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Cape Race

Robert C. Parsons is one of Newfoundland's most popular and prolific writers specializing in stories of shipwrecks, rescue and survival in the waters off Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as Canada's Maritime Provinces. In his twenty-three years of research and writing of North Atlantic ships and sailors, survivors and victims, especially those of Newfoundland and Labrador, his sea stories now number in the hundreds and he has published twenty-two books. Recently Arts East spoke with Parsons about his latest effort, Cape Race; Stories From the Coast That Sank the Titanic.

AE: What inspired you to put this collection together?
RP: I like to get out to book signings, launches and trade shows to meet the general public – the book buying people, the consumers who actually read Newfoundland Labrador (NL) non-fiction and fiction. I not only get leads for stories, but also feedback on my work and books as well as ideas for potential books. And that is exactly what happened in October 2009. A person working or volunteering for the Cape Race Heritage Group stopped at my booth and the general discussion rolled around to the Titanic’s 100th anniversary in 2012. We both thought a book dealing with Cape Race, the early lighthouses and keepers, the interaction with Titanic, and other wrecks near the cape and off shore would tie in with anticipated celebrations and general interest. From there I began to research the ships lost at Cape Race and the causes, the advancement of technology, and some human interest angles especially stories from the keepers of the light and ship survivors.

AE: Did the book come together quickly or did you really need to work at it?
RP: It took me nearly two and half years to research and write Cape Race but, of course, at the same time I was researching and writing other material. Certain parts like the shipping accidents were relatively easier to locate than the stories of people and their lives at the cape.

AE: What was the most challenging aspect of the process?
RP: Ship stories I like and can research, write relatively well. However, it took some extra time to find out about and to understand the changes in technology: light towers and lens, etc., the fog alarm systems, the submarine cables, the wireless advancements and so on. As well I also had to make sure Cape Race, because it is a book of a specific location, had general appeal to all Atlantic Canadians.

AE: What was the most rewarding part of the experience?
RP: Cape Race began to come to life when I had a put together that first core of tales, about thirty, then through extra research in national papers – Montreal Gazette, the London Illustrated News, New York Times – I found other voices in other parts of Canada, Eng land, the US, that a expressed a genuine interest (historically speaking of course) in reducing the number of wrecks and tragedies along that coast. They also had theories of why the disasters and how to prevent them. Thus with the NL core I also had hard-hitting journalism to back up my local tales of tragedy and heroism at the cape.

AE: What did you learn during the process?
RP: I realized that although many captains and navigators knew of the dangers of fog and a strong inset of tide, many chose to underestimate power of nature, much to their surprise. As well, many tales uncovered a less savory aspect of the people living along the shore. Although they risked life and limb to save people, survivors or to retrieve mangled bodies, those same people were quick to take salvage from the wrecks. Often in island and national media they were branded wreckers, or "wrackers" to use a NL term, without being given a chance to defend themselves or to justify their actions. Although I kept a searched diligently in folk stories or in print, I never once saw an instance where a ship was lured ashore by "false lights." I did often see the opposite: local fishermen trying to warn steamers and liners they were in danger from the rocks of calamity coast.

AE: What has the response been like so far?
RP: Initially, the support for Cape Race, both in the movement of books and in reactions for me, has been positive. As with any new NL book, early sales are usually brisk, but in the long term, maybe in a year’s time when public interest in Titanic and Cape Race, I think there will still be great interest in this work.

AE: Why are Atlantic Canadians so fascinated with these kinds of stories?
RP: Atlantic Canada readers of historical, especially marine-related, non-fiction (and this is my opinion after twenty years in the genre), like short crisp tales of hardship, mystery, the unique combined with folk history, the anecdotal, the human interest side.
Someone jokingly said to me of one of earliest books of short tales of the sea, "Yours are bathroom reader books." Now I know readers like a short story, something they can pick up and read at any place in the book, but they like it local and true.

AE: So what happens now? Are you working on something new?
RP: I always have a book either in the "just beginning" stage, part way done or one nearly finished. My manuscript on historical tales of Newfoundland dog is finished and being readied for publication early in 2012. I have a collection of sea stories from another province nearly finished (possibly for 2013); and a collection of new NL sea stories that combines history with certain autobiographical material – where a book or story comes from and the process of research and writing.

AE: What made you want to be a writer?
RP: A list. About twenty-five years ago I saw a list, a roster of ships that were owned in my home town of Grand Bank. About 300 in the list. It began with a personal interest to discover and write (on file index cards) what happened to each. The two or three sentences on cards grew to paragraphs and pages for some ships. After three years of collecting and writing, I realized with some extra work, tying in the reasons for ship losses and background economic/social information, it could become a book. That was in 1990 and twenty-six books ago. I don’t think I am a writer, author, just someone who puts sea tales in sequence so that others can take pleasure or retrieve information from my work.

AE: What makes a good book?
RP: A sense of satisfaction from the writer that the job is done to the best of his or her ability, plus positive public reaction and, of course, sales. I guess the latter is the ultimate: if it moves and goes to reprint, the book and the work that went into it is deemed worthwhile

AE: Why do you think that Atlantic Canadians enjoy such a vibrant literary culture?
RP: There is such a diverse lifestyle in all three or four provinces. Urban and rural, young and old, plus there are so many Atlantic Canadians that have lived in two cultures. In the 1930s and 40s, even up to the 50s, many of us did not have the amenities and technologies the younger set has today. Thus we have a past life style of listening to hockey on radio only on Saturday night (as opposed to every night hockey on satellite dish in high definition); sitting around the kitchen or parlor listened to and learning stories from our elders (as opposed to TV sit-coms, movies) and so on). I’m not saying the old way or the new way is better, but many of us have that advantage of experiencing both. So we are vibrant, alive; we are story tellers, musicians and artisans, mostly from English, Irish or Scottish backgrounds, participating in the arts and/or the outdoors, and enjoying the best that life can offer today. I love it.

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