David Dyer - author of The Midnight Watch

Author Q&As

Tell us about your book – what inspired you to write it?

My book tells the story of the Californian, the ship that saw the Titanic’s distress rockets but didn’t go to the rescue. I embed this strange tale in the cultural context of its day: women’s desperate fight for the vote; an overheated, sensationalist media machine; and America’s obsession with the myth of the Rich Heroic Man.

I’ve been fascinated by the Titanic disaster all my life, and I’d always wondered about the men who could have saved everyone but didn’t. They saw the distress rockets, so why didn’t they go? I travelled the world to find the answer, and once I had it, I knew that someone had to tell their perplexing and tragic tale. Why not me?

Do you use your own experiences when writing?

The Midnight Watch is very much informed by my experience as a ship’s officer and as a litigation lawyer. Some of the action is set in the Titanic inquiries that took place in London and Washington, and my years as a lawyer helped me properly understand the exasperating evasions, subtle inconsistencies and desperate lies of the men of the Californian. Strangely, by the end of my research, I felt very sorry for them. They had a shameful, shocking secret. What else could they do?

Also, my time at sea was essential in understanding the technicalities of shipboard life. How does a sextant work? How is time determined on ships? How do ships know where they are? I find that many who write about the Titanic tend to trip over these sorts of technical details.

But even more important than technical accuracy is psychological accuracy: ships are remote social worlds with arcane rules, strange relationships, and mysterious superstitions. They are places, too, of competing, fragile masculinities and fear of the feminine. In Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, one of my favourite sea stories, Captain Vere says that, at sea, the feminine in man is a ‘piteous woman who must be ruled out!’ This was a lesson I learned early in my own sea days, and the men of my novel must learn it too. Perhaps, however, what they ultimately discover is the wisdom of another great Melville novel, Moby-Dick: ‘It’s a brave man that weeps.’

Which author/s living or dead would you like to have dinner with?

Well, I must say Henry James, who in my view is the greatest novelists of all time. I just love The Golden Bowl (1904), one of his last novels. It requires commitment early on, but then the suspense slowly grows and before you know it you’re hooked. It’s like a game of chess with only four pieces, and the final checkmate is breathtaking.

James is, I think, a very astute observer of human psychology, and so I’d love to watch him watching the others at the table. In a single, subtle expression on his face I’m sure I’d see many paragraphs of insight into the human condition. And there’s always a chance he’d bring along his brother William, the Nitrous Oxide Philosopher, who’d no doubt encourage us all to explore the furthest reaches of our consciousness over dinner, and to take notes as we did so.

How and where do you write?

I write sporadically and all over the place. I am not at all disciplined. Often I write very late at night, but never early in the morning. Sometimes I write in my small Sydney flat, but when that gets too hot, as it often does in the summer, I flee to the open, cool spaces of the Mitchell Reading Room in the NSW State Library. And sometimes I stroll from there across the road to the narrow tracks and broad fields of the Botanical Gardens, where I listen to what the trees have to say.

What was your favourite book as a child?

You Will Go to the Moon, by Mae and Ira Freeman. It was written in 1959, before mankind had walked on the moon, but I read it as a young boy in the early 1970s, by which time there were twelve sets of footprints there. I expected, with the wide-eyed naivety and excitement of a child, very shortly to add my own.

The book, and the space program generally, seemed to promise the very grandest of visions, the largest way of thinking. After describing the lunar cars and lunar houses I would find up there, the book invited me to look upwards from the dusty surface to the sky. ‘Do you see that big dot up there?’ it asks. ‘That is Mars! Some day you may go there, too!’

Well, almost five decades later, and not only have I not been to the moon, but no other person has ever been beyond low Earth orbit. Disappointing! But we do have the internet, I suppose, and surely that’s just as good?

We know you are a talented writer, do you have any hidden talents?

I can whistle through a cheezel. I can cut a deck of cards with one hand. I can do a magic trick involving passing one matchstick through another. I can hold my breath for a long time under water. And, in times gone by, at parties, I was known to rattle off the cadenza from Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto while drinking a martini (or at least, rattle off a close proximity to it. You don’t need to play all the notes, do you?). Ah, those were the days!