An epic historical fiction debut novel, Saltblood is Francesca De Tores’ first foray into the genre after success as a poet and with her post-apocalyptic Fire Sermon series (written under the name Francesca Haig). The novel’s tale of gender, survival and adventure follows Mary Read from birth to death and takes in everything in between.

Speaking to InReview, Melbourne-based De Tores refers to Read fondly, describing her as one of the few female pirates documented during the golden age of piracy in the 18th century. The writer was attracted to the extraordinary and complex trajectory of Read’s life, which saw her raised as a man named Mark due to financial necessity, before she went on to join the navy and eventually become a pirate.

“I think it’s the transgressive nature of what they did. While it’s very difficult, retrospectively, to apply contemporary vocabulary or notions onto these figures, it’s not a stretch at all to say that Mary Read’s relationship with gender would have been very complex,” she says. “And that is innately fascinating. We know that whenever gender roles have been incredibly restrictive, which is not a thing of the past, there have always been figures that have found a way around them.

“She’s become a role model just because of the sheer courage of what she did in breaking those boundaries.”

While the Disney versions of piracy, seen in Pirates of the Caribbean or via Captain Hook in Peter Pan, has changed the perception and understanding of pirates, De Tores made sure her book reflected the true experiences of Read and pirates more generally.

There isn’t much documentation available about Read specifically, but De Tores didn’t find this a hindrance. Instead, the lack of information became the blank slate where she could find Read’s voice. It also allowed the author to focus on the world that Read existed within. Going so far as to talk about naval techniques and the processes of sailing, De Tores approached research for the book with curiosity and a thirst for detail.

“There was one hilarious moment when my brilliant agent, Juliet, said to me when she read a very early draft of Saltblood, she said, ‘Take out all that stuff about the rigging’,” De Tores says, laughing.

“The narrative of Saltblood was just being weighed down by my attempt basically to show off the exhaustive research that I’d done.”

De Tores was also impressed by the rules that pirates enforced on themselves, including – but not limited to – bans on gambling, limited drinking, thoughtful splitting of any treasure found and firm boundaries around having women aboard.

“I’m not claiming that pirates necessarily always followed these rules any more than any set of rules has been followed, but it was interesting to see how counter this was to our notion of pirates as completely maverick, freewheeling criminals,” she says.

There was also interest in the love of drama and gossip her research revealed.

“There were often competing accounts of journeys published, which is the 18th-century version of the diss track, says De Tores.

“A captain would write an account of the voyage and then a year and a half later, a lieutenant on the voyage would write his version in which he would accuse the captain of cowardice and mismanagement. Then later the captain would publish a book called something like In Response to the Scurrilous Calumnies of Mr William Funnell. I love this idea of this very slow-paced kind of diss track.”

However, there is more to Saltblood than pulling back the veil on piracy, as the book follows Read’s entire life and incorporates themes of sexuality and gender identity. De Tores is thoughtful about the space in which she is writing, particularly when it comes to the LGBTQIA+ community and ensuring proper representations.

“My concerns were that I’m a cis heterosexual woman writing about a woman who, in Saltblood‘s version, is bisexual, and whose relationship with gender would best be described as gender fluid or certainly genderqueer.

“So, I was tentative about wanting to represent those aspects of Mary’s story, but not wanting to get it wrong. And that became just a question of further research, such as consulting with trans friends, and working with a brilliant sensitivity reader through Bloomsbury. Just as I researched the rigging, it would have been negligent of me not to seek out help from those with more expertise than me in that area.”

De Tores stresses that the book is not only about Mary Read’s gender identity.

“I don’t want Saltblood to be a story just of Mary Read’s gender… Mary Read had a really fascinating life and her very nuanced and complex relationship to gender was one central aspect of that, but it wasn’t all that she was.”

By writing widely and holistically in Saltblood, De Tores creates a book that shines a light on a woman pushing the boundaries in all aspects of life, and that is a book worth reading.

Saltblood is published by Bloomsbury and is available in Australia from May 14.

Courtney Jaye is a Ngarrindjeri woman and writer who grew up all around Australia and is currently living on Kaurna country. She is a recipient of the Arts South Australia and InReview First Nations Arts Writing mentorship. Courtney is working with Martu author and freelance writer Karen Wyld to write a series of articles for publication in InReview. 

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