A Q&A With Robert Hough, Author of The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan
We asked Robert Hough a few questions about his latest novel,“The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan,” his chess playing abilities, and his history with psycho-pharmacology. Here’s what he had to say:
When my kids were little, they both joined a chess club that had started at their public school. The older one quit immediately – it just wasn’t for her – but the younger one, who was ten, really got into it. She started playing at team tournaments against other schools, and liked that as well.
One day she came to me and told me that the Ontario Girls Open Chess Tournament was being held soon in Toronto, and that she wanted to participate. I agreed, and on the day of the tournament I drove her up to an auditorium in the north end of the city. We walked in to this huge, quiet room and immediately felt this incredible tension in the air – all these evil little girls just glaring at her. She had a punishing attack of nerves, came THIS close to leaving (which I was all for, by the way) and then played. She came in seventh out of a field of four hundred, and never played again.
And why would she? Why would anyone want to play competitive chess if THAT’s what it’s like? And these were just little girls! Imagine facing a Fischer, or a Kasparov. I started looking into the history of chess, and was surprised to find out that there is a real penchant toward nervous breakdowns among top-ranked players. And I’m not talking about garden variety neurosis: I’m talking about full-blown paranoid psychosis. Fischer is the most obvious example, but the history of high-level chess is run through with schizophrenia, alcoholism, OCD and suicide.
From that day on, I knew I’d write a novel about a chess player some day. Not chess itself – I don’t think you can make that interesting – but about the people who play it. Several years and a couple of books later, I came up with the character of Benny Wand, an illiterate chess hustler and low-level criminal who falls in with the privateer Henry Morgan. Basically, I was doing what novelists always do with their main characters – I threw him in the most stressful circumstances imaginable, and then watched how he dealt with them. In the case of Benny Wand, something interesting happened: through surviving the insanity of Port Royal and life with Henry Morgan, he discovered he’s a far better person than he ever imagined. Weirdly, he finds his own soul.
2. What makes Port Royal, Jamaica, where protagonist Benny Wand gets deported to, “the wickedest city on earth?”
Basically, it was a city designed to host privateers once they’d come back from sacking foreign cities. Naturally, there were only three businesses: brothels, bars, and opium dens. Hi-jinks definitely occurred.
3. Considering the book takes place in 1661 and is a historical novel, what was your research process like while writing The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan?
I did very little research, this time. Henry Morgan went around attacking Spanish cities in the New World, all with the blessing of the King, and in so doing ended up losing his soul – the Morgan tale is pure Faust. So I read a few books to get the basics, but honestly – that was it. I really wanted this book to be my impressionistic take on madness, board games, and the lash, so to speak.
4. You have a page on your website dedicated to stuff you like, but notably absent from this list is chess, which plays a big role in The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan. How are your chess playing skills? Would you be able to put up a fight against Benny Wand or Captain Henry Morgan?
I never played chess as a kid, and am not a chess player at all. As I say, I have no interest in the game itself, but more in the people who play it well. So they’d crush me in a few moves…
5. At 21 years old, you did your thesis at Queen’s University in psycho-pharmacology—how did your path go from being inside a research laboratory to becoming a journalist and novelist?
By the time I finished my degree, I decided if I never saw the inside of a research laboratory again it’d be too soon. I’m not an animal rights activist but I will say they have a point, particularly when it comes to animal research – all those vivisected cats and Rhesus monkeys with brain-stem electrodes. So I got out. For the past three years, however, I’d been writing the back-page satire column for the campus Arts newspaper, so fortunately the writing bug had already bitten.
6. You got your start as writer by writing articles for free while collecting miniscule unemployment cheques, and then took a job as a fact-checker for a magazine that folded less than a year later. What is one tip you can provide to the young writer struggling to find his or her footing, that may be looking for a bit of guidance or motivation?
I think a lot of writers start out with a burning desire to be published, which is really just a craving for external validation. I’d say don’t worry about it. Get good first, and then worry about the act of publishing, which is really quite a sordid affair. You’ll know you’ve become a writer when you care far more about doing the writing than getting your name in print.
7. What three books would you want with you if you were stuck on a desert island for five years?
My holy Trinity: The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer; Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan; and Memoir From Ant-Proof Case by Mark Helprin.
8. What book are you reading right now?
I was recently in Granada and found The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson in the ‘take a book, leave a book’ section of our hotel. As you might tell from my desert island picks, I enjoy extremely witty writing, flamboyant settings, and larger-than-life characters, all of which I’ve used liberally in The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan. As with all my books, I just wanted to take the reader on a wild ride…
The year is 1664, and Benny Wand, a young thief and board game hustler, is arrested in London for illegal gaming. Deported to the city of Port Royal, Jamaica, known as “the wickedest city on earth,” Wand is forced by his depleted circumstances to join a raid on the Spanish city of Villahermosa. The mission is a perilous success, and Wand attracts the attention of the mission’s leader, an up-and-coming Welsh seaman, Captain Henry Morgan, whose raids on Spanish strongholds are funded by the British government.
While embarking on a campaign in the Caribbean, Wand and Morgan develop an unlikely friendship through a shared love of chess. As Morgan is corrupted by his increasingly sordid attacks on Spanish cities, he slowly becomes Wand’s greatest enemy. To defeat his former ally, Wand embarks on a strategic battle of wits and must help Morgan in the most savage and unexpected way possible. This is blistering and bawdy storytelling at its best.