In addition to the twenty volumes of the highly-respected Aubrey/Maturin series, Patrick O'Brian's many novels include Testimonies, The Golden Ocean, and The Unknown Shore. O'Brian has also written acclaimed biographies of Pablo Picasso and Sir Joseph Banks and has translated many works from the French, among them the novels and memoirs of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Lacouture's biography of Charles de Gaulle. Born in 1914, he passed away in January 2000.
Patrick O'Brian was one of the great authors of the twentieth century, whose novels were often compared by critics to the work of Jane Austen and even Homer. A writer of breathtaking erudition, Mr. O'Brian evoked in complete and dazzling detail an entire world -- that of the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. In addition to formidable scholarship, Mr. O'Brian brought to his work keen psychological insights, a sharp wit, and fast-paced, heart-stopping action.
In a cover story in The New York Times Book Review published on January 6, 1991, nine years to the day before Mr. O'Brian's death, Richard Snow wrote that Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin naval adventure novels are "the best historical novels ever written. On every page Mr. O'Brian reminds us with subtle artistry of the most important of all historical lessons: that times change but people don't, that the griefs and follies and victories of the men and women who were here before us are in fact the maps of our own lives." In a Washington Post article published August 2, 1992, Ken Ringle wrote, "The Aubrey/Maturin series far beyond any episodic chronicle, ebbs and flows with the timeless tide of character and the human heart."
W.W. Norton & Company began publishing Patrick O'Brian's books in 1990. The previous year, Norton's editor-in-chief, Starling Lawrence, had read The Reverse of the Medal on a trans-Atlantic flight, fallen hard for the series, and had become convinced that Norton ought to publish Mr. O'Brian's works in the U.S. Norton decided to publish each new book in hardcover as it was completed and to bring out the earlier books in the series in paperback until they had caught up. The first season, Norton published The Letter of Marque (# 12) in hardcover and Master and Commander (# 1) and Post Captain (# 2) in paperback. Most recently, Norton published Blue at the Mizzen (# 20) in hardcover in 1999 and in paperback in 2000. At present, Norton has all of the books in the series available in uniform hardcover and paperback editions.
In addition to the twenty books in the Aubrey/Maturin series, Norton has published a short story collection (The Rendezvous and Other Stories) and three of Mr. O'Brian's other novels: Testimonies, The Golden Ocean, and The Unknown Shore. O'Brian has also written acclaimed biographies of Pablo Picasso and Sir Joseph Banks and has translated many works from the French, among them the novels and memoirs of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Lacouture's biography of Charles de Gaulle. In April of 2000, Norton published Caesar: The Life Story of a Panda-Leopard, his very first book, begun when he was just twelve, and Hussein: An Entertainment, written when he was about twenty years old. Both of these books had long been out of print.
Starting in the early 1990s, Mr. O'Brian achieved, at long last, the critical and popular recognition that was his due. All of his new books published since 1993 have appeared on national bestseller charts, and his books have sold well over three million copies in the U.S. alone.
Mr. O'Brian once said, "Obviously, I have lived very much out of the world: I know little of present-day Dublin or London or Paris, even less of post-modernity, post-structuralism, hard rock or rap, and I cannot write with much conviction about the contemporary scene." [Patrick O'Brian: Critical Essays and a Bibliography, edited by Arthur Cunningham]. In fact, Mr. O'Brian often seemed to have walked out of another era, and in his interactions with his publisher, he displayed a level of courtesy and civility rarely seen in our times.
Author biography courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company.
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A 1999 Q&A with Patrick O'Brian
In your opinion, what makes a "good" story?
One that holds your attention from beginning to end, and whose last pages you turn reluctantly.
How strictly do your novels re-create actual naval battles and general history of the time?
Many of the battles are exact: the general history, generally right.
The rule of law on a ship is absolute, but on land it is not; indeed, on land things appear to be more arbitrary and subject to the whims of whoever can best manipulate the system. Does the ship represent an ideal society? Does every ship need both a Maturin and an Aubrey in order to be an ideal society, or is having an Aubrey enough?
The general mood of the ship's company is very important. It often acted to moderate tyranny, though not always successfully.
Do you have any sympathy for Napoleon Bonaparte? (Neither Aubrey nor Maturin does.) Do you think Napoleon a great character of the age or merely a despot?
I think he was an able man completely outrun by his success.
Was it unusual to find someone who was both a member of Parliament and a naval officer?
No, not very.
Did writing your biography of Picasso have an influence on your creation of Maturin? Is Dr. Maturin based on any historical person?
In both cases the answer is "not really."
Having shipped out as a deckhand on a Scandinavian freighter that had women aboard, I noticed that within one week even the most homely women were often courted madly (also ridiculed and harassed) by the men on board. How did the Royal Navy deal with this problem? Were there women on board the frigates at the time your novels take place?
No women, apart from the occasional captain's or warrant officer's wife.
Do you do research for each book, or do you have a long-term plan for past and future books and only do the specific research when you are ready to write? What sources do you use most?
I have 60 years of reading to draw upon: naval memoirs, dispatches, the Naval Chronicles, family letters.
Do you plan to continue the series? Will you invent some post-Napoleonic battles?
Yes, but within the limits of my mortality.
I love your short stories and poetry. Do you have any short stories on file that have not been published yet that you might consider releasing? Is any of your poetry available in the United States?
Have you been everywhere that Maturin and Aubrey have been?
No. Quite often I am obliged to rely on contemporary travelers.
What do you find so compelling about the time period you have chosen to write about? Is there any other time period that might have been as rich to mine as 1790-1820?
It is a period both remote and very, very well documented. And it has countless other attractions, including a remarkably dark prose.
What is the recipe for "spotted dog"?
See Lobscouse & Spotted Dog, [Anne Chotzinoff] Grossman's culinary book.
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