15 November 2011

Author Interview: Krista Russell

New Bedford, Massachusetts, 1851

With the establishment of time and place, Krista Russell sets the stage for her debut novel, Chasing the Nightbird. This historical adventure for middle grade readers (or anyone with an interest in the history of whaling) tells the story of Lucky Valera, a fourteen year old boy who has grown up at sea, working on whaling ships with his father. After his father's death, Lucky plans to continue working as a whaler, until the appearance of an unknown step-brother, Fernando Fortuna.

A landlubber through and through, Fortuna forces Lucky into a sort of endentured servitude to pay off a debt owed him by their father. Lucky has no intention of working for his brother, particularly when he finds himself laboring in a textile mill, and is constantly scheming to get back out to sea and reconnect with the Nightbird. But encounters with Emmeline, a Quaker girl involved in the Abolitionist movement, and a fugitive slave named Daniel, force Lucky to change his plans.

As a Cape Verdean, Lucky suddenly finds himself at risk of losing his physical freedom--not simply his economic freedom--when slave catchers come to New Bedford to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Having always lived as a free citizen, Lucky does not identify himself with Daniel (although there is a lovely moment when Daniel sings The Drinking Gourd and Lucky mentions that sailors navigate by the Big Dipper as well.) Lucky might wish nothing more than to return to sea, but fate and circumstances conspire against him.


Not Just For Kids: I have to start by saying how much I love the lyricism of the book's title. Did you come up with it or was it a collaboration between you and your editor? Other than the image which it creates in my mind of pursuing an actual bird (which of course isn't what the book is about, despite the ubiquitous Delph,) so much of the story is about pursuit: Daniel pursing freedom, Lucky pursuing freedom, Emmeline pursuing social justice, the slave catchers pursuing runaway slaves, Fortuna pursuing wealth, and Lucky's initial desire to actually track down and catch-up with the Nightbird. Was that a theme that you were consciously developing as you wrote the story? How did the story change from what you originally set out to write (if it changed at all?)

Krista Russell
Krista Russell: I love the title, too! I wish I could take credit for it, but it came from Jessica Alexander, my brilliant editor at Peachtree. The original title was A Following Sea, but the marketing folks at Peachtree thought it sounded too adult (on reflection, I had to agree). I tried for weeks to come up with a good alternative, but nothing sounded right. As soon as Jessica suggested Chasing the Nightbird, I knew she’d found the book’s title.

I’m not sure I was conscious of the theme of pursuit until Jessica suggested the title. I added the line where Emmeline says “Keep chasing your precious Nightbird. And good riddance!” (along with other references to the ship and where she’d be) at that time.

NJFK: Having grown up in the Boston area, I really identified with Lucky's connection to the sea. I loved the bit at the beginning, during his first day in the mill, when Lucky is trying to center himself by finding the harbor, and his distress at being so land-locked within the walls of the mill. I lived for six years in England, and 4 1/2 of those years were spent in Derby. You are probably not familiar with Derby, but it is in the Midlands, smack in the middle--about as far from the sea as you can get. That's unfortunate when you think that England is an island! Having never lived more than twenty minutes from the shore my entire life, it was an adjustment.

KR: I grew up in MA and in Kennebunkport, ME and I sooo identify with the land-locked feeling. Atlanta’s fatal flaw is that it’s a 4 hour drive from the beach :). We have lovely lakes nearby, but it’s not the same, is it?   

 NJFK: I was unaware of New Bedford's mill history (I always think of Lowell when thinking of mills.) I like how you represented the two cultures in the town: whaling culture and mill culture. While they are not necessarily in conflict with each other, as a reader I got the impression that they were rival businesses competing for the economic heart of the city. Is this true? And that clash of culture comes through in other aspects of the story; Lucky certainly looks down on "land-lubbers" at the start, and Fortuna has turned his back on the sea and the life of their father. And then there is Brisco [the mill manager] who repeatedly refers to Lucky as lazy and incompetent simply because he can't keep up with the more experienced spinners. How much research did you have to do into the two industries?

KR: I found the contrast between the whaling and textile industries really interesting and enjoyed researching both. What happened in New Bedford reflected what was happening in the US (more so in northern states) during the Industrial Revolution. The mills came to New Bedford during the golden age of whaling, but grew as whaling began to wane – finally becoming the engine driving the city’s economy.

Just as New Bedford’s identity had begun to change, our country was facing an identity crisis – illustrated by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. I was interested in this theme, and how our beliefs, experiences, and the groups we belong to shape our identities. 

NJFK: Did Quakers settle in New Bedford because the city was tolerant, or did New Bedford become a tolerant place because of the presence of the Quakers?

KR: Great question! Some of the founding families of New Bedford were Quaker, and more came over from Nantucket (where whaling had started) after a fire in 1846 destroyed Nantucket’s commercial district and sandbars made it hard for the increasingly larger whaleships to dock.

I had attributed New Bedford’s prominence in the abolitionist movement and its reputation as a safe haven for runaway slaves (who made up a higher percentage of the population than in New York or Boston) to Quakerism. But I found that the whaling industry and the whalemen themselves also played an important role.

I was fascinated that men who lived by the whalemen’s commandments (tongue-in-cheek though they may have been) were also active in the abolitionist movement. Although many captains and ship owners were Quaker (hard to picture them embracing the whalemen's commandments) the average sailor was not. A whaleship formed its own society (understandable given that the average whaling voyage was over 3 years) and in many ways a more egalitarian one. The work was so dangerous and the crew so dependent on one another for survival, that judgments tended to be made based on ability rather than skin color. It seemed to me that when prejudice existed it tended to be green hand (landlubber) vs. experienced sailor. Have you ever seen the show Deadliest Catch? The same dynamic exists today.

NJFK: How much research did you have to do into sailor suspicions? They are so ingrained in Lucky's philosophy. And what about the whalemen's commandments? What is their source?

KR: I did a good bit of research on sailor’s superstitions – mainly because I was intrigued by how suspicious they are (I love that a black cat is good luck to a sailor). But also because I was trying to get a feel for the world and worldview of a whaleman. The whalemen’s commandments came from Black Hands, White Sails, an amazing book about the history of African-American whalers by Patricia C. and Frederick L. McKissack. I’d been struggling with building a compelling main character, and as soon as I read the commandments I knew I’d found Lucky.


Readers, you should go and find Lucky, too. Chasing the Nightbird is a satisfying read with strong characters and thought-provoking contrasts between freedom and slavery, land and sea, plans and destiny.

Thank you to Krista Russell for kindly answering my questions and Blue Slip Media for providing me with a copy of the ARC.

Add This


Blog Widget by LinkWithin