Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Interview of Greg Taylor on his Award Winning Book, Lusitania R.E.X

It has been an exciting first year for the M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction. We of the Board of Directors feel that there were many good books; judges said they found new authors to follow. Our finalists, Steve Wiegenstein, David Blixt, and Greg Taylor are all wonderful writers, and their stories are an excellent read. We were eager to learn about the winner's experience conceiving of and writing his book, Lusitania R.E.X; his interview is below.

1) Congratulation on winning the M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction for your novel, Lusitania R.E.X! Did you think of being a writer as a child? Or when and how did the thought develop?

Thank you Debra. I was thrilled to win the M.M. Bennetts Award. It was a wonderful culmination of five years work on the book to go onstage in front of 600 people attending the Historical Novel Society Conference Banquet and accept the award.

I did write short stories as a kid and even submitted one with my application to college, but just in case that wasn’t enough to differentiate me, I included a tape of my senior organ recital.

I remember the precise moment I decided to write Lusitania R.E.X, although I didn’t know the title then. I was driving from London to Dover with a friend of mine who had written and self-published a book. We were on our way to a crazy costume party. I announced that I was going to write a book about the Lusitania. Two years later I returned to that party wearing a Lusitania costume that took me days to construct, complete with a revolving propeller.

I have always loved history and was intrigued with the Edwardian era because of the vast gulf that separates it from what followed the war. I also felt it unfair that the Titanic receives all the attention while the Lusitania is part of a more complex and intriguing story.

2) How long did the book take you from starting the research to final edits?

I took me roughly four years to complete Lusitania R.E.X. I spent a year researching, reading everything I could get my hands on about the Lusitania. There was less available four years ago than there is today given the 100th anniversary earlier this year.

I compiled what I considered to be the most interesting stories, aspects and mysteries about the tragedy and then worked for several months to develop my story and outline. From that point, I tried to be disciplined about executing to that outline unless I found a factual mistake that forced a correction. It took me two years to execute the writing phase, so with a few months of revisions, including cutting the book in half, it was a total of fours years to achieve the finished product.

3) We know you interviewed people with personal links to the sinking: Can you give us some examples of how you used your interviews in refining the story line?

My first breakthrough was to connect with Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt III, the grandson of my main character, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt. I went to visit Alfred III in Connecticut and found him so interesting that we barely looked at the eleven volumes of original newspaper clippings compiled by his grandmother, the grieving widow of Alfred I. Alfred shared a number of details that I included in the book, in most cases assigning them to his grandfather.

The second connection was with the 11th Duke of Marlborough, whose middle name is Vanderbilt. His grandmother was Consuelo Vanderbilt, a cousin of my main character. The Duke was very interested in my research about the Vanderbilts and eventually wrote the forward for the book.

4) Do you feel you had a good grasp of the personalities of the real people in the story?

Yes, after my research, I really felt like I knew them. The only real changes I made to the book after completing the outline was when I got to know one of the characters better and decided I had misrepresented them. Then I had to rewrite the book. This happened with President Taft, when I realised he would have voted differently in a crucial Skull and Bones meeting than I first expected.

5) As to the purely fictional characters, which was the easiest to fit into the actual history?

Of the three main characters, only one is fictional, and even she is a composite of four real people. I used her as the glue to bind the story together. She is composed of (i) a school girl friend of Princess Viktoria Luise of Prussia that attended her wedding in 1913, (ii) the fictitious younger sister of Alice Crompton, married to Paul Crompton, nephew of the chairman of Cunard Lines, (iii) the woman Alfred Vanderbilt gives his lifebelt to before he drowns, (iv) a woman sucked into one of the massive funnels of the sinking ship and then shot out naked with the escaping steam when the cold seawater hits the superheated boilers.

6) Did you have to bend history at all?

As I explained to the Duke and Alfred Vanderbilt, I followed facts wherever I could but otherwise endeavored to write things that could have happened, but probably didn’t. When faced with a factual error, I corrected it, with the exception of the timing of the assassination of the Russian prime minister. I had written that scene and liked it but reshuffled that part of the story to occur a year later when I couldn’t bear to give it up. That’s the only factual inaccuracy of which I am aware, and it is not central to the story.

7) Define the character Alfred Vanderbilt as you portray him, and what drove him to behave as he did at the sinking of the ship?

Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt was the best of his breed; a sporting Edwardian gentleman, he gave his lifebelt to a woman passenger knowing that, despite mastering nearly every other sport, he had never learned to swim. In my story, Alfred is a lost soul at the beginning of the book, tortured by the admonitions of his stronger sister, Gertrude (Gertrude Whitney, founder of the Whitney Art Museum in New York) to find some purpose in his life. With the help of his friend and Skull and Bones mate, Percy Rockefeller, he finds a mission to embrace as his own. His commitment ultimately leads to his martyrdom and redemption.

8) You had to fly from London to Denver to attend the announcement of the M.M. Bennetts Award, but something was interesting about the location of the presentation. Please explain.

By sheer coincidence, I happen to be from Denver. The weekend of the Historical Novel Society’s North American conference was also my sister’s birthday weekend, so it was a fortuitous occasion.

9) Do you have plans to write another book? If so, what topic is brewing?

I am exhausted after the effort required to produce Lusitania R.E.X, but enjoyed the process so much that I have no doubt of writing again someday. In the short term, I need to focus on the things I neglected during my four-year hibernation to write my book. I already have a few ideas, however, for the next one.

10) Where can Lusitania R.E.X be purchased?

On the website,, where you can also view a faux Edwardian photo album of Alfred Vanderbilt that tracks the story. It is also available on Amazon and other retailers and a few special places including the Duke’s Blenheim Palace, Alfred’s Great Camp Sagamore, the Cunard Lines vessels and the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool.

Questions by Debra Brown and Linda Root. If you have questions for Greg, please ask them in the comment section below.

1 comment:

  1. I am pleased to announce that Lusitania R.E.X has been named a finalist for the People's Book Prize. Thank you those of you that voted for the book during round one of the contest. There will be a run off vote May 2016 and I hope that Lusitania R.E.X will come first in the Fiction category. Greg Taylor

    For more information about the People's Book Prize you may follow the link below. I hope if you enjoyed the book you will vote for it again next May.