We’re delighted to have this month’s featured author, Charlotte Rogan, with us today to answer a few questions about her debut novel, THE LIFEBOAT. So please relax, enjoy, and chime in with your own questions in the comment section.
Grace Winter is a survivor. Long before she ever sets foot on the doomed ocean liner, Empress Alexandra, she is orchestrating the circumstances of her life. She is complex and cunning, but would you go so far as to describe her as an anti-hero? Or simply an unreliable narrator? Or neither?
Yes, Grace is unreliable, but who is absolutely reliable, especially when her life or freedom is at stake? But I guess any answer about an antihero depends on definitions. She is intelligent and able to adapt, as well as seductive and somewhat mysterious, so perhaps Grace would qualify.
But I wonder if the old distinctions still apply. Fictional characters have become increasingly complex, and there are very few contemporary adult novels that focus on someone pure, noble, and true—or purely evil for that matter. For the idea of heroes and villains and maybe even antiheroes to make sense, we readers all have to agree on the larger social and moral context, and it seems this sort of agreement is less likely than it was years ago. Thus, a hero and a damsel in distress might have played well to a certain kind of old-fashioned audience, but these days I think we would want to know why the damsel needed rescuing in the first place and if she mightn’t have been given some character traits that allowed her to rescue herself.
Throughout the novel Grace repeats the phrase, “God helps those who help themselves.” And even though she appears demure, she is anything but passive. So much so that later in the novel, one of the women she’s on trial with says to her, “You’re not as weak as you appear.” I can’t imagine that it was easy to create such a layered, fascinating character. Can you describe your inspiration for Grace Winter, and how you went about developing her character?
My characters start out as voices in my head. Often they are defending themselves against some unseen authority or arguing some unwinnable point. Grace started out alternately defending her actions in the boat and tormenting poor Mary Ann.
In 1914, the options for women were much more limited than they are today, but we still live in a world when many decisions that affect only the female half of the population are decided by men. You have only to read the news about the birth control debate or the problem of human trafficking or the lack of third world educational opportunities for girls to know that this is true. And the reason for this is that men are more powerful than women—physically, of course, but also politically, which maybe is just a derivative of strength. Grace was not going to solve the disparities of biology and politics all by herself, so she used what resources she had.
It continues to be true—we see this in politics all the time—that women are criticized for actions that would never be questioned in a man. I’m afraid the world still wants women to be nice. Was Grace completely likable? Not at all. But I wanted to write about a woman who didn’t meekly assume the role assigned to her, who didn’t conform either to the expectations of the other characters or to the expectations of the reader.
While reading THE LIFEBOAT I found myself continually wondering what I would do in that situation–especially if any (or all) of my children were with me. I think the strength of your novel lies in its ability to make the reader question how far they would go to stay alive. And I have to wonder, had you been on Lifeboat 14, what would you have done? Would you have taken sides in the power struggle between Mr. Hardie and Ursula Grant? Would you–as some of your characters did–surrender yourself to the ocean? Or would you have fought for life like Grace?
Want to see a tiger mom? Just put me in a lifeboat situation with my children! Who knows what I would have done—either with or without them?
Most people wouldn’t hesitate to steer a runaway trolley away from a crowd and toward a single person, thereby killing one to save many. But those same people are appalled at the idea of pushing a fat man in front of the trolley even if that action accomplishes the same result. The idea of laying hands on another person is anathema to most of us—even if we are secretly relieved when someone else does the dirty work for us.
I think one of the fascinating things about the law is that through it we judge people for their actions in circumstances we have never experienced. And the great thing about fiction is that we can try these circumstances on and ask ourselves: What would I do?