Stories can come to a writer via the most mundane venues; an unexpected burst of inspiration from something unanticipated.
From the time I was a young boy I found myself fascinated by the story of the sinking of the Titanic. I don’t know what it was about that piece of history that fired my young imagination; I was too young to comprehend just what a huge effect that event had on the world, but on some level I sensed this story was unlike anything the world had seen prior. It illustrated the inequities of society and the arrogance and hubris humanity can possess. A monument build by Man to honor his own greatness and declared “unsinkable”… sent to the bottom of the ocean on its very first voyage across the Atlantic.
More horrific, however, was the idea back then that low income people were little more than vermin; the steerage passengers locked below decks and left to die as the ship foundered to make sure they wouldn’t get in the way of the “important people.” The outrage that resulted challenged the ideas of classes in society.
As much as the United States is ostensibly a nation of equals, we still have always had a tendency to laud the ultra-wealthy as a sort of new aristocracy; gifted their power and influence by money instead of by noble blood as in ages past. I remember watching a show where a group of wealthy people sat around a table, speaking gaily about bigotries both subtle and gross, ignoring the staff serving them as if they were domesticated animals, and it got me thinking about how such people might be knocked off their high horses.
One of the more memorable people to come out of the Titanic disaster was a lady by the name of Molly Brown. Born into relative poverty, she grew up to fall in love with and marry a man who, after their marriage, became very wealthy through his work in mining. Molly Brown became a philanthropist, but found herself marginalized by the wealthy snobs who dismissed her as “new money.” When the Titanic sank, she cemented her larger-than-life status through her efforts to force the crewmen on her lifeboat to go back and look for survivors, and was forever after remembered as “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” Me being me, I couldn’t help but wonder what might have been if Ms. Brown had been a man; tough and intimidating enough to call those arrogant would-be aristocrats out on their actions.
Thus, I wrote The Gunman’s Voyage. It was a definite departure for me, but it was one of those stories I took a tremendous amount of pleasure in. Writing it from the perspective of a young man voyaging into the unknown to “seek his fortune”, telling the narrative through a letter home, seemed the perfect way to do it somehow. Composing the prose of an educated young man of that period was so far out of my usual style I couldn’t help but feel challenged, but it was more rewarding than even I suspected it might be.
While the tale of the Titanic might have been part of the inspiration, I didn’t want my story to be set on that ship. I set the story a few years earlier; at the time when the class culture was in full swing, which also enabled me to craft a protagonist shaped by an earlier time, running full on into the “new money” arrogance that seemed to infect society at the time.
Ultimately, I simply wanted to draw attention to and condemn the views that led to such a cultural form as that. Even today I see people wanting to celebrate the “elite”, defined not by their intrinsic value to society… but by how much money they can earn by whatever means necessary.
That is something we need to remember never leads to anything worthwhile.