NEAL CONAN, host:
Writer Gideon Defoe may have one of the best Cinderella stories in publishing. He says he knew instinctively that his career in minimum wage temp jobs would not impress the girl of his dreams, so he told her he was writing a book. And the product of that fevered inspiration was the saga of a bunch of wacky buccaneers called, The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists. His intrepid crew meets up with Charles Darwin in that first one. We'll let you guess who they meet in The Pirates! In an Adventure with Ahab.
The series is a sensation in Britain, and gathering an audience on this side of the Atlantic as well. And the story gets better. Recently, the books were optioned by the folks who gave us Wallace and Gromit to be made into a movie. We've posted an excerpt from The Pirates! An Adventure With Scientists, at the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org if you'd like to be introduced to them.
If you have questions about pirates, or if you're looking for advice about how to get over writer's block and impress your girl or boyfriend and create a bestseller, give us a call. Our number: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gideon Defoe joins us now from the studios of the BBC in London. Thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. GIDEON DEFOE (Author): Thanks for asking me here. Hello, there.
CONAN: Hello. And I have to begin by asking, was she suitably impressed?
Mr. DEFOE: No, that's what I was about to, kind of, like, correct you there about anybody who is out there and sort of lovelorn and thinking, oh, I've got to find some way to impress a girl. It's - no, writing a book about pirates is not the way to do it, actually. It's a very stupid way to impress a girl, and I wouldn't recommend it to anybody.
So, no, she - well, she wasn't completely unimpressed. But she did, sort of, move to a town that doesn't have a bookshop. So, it didn't really get me anywhere, to be honest.
CONAN: Somewhere on the list where writing a book about pirates, if it was over a dozen flowers, cross it off.
Mr. DEFOE: Well, yeah. I just - I mean, maybe the writing the book bit wasn't quite such a stupid idea. But I think maybe if you're going to do it, you probably need to do something with, sort of, emotions and all kind of proper things that kind of girls like rather than sort of stories about pirates just kind of mucking about. Because I think that could have been where I went a little bit wrong.
CONAN: Could have been. But nevertheless, writing is in your family.
Mr. DEFOE: Well, yes. Kind of in a sort of slightly downward trend sort of way, inasmuch as my - well, supposedly, according to my mother and my grandmother, who I kind of like, sort of believe. But I haven't actually seen the genealogy or anything to prove this, but supposedly there's a direct descendency from Daniel Defoe. And my dad, actually, he wrote sort of cheap kind of airport thrillers for, you know, this type that have like a picture of a gun and a map, and maybe a kind of like scantily clad lady somewhere on the cover. And now I'm writing sort of pirate books. So like I say, it's a big downhill trend from creating a novel to things called The Pirates! An Adventure with Scientists, obviously.
But, I mean, having said that, Daniel Defoe himself did write quite a few kind of quite stupid stories about pirates himself.
CONAN: Yes, he did. Yes he did, and so, therefore, this does come in the lineage. Your pirates are - well, how do you describe your pirates?
Mr. DEFOE: Well-meaning, but slightly kind of idiotic. They're just so, they're kind of like a bunch of kids, to be honest, having fun at sea. And yet, there's not a whole lot of depth of characterization, to be fair. I mean, only one of the pirates actually has a name, which - well actually, it's not really a name, he's the pirate captain. And the rest are sort of just given - there's the albino pirate and the pirate who likes kittens and sunsets, and the pirate with the knot allergy. But it's not really fully rounded characters, because I was writing in a bit of a rush at first.
CONAN: They do have arguments about the strangest things. This is from The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists. There's a dress affair. The pirate captain puts on a hat, which raises an objection - I'm just going to read a little bit from your book - he says: "This is a perfectly good pirate hat. It's a tricorn." And, let's see, the interlocutor replies, "Exactly. You're point being? Well, it's just, nowadays, a more Napoleonic design appears to be the choice of the successful pirate. It's generally held to have a touch more jene sais quois, I'm only saying, is all. My hat has plenty of jene sais quois, not to say joie de vivre. If you say. Fine. Hands up, who likes my hat?"
Most of the pirate crew loyally struck their hands in the air. The pirate in red just shrugged and pretended to be reading a book. Satisfied that the mutinous swab had been put in his place, the pirate captain helped himself to another bowl of Cocoa Puffs.
Mr. DEFOE: Yes. I'm afraid there's a lot of that sort of thing, to be honest. It kind of, I get a bit sidetracked, really. So where there should be sort of big bits of exciting plot, they do tend to meander off on having conversations about hats or the best way to cook a ham, or whatever sort of like happens to be kind of taking their fancy. They're not very good at concentrating on their adventure, that's sort of the trouble with them. They sort of, they want to go off in their own directions.
CONAN: Ham plays an extraordinarily large parting their adventures.
Mr. DEFOE: It wasn't really planned, that. I just kind of - I think I started one conversation about - I do, I mean, I am fond of ham. But I can't say it's got an important literary kind of metaphor or anything here going on. They just really like ham. And it does actually, by the second book, obviously ham becomes quite a sort of a plot point, inasmuch as it actually helps save the day at the end by - well, I probably shouldn't say, should I? Because that will mean people won't want to read it. But, oh, it blocks a blowhole of a whale, and so it does that. But, um, yes. Hams, there's a lot of hams. I'm not sure why. I'm sorry.
