Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Origin of Pirate Latitudes

When the publication of Pirate Latitudes was announced in an April New York Times story, Jonathan Burnham, the publisher said of the novel:

“It’s eminently and deeply and thoroughly researched….It’s packed through with great detail about navigation and how pirates operated, and links between the New World and the Caribbean and Spain.”

Pirate Latitudes was discovered on Michael Crichton’s computer by his assistant after he died, and Burnham speculated that it was written at the same time Crichton wrote his most recent novel, Next, which was published in 2006.

But there is evidence that Pirate Latitudes was in the works at least 30 years ago. Crichton’s autobiography Travels contains a chapter titled “Jamaica” in which he tells of a Christmas vacation in 1982 with a woman named Terry. Most of the chapter is about their relationship breaking up, but on pp.268-269 Crichton writes:

Before we left Jamaica, I wanted to go to Spanish Town in the south, where I had learned there was a new museum of early Jamaican artifacts. For many years I had been working on a book about seventeenth-century Jamaica, and now I wanted to visit this museum.

Now I think we can safely assume that the book was probably a novel, as nearly all Crichton’s books have been novels. And from what I know of the history of Jamaica and the Caribbean, it is unlikely that the book would not involve pirates given their significance and centrality to Jamaica in the 1600s.

And in 1970, Crichton (under the name John Lange) published a mystery thriller, Grave Descend, which takes place in Jamaica in modern times. That novel, which was republished in 2006, reflects a thorough knowledge of the island and includes a historical reference on p. 124:

The Pit was the native term for a vast swampy marsh in southwestern Jamaica….There were stories of pirate treasure buried here; Morgan supposedly cached gold in the swamp, carrying it by long boat up from Port Royal, the ancient site of modern Kingston. There were stories of millions of dollars in bullion hidden in these swamps. There were also stories of ghosts, men lost and doomed to wander here forever.

Morgan is a reference to privateer and pirate Henry Morgan, who eventually became governor of Jamaica. From the information available so far on Pirate Latitudes, the character of Captain Charles Hunter may have been inspired by Henry Morgan (a question I’ll ponder and explore after I read the novel).

With Michael Crichton, as with many writers, a time lag of several years between the inspiration for a book and its completion was not unusual.
From the FAQs section on Crichton’s website:

How long, on average, does it take to write one of your books, from initial idea to publication?

There is no way to say, it varies so much. THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY was 3 years. SPHERE was 20 years. JURASSIC was 8 years. DISCLOSURE was 5 years. Usually, an idea "cooks" in my head for a very long time before I write it.

Related Posts:
Origins of Pirate Latitudes - Part 2

21 days until the US release of Pirate Latitudes.

Nook Wifi - 300x250

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