For decades, and unbeknownst to many, Charlotte Rogan quietly wrote novels while raising triplets in Dallas, Texas. A chance encounter with a "New York Times" journalist several years ago, after her kids were grown, led her to a literary agent. Rogan sent off two manuscripts to the agent -- one of which she'd worked on for close to a decade and that was tucked away in a drawer. A few years later, after she turned 57, that manuscript, the recently published work The Lifeboat, is poised to become a huge success.
The Lifeboat tells the story of group of passengers who survive a shipwreck and find themselves on a lifeboat that is over capacity and adrift in the middle of the Atlantic. For any of them to survive, some of them must die. The ensuing drama is told through the voice of Grace Winter, an ambitious, complex woman who is on trial for the murder of the boat's captain.
The publication and success of The Lifeboat came as a huge surprise to the modest and private Rogan, who at post 50 has been thrust into the literary spotlight and is living out the novelist's dream. The book has garnered critical acclaim from esteemed authors like J. M. Coetzee, Hilary Mantel and Tim O'Brien, with praise-worthy reviews in "The New York Review of Books," "The New York Times," and "The Guardian," among others. (Jonathan Raban, a seafaring man and acclaimed author himself, calls The Lifeboat "an enthralling story of survival at sea.") The book's release was timed to coincided with the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titantic.
We recently spoke with Rogan about her new post 50 literary life.
It must be thrilling to have a first novel published to such acclaim.
It's a little overwhelming.
Why were you so quiet about your novel-writing aspirations for most of your life?
Everything is such a continuum. Some people knew that I wrote, but it was not something that I talked much about. When my kids were two -- and after I attended my first creative writing course -- my husband was transferred to Dallas. I didn't know anybody there. I'm a private person and writing was something I did for myself and by myself, so it was sort of a blessing in disguise. Of course, eventually I made friends. But I had no real writing acquaintances and I'm not someone who joins groups. I had gotten to the point where I realized that feedback from writing workshops were more harm than help. Very quickly, I knew that if I was going to write, I was going to do it by myself and figure it out.
I was also one of those people who was very undirected about who I was going to be when I was growing up. I started a bunch of different graduate schools and studied various things, but at one point I thought I could either study writing, or I could do it. And I decided to do it. My friends would invite me to lunch right smack in the middle of the day, but I was very selfish with my writing time. That said, I didn't want to tell them that I was going to sit in a room by myself and make things up. For some reason telling people that I was going to need that time to write didn't seem like a valid excuse.
I'm sure it seems valid now.
Yes, it does. The first time I really said that I was a writer was after I'd sold the book. A friend and I were in New York at a department store, and a sales guy there was telling us about his aspirations to become a designer. Then he turned to me and asked: "So what do you do?" And I said: "I'm a writer." It was the first time I'd said that out loud and I felt like such a fraud.
Why did you feel like a fraud?
I do feel like I'm split into two different people. I do believe that in life we have sequential lives. There's the life you have when you're a kid. Then there's the life you have when you go to college, then you have your own kids. Then there's the post-kid era for me. Of course, there is a common thread to the person throughout all those sequences, but you do sort of reinvent yourself as you move along. I'm on that cusp of reinvention right now, where I haven't really absorbed the new persona yet.
You come from a sea-faring family. How much of your personal life went into shaping your novel?
What hooked me was stumbling on my husband's old criminal law texts and reading about the cases of sailors who survived shipwrecks and then were put on trial. I've always been interested in political philosophy and the idea that people create society out of a state of nature. I was inspired by Hobbs and Locke and Rousseau -- and by the idea that people make rules and give up certain freedoms for security. So in the boat I had people in a state of nature. I had people facing these extreme situations and explored how their miniature society evolved.
But I also did a lot of sailing when I was growing up. My dad had a sailboat and he was very competitive and liked to race with other boats. My sister and I were too young and too small to do anything. It was our job to stay out of the way. I have such vivid memories of huddling with my sister, not knowing what to do and being afraid we were going to get in the way or fall overboard. And I think I tapped into that. Plus being on the water -- there is something just gorgeous about it, whether the weather is good or bad; whether you're afraid or not. The ocean is amazing. I tap into that.
Were you tapping into a deeper part of yourself when you were writing in the first person as your main character Grace?
For me, the characters appear as voices in my head. I'm not Joan of Arc, but I really do hear conversations. I just remember Grace defending herself against her actions in the boat. I'd imagine the conversation and snippets of dialogue. Snippets of dialogue were the first things I could hear when I was writing. But when you write, a part of you does come through. I think it's quite clear from reading The Lifeboat that I'm very interested in gender issues. I didn't intend to write about gender fault lines and power struggles, but since I'm interested in those things, they came through in the writing.
It's clear from the fantastic books on your website bookshelf that you've always been a literary person. Do you feel like, at post 50, you're finally becoming the person you were meant to be?
I don't know. I never wrote anything that anyone else would want to read except for teachers in school. But one day I saw copy of the notes that John Barthes would pass out to his creative writing students. One of them said something along the lines of: "Stop reading innocently." And I think when I started to seriously write, I stopped reading innocently. I started to read the things that turned me on. I became quite selfish about my reading. I have my life list of books; four or five books a year get on that list. They have astonished me. Those are the books I treasure. Those are the books I read when I'm writing.
As a first-time novelist, you received some tremendous blurbs for your book from stellar authors. How did you reach out to those authors?
I was worried when my publisher said, "Okay Charlotte, here's the stage where we try to get blurbs for the book. Do you know any authors?" And I said, "No." So they asked, "Okay what writers do you love?" That's when I decided to write about 15 fan/love letters to authors who'd been very important in my development as a writer. I thought: I'm just going to write to these people and tell them how important they were to me and ask if they want to do me this favor. If they did, great. And if they didn't, okay. For some reason these people, who I know are all busy writing and promoting their own books, responded. They were so incredibly kind. I was blown away and am still thankful to this day that they helped me.
How are handling all the post-publication publicity?
I must be such a disappointment to the lovely person at Little Brown who's in charge of those things. I told my children in all seriousness that I would never go on Facebook. So yes, now I have a Facebook page for my book, but I don't like it. I don't understand it and I don't want to understand it. Twitter did open my eyes to the world of writers and book people out there --we're all social creatures and everyone needs a community -- but I think too much social media is highly, highly, highly distracting. I think that for all the benefits of this wired inter-connectedness, the downside far outweighs the upside. There's something to me that's weird about people knowing everything about me or where I've been. It's sort of like having the lights on in your house when it's dark outside and the curtains are open, and everyone can see in. I don't like it. Of course, I'll do what my wonderful publisher wants from me, which at some point means just going back to writing.
What is one thing you know now that you wish you knew growing up?
One thing I know now is that self-confidence doesn't come into much. I was not a confident 20-something and I'm probably not a confident 50-something, but it frankly doesn't matter. You live life from the inside. Don't live life as if you're watching it. Also I'm very appreciative of the small things now. I'm very happy with small things. It might not sound right because I've just had this transformational experience, but even when I was just writing and not sure that anything would ever come of it, that was enough for me.
Follow Debra Ollivier on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@debraso