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Guelph author navigates the stormy seas of 18th Century piracy

Clifford Jackman is Giller Prize-listed and a Governor-General Literary Award finalist
'The Braver Thing' is the most recent novel by Guelph author Clifford Jackman. Image provided

Guelph author Clifford Jackman never expected to release his second novel in the midst of a global pandemic, yet the epic pirate voyage The Braver Thing presents more relevance and depth than it perhaps otherwise would under “normal” circumstances.

Five years after his acclaimed debut, The Winter Family – the Giller Prize-listed and Governor-General Literary Award finalist is back with another bloody adventure of historical fiction that rings true to his masterful meditation on human nature, fractured societies and crumbling leadership. 

Jackman’s prose comes, in part, from his profession as a corporate lawyer at the firm Thompson and Dymond, which is headquartered in Richmond Hill. 

“Law got me interested in how people, as a society, solve their problems, and the kind of conflicts that arise when people try to work in group dynamics,” said the father of two from his home office near downtown Guelph. “As a writer, I'm interested in group behavior and politics and how those things can get messed up.”

And that’s exactly what The Braver Thing seeks to explore. Told from the perspectives of five ship captains aboard the 18th century ship Saoirse, this “Company of Gentlemen of Fortune” embark on a swashbuckling adventure of treasure hunts and mutiny. But the crew, led by Captain Jimmy Kavanagh, quickly descends into chaos as they navigate desperate power struggles and a rapid disintegration of shared democratic values amid the high seas. 

Jackman has always been fascinated by history, and piracy in particular. He started writing the book back in 2015, but says he manages to set aside time to write creatively whenever his family and work balance allow it. Part of his research involved scouring the pages of other piracy novelists like Marcus Rediker, the world’s foremost historian on 18th century pirates, to tap into the realities of the thieves of our imaginations.

“Part of the reason people romanticize pirates is because they're associated with freedom and democratic ideals,” he said. “One of the things I found most interesting about pirates is the way that they would get together, draft their own articles, elect their own officers and discipline themselves. I mean, they weren't good guys - I'm not telling you they were. But it's not hard to figure out why someone in the early 18th century would have thought that pirates were pretty cool.” 

His writing also touches on the dark side of humanity - the ruthless gang of outlaws in the civil-war era The Winter Family garner little sympathy from the reader as they engage in pillage, theft and destruction in the American South.

In this latest novel, Jackman takes a “less is more” approach to conveying the cruelty of some characters. 

“I believe in not doing too much to make someone seem scary and all powerful … when it’s there, it should be undiluted and intense. If those are the two main things that you follow through, then it feels real.”

Jackman believes the book also has some relevance to contemporary events, as political systems and governments around the world veer dangerously off course amid the stormy seas of the pandemic and other social and economic upheavals.

“It’s about how norms can be degraded. It’s about how unwritten rules, or the way people carry themselves, the values that they have and the way that they act are just as important as the written rules.”

Also important to the author was paying close attention to the finer details to draw in the more skeptical reader.

“I read a lot of books on sailing ships because I wanted there to be a little bit of a technical element … we assume that things are simple. But all these things, whether they're a government or a process, are such complicated machines with so many variables. If some of them start to go off, it can be hard as heck to know how to fix it.”

Jackman admits he doesn’t have all the answers, but he hopes the novel will provide some insight – if not some fun and fantasy along the way.

The Braver Thing is available in-store at the Bookshelf and Indigo in Guelph, as well as online. Follow Jackman on Facebook and Twitter, @cliffjackman.


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