Faithful Fiction: Richard Maule on ‘Moonlight Helsman’ (Q&A w/ event details)

Richard Maule will appear at Mystic’s Bank Square Books on Saturday, March 25th, from 1:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. for an open house book signing of Moonlight Helmsman. This event is free and open to the public. Location: 53 W. Main St.

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Today, I’m joined by Connecticut’s own Richard Maule.

Richard is the author of Moonlight Helmsman: Robert Smalls’ Amazing Escape—a novelization of true life events inspired by an unsung Civil War hero. A retired minister, Richard is also a motivational speaker and self-professed trouble-maker. He and his wife make their home in Uncasville.

Praise for Moonlight Helmsman:

“One of the great untold stories of American history.”—Philip Van Doren Stern

“Maule skillfully renders Smalls’ life through fictional embellishment, powerfully portraying his indomitable longing for liberty… a riveting story, and a sadly neglected sliver of American history… a seamless weave of historical investigation and fictional drama starring an African-American hero.”—Kirkus Reviews

From the publisher:

He was alone in dreaming it could be done, but on a moonlit night in 1862, the slave Robert Smalls stole the Confederate flagship and sailed off to freedom. Richard Maule’s novel, Moonlight Helmsman, brings to life one of the most amazing stories in our nation’s history.

Born into bondage, Smalls longs for the sailor’s life, and by the time the Civil War begins, he is assigned to pilot a Rebel ship in Charleston Harbor. Through a dramatic chain of events, Robert conspires to steal the boat, taking his friends and family along. His diverse crew includes his strong-minded wife Hannah, his preacher-turned-engineer Deke, and a fascinating madman named Spider Jefferson. Their intricate plot requires imagination, stealth, and the brazenness to defy certain death.

Taking the reader through treacherous channels, explosive mines, and enemy forts, the author leads us to a nail-biter of a climax. Faithful to the facts of history, Moonlight Helmsman is a gripping and inspiring testimony to the power of the human will.

Moonlight Helmsman

Now, Richard reveals the genesis of his debut novel …

John Valeri: What inspired you to write Moonlight Helmsman – and did you find that your background as a minister and motivational speaker informed your creative process?

Richard Maule: My wife and I were doing one of those touristy carriage rides around Beaufort, SC (which is an amazing place to visit, by the way).  The guide pointed to the Robert Smalls Mansion, which is still wonderfully intact, and told the story of the slave who served there and eventually became wealthy enough to buy the place.  I’m a student of history, but had never heard Smalls’ amazing story.  I immediately leaned over to my wife and said, “Somebody should write a novel about this guy.”

As a speaker and counselor, I have found that it’s easy to get bitter and pessimistic when we focus too much on the tragic failings of our human nature.  We need a healthy dose of inspiration, and true stories of faith, nobility, and bravery can provide us with that inspiration.  Good literature should spring from a powerful story.  As I drove home from Beaufort that day, I couldn’t wait to share Robert Smalls’ story with friends I talked to.  If a story isn’t propelled by this kind of passion, then don’t write the book.

JV: Tell us about Robert Smalls. Why is he a unique protagonist for a novel – and in what ways is his story both relevant and resonant, given the current world climate?

RH: Unlike many storybook heroes, Robert Smalls’ life doesn’t need much in the way of embellishment.  The writer just needs to get out of the way of the story.  His nobility transcends things like time and race.  Like all people, he hated to be chained and loved freedom.  His personal cleverness and enterprising spirit embody the conservative values of the rugged individualist, while his coordinated escape plot depended on the social cooperation of a sizeable ‘village.’  Smalls’ exploit was the account of a runaway slave, but his story was bigger than that.  In the end, it portrays the timeless theme of a human being who, against all odds, seized the helm of his own destiny.

JV: This story is a fictionalized version of fact. How do you endeavor to balance entertainment with education – and what is the role of creative license?

RH: Good historical fiction shouldn’t ‘fictionalize’ in the traditional sense, it should use the writer’s art to render, if anything, a more focused version of the truth.  It’s important, of course, that we learn the facts of history – like when we list the horrible statistics of the holocaust.  But we also need fiction like Sophie’s Choice to bring the story to life.  Creative license can help us entertain, but that’s not its most important task.  The whole idea of historical fiction is to illuminate truth by ‘putting a face on it.”

JV: You self-published this book. What are the advantages to doing so (versus traditional publishing) – and are there particular best practices that you’d advocate for?

RH: It’s almost impossible for a first-time author to trust the traditional route of sending a manuscript off to a big publishing house.  It so rarely works out.  These days, you can put out a decent-looking book for almost nothing (if you don’t count the labor of writing).  Even without expensive ad campaigns and agents, I’ve seen that a willing network of friends and fans can quickly get the word out on social media.  I started with Facebook and began to compile a pre-publication list of interested folks.  I sent early (very rough!) versions of Moonlight Helmsman to select groups – old and young, history buffs and casual readers.  A local book club was willing to read it and give me honest feedback.  Perhaps most valuable, was the input I got from my African American friends, since it’s probably a bit presumptuous for a white dude like myself to meaningfully write about the feelings and actions of a black slave without help. Most books, and especially historical fiction, should identify target audiences.  I’ve made sure to get my book into the hands of those who love history, to educators, to students, and book clubs who welcome the chance to be the first to read the next bestseller (Ha ha).

JV: In your opinion, what is the role of the bookstore within its community – and how can attending author events enhance the reader/writer/bookseller relationship?

RM: Like almost every other area of marketing, the landscape of the bookselling industry has gone through a pretty radical transformation over the past few decades.  Today people get their books online in digital formats, they buy hard copies at markdown megastores, and they buy and even exchange used books at various co-ops and such.  It’s hard for the local bookstore to stay in business.  Customer connection and loyalty has to be cultivated through personal relationships that can’t be had online or in the big stores.  I like to shop where you can get a human opinion concerning “What book have you liked recently?”  In a good bookstore, both cashiers and customers will jump in to volunteer information.  As a fledgling writer, I appreciated the store than had a place for Moonlight Helmsman in the local authors’ section.  You won’t find such on Amazon or at Books-a-Zillion.

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With thanks to Richard Maule for his generosity of time and thought.

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