Audrey Penn on Writing her Fourth Blackbeard Novel

Tell us a little about your upcoming novel on Blackbeard and Ocracoke, as it’s been several years since your previous series of books on Blackbeard came out? 

The first three novels released many years ago seemed more like plays I wrote and directed, first in my head and then on paper. I made well over a thousand revisions while writing: sometimes to find just the perfect word, or add just the perfect description.

The new stand-alone novel, Blackbeard’s Legacy: Shared/Time unites Blackbeard with the American Civil War. I wrote the ending to this book in 1977 when I began this long journey. In this new book, I attempt to deal with multiple periods of time: the present time with my four island children, the Civil War with the Battle of Hatteras Inlet, and the years during Blackbeard’s lifetime. This book takes the children on an emotional roller coaster concerning slavery. But the conclusion of the book is known to me and to my editor Pierre Dery and no one else. It’s a zinger.

You’ve taken many trips to Ocracoke over the years to research Blackbeard, his life, and the island, will you tell us a little about your research, and share one new interesting detail that you’ve uncovered or learned?

From 1977-1990 we visited Ocracoke several times a year where I learned what I could from hearsay and listening to stories and songs that spoke of the island’s history: this always included tales of Blackbeard. Mostly I worked out my story ideas with the children who attend Ocracoke School. I asked real children to do the things I asked the kids in my books to do. I wanted to make sure I had thought things out correctly. I thought I knew how the children in my book would react in certain situations. I was constantly wrong and had to rewrite the entire event. But, years of disasters and mishaps have made for terrific stories. But, it wasn’t until 1990 that the islanders began sharing their intimate family stories with me and I could begin my true research on the man known as Blackbeard.

Several years ago, I was presented with a letter from a Maryland school teacher that no one outside of her family members had ever seen. I was given permission to use the information for my last novel. The letter was written by a man who was a ten-year-old cabin boy on a ship Blackbeard looted in 1718. It is the only document known to have a full description of the pirate’s actions upon entering the ship and robbing it.

Will you please share a few elements about your writing process, where do you write and how do you prefer to write?

My work day begins at 5:00 am. My office is a mere six feet away from my bedroom, so I begin writing in my fuzzy pink robe and slippers with a mug of coffee and the company of my dog Eddie. After staring out my window and watching the deer and birds flit about, I set to work. I always begin with the writing I ended with the day before. I make sure I know my goal for the chapter and how each child in the book will respond to the various situations.

If it’s a beautiful Durham morning, I pack up my necessities and go sit on our southern front porch and write while dodging battling hummingbirds. But when I am outside, I can read my story out loud without waking the household. I can’t really hear my story unless I read it out loud. I try to work on one half of a chapter at a time. On really good days, I can accomplish this all at once. But a half a chapter can take me up to ten hours to complete. Because of my physical condition, that ten hours can sometimes take a week or more to accomplish. Every day is a challenge, whether I can work for eight hours or can only put in half an hour of writing, but writing makes my pain all but disappear. I can’t imagine a day without writing. After several hours of work, I sleep for most of the rest of the day. I begin writing again in the early evening.
The new Blackbeard book is in its seventh year of research and writing and it is almost ready for the publisher. This has been quite an experience for everyone in my family who has graciously let me finish my four-novel, forty-year project.