movie-star actually lived close by, was a friend of the family, and seemed to take a sincere interest?

Like Ida, my first impressions of Flynn were from movie posters and films like The Sea Hawk. I also heard about him through the stories circulating about his life in Port Antonio (my mother told me how women fainted in Jamaica upon seeing him in person; someone else told me about Flynn's driving his car into a swimming pool). As I researched and wrote, I began to see him up close. And I took the time, like Ida, to wonder about him. That he's undeserving of her attention becomes clear even to Ida herself, and yet she goes on loving him. As a writer, I was similarly unconcerned with making a moral judgment about him. I was interested in what was less known: that he grew up in Tasmania, was passionate about the sea, and dreamed of being a writer. An exhibitionist and an outrageous prankster, he nevertheless lacked self-esteem. He was forever seeking the approval of his parents, especially his brilliant father. His longing to perpetuate his youth turned into a misguided attraction to very young women. There was much that he was ashamed of.

For all his faults, what I found endearing about him was his sincere love for my homeland. I was able to imagine my own country again through his eyes, just as Ida does. All in all, it was a pleasant experience, getting to "know" Errol. And I like to think he appreciates the chance to live again in my book, to enjoy the Jamaica that he knew.

It's inspiring to me as a writer, to hear from readers about any personal connection they might have to the book, whether it's a memory of Jamaica, a fondness for Caribbean music or food (you'll have noticed a lot of food in this book!) an interest in the country's history or ongoing concern for one of the characters. What will happen to May, to Navy Island, Ida, Oni, Derek? That's the beauty of these discussions. The books you love don't have to end.

---Margaret Cezair-Thompson