CONAN: Could have been some actors in your background as well. Anyway, we're talking with Gideon Defoe, he's the author of The Pirates! An Adventure With Scientists. And also, you turn this book over and you see The Pirates in an adventure with Ahab.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And I have to say one of the things I love about your books is the chapter headings. Each complete with a woodcut, it looks like. Chapter nine, for example, Enter the Pirate King. And the other thing, you love exclamation points.
Mr. DEFOE: I do love exclamation points. It's kind of - I think they're very underrated. I think they're sort of, you know, for years it's like, oh, you're not allowed to use exclamation points. And I think, you know, no you can't, you can never have enough exclamation points. Because, you know, if you're going to have lots of boring conversations about people talking about ham, then you're going to need to liven it up, really, with some sort of exciting punctuation. So that's my reason there.
CONAN: The woodcuts, though, I love the woodcuts and the chapter headings. They remind me of books that I read, you know, that had been on the shelves of my summer camp for 40 years, about The Boy Allies. And they would always say, you know, things like, Captured! - exclamation point.
Mr. DEFOE: Exactly. They're done by these kind of little old guy who, he lives in a caravan or something sort of in the middle of nowhere and doesn't have e-mail or electricity or anything like that. And I'm kind of, I'm petrified that he's going to sort of drop dead, because he's about 102. But he does like, such a great job, and I sort of want him to kind of keep on going. So at least as long as the series keeps on going.
CONAN: You just wonder what he did between The Boy Allies and you. But anyway, let's see if we can get a caller on the line. This is Gazzi(ph), and Gazzi's calling us from Buffalo, in New York.
GAZZI (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi, Gazzi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GAZZI: Yeah, I just want to clarify. I'm actually in North Pantowano(ph), which is just outside of Buffalo.
CONAN: All right, we won't tar you with the Buffalo brush. But go ahead.
GAZZI: My comment is that I was actually writing a book for my girlfriend, for her birthday, because we have pizza every Saturday and I was going to write a novel about - or a short story about pizza. But I was running out of time, so I guess my question or comment is, in what timeframe did you write the book? And, how did that affect or not affect your relationship with the young lady the you mentioned?
Mr. DEFOE: Hmm. Well, it kind of, I mean, I'd actually sort of started thinking, oh, I might kind of - I mean, conversations down at the pub with mates, sort of - oh, it would be good to write a book. Pirates would be a stupid thing to write a book about. Then when the lady in question sort of turned up and I realized that I had no answer to the question of what have you been doing for the last, kind of five years? And I thought, sure, oh my gosh, yes, my life - where is it going? So I kind of told my white lie about, oh yes, I'm writing a novel. And then was a bit vague about it.
But it probably, I think maybe the first one kind of - the first one was surprisingly easy. It was kind of, about six weeks or something. And it is quite short, to be fair.
CONAN: I was going to say, it does not rival War and Peace in length.
Mr. DEFOE: It does not. But you see, that's very sensible if you're doing a series of books. I don't want to get into that whole J.K. Rowling thing of having to kind of like turn out some, you know, 500-page monster every year.
CONAN: Her first one was pretty short. They just get bigger all the time. But anyway.
Mr. DEFOE: Right. I think the editors get a bit scared, don't they, (unintelligible).
CONAN: And I suspect they're not terrified of you.
Mr. DEFOE: They're not, for some reason. You know, they're quite happy to tell me that this is nonsense. Cut this out. You cannot have another eight pages of them just talking about hats. So, yeah, about four to six weeks, but to be honest, I'd say, if I'd managed it in a week - if I've managed it in a year, I don't really think it would have affected the outcome of whether the said girl would have actually kind of done anything in favor for it.
CONAN: Mm hmm. Well, we'll try to get you out of that conundrum.
Mr. DEFOE: Yeah.
CONAN: Gazzi, thanks very much for the call, and good luck with your girlfriend.
GAZZI: Okay, thanks so much. Hi Meagan(ph)!
CONAN: Shout out! All right, and we just have a couple of seconds with you -left with you, Gideon Defoe. But I - this movie deal, with the Wallace and Gromit people, that's pretty exciting.
Mr. DEFOE: It's very exciting. But after now, I think it might be meant to be secret and I possibly shouldn't have said about it. So, oh well. Now it's on the radio and all that. But, yeah...
CONAN: It was just a little piece of fiction we contrived here on the program.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DEFOE: Possibly. Yes. But no, I'm very excited about that, obviously. I've gone out and bought my kind of gold-plated yacht and all that in advance, in anticipation of it breaking all box office records.
CONAN: And leaving room on your mantelpiece for the Oscar. We wish you great good luck with The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists. Also, The Pirates! In An Adventure with Ahab. Congratulations on what may have been - we understand - a deal with some cinematic company, and very thankful for you joining us today.
Mr. DEFOE: Thanks very much.
CONAN: Gideon Defoe joined us from the BBC studios in London. We will catch up with Jonathan Storm and the Cirque du Soleil production of Love, the Beatles Spectacular, tomorrow on the program, so we apologize for not having that for you today.
I'm Neal Conan, this is NPR News, in Washington.