Review and interview: Neptune’s Chariot by Irv Sternberg

Photo Credit: Outskirts Press

Recent headlines, concerning the U.S. Merchant Marines and their life-and-death struggle with desperate Somali pirates, remind us that the high seas is still a place of great drama.

These events also make Irv Sternberg’s walloping good historical novel, Neptune’s Chariot, seem timely. It has earned Sternberg a position as a finalist in the 2009 Colorado Book Awards with winners yet to be announced.

Neptune’s Chariot focuses on the pre-Civil War glory days of the clipper ship. Sternberg spins a tale abounding in pirates, cut-throat capitalism, sexism, racism, ferocious storms, love, and a treasure trove of nautical lore.

For the third year in a row, he is participating in the Colorado Author Open House to be held this Sunday, April 19, 1 to 3 p.m., at Englewood Public Library, 1000 Englewood Parkway.

Real Life Inspires Fiction

Neptune’s Chariot often reads more like fact than fiction due to the author’s careful in-depth research about the era and about life and work aboard clipper ships.

The book began as a non-fiction project. Sternberg, a retired journalist and PR writer, says that he intended to report on the true story of a Merchant Marine heroine, 19-year-old Mary Ann Patten.

In his author’s note following the novel, Sternberg writes that in 1856, Patten “took command of her stricken husband’s clipper ship as it neared Cape Horn during the harshest storm of the century. She quelled a threatened mutiny and brought ship, crew and cargo safely to port—all while carrying her first child.”

But important historical documents concerning Patten’s experience such as the ship’s log “had simply disappeared,” Sternberg notes on his website, so he “decided to fill in the blanks from my own imagination.”

Mary Ann Patten became the model for Sternberg’s admirable heroine Elizabeth Godwin.

Q&A with Irv Sternberg

Sternberg, who lives in the metro area, kindly consented to answer some questions about his writing.

Q: It seems to me that few male novelists have created such a feminine yet strong and capable female character as Elizabeth Godwin. How did you get “into her head?”

A: It was difficult. But I was fortunate to have three very strong role models in my mother, my late wife, and my daughter. In addition to that I probed the minds of several female writer friends who helped me especially in describing the emotions and reactions of strong female protragonists, something that is not exactly a male aptitude.

Q: How did you learn about Mary Ann Patten’s real life adventure?

A: I was introduced to the story of Mary Ann Patten by a friend of mine, the late Bob Peterson, who was the vice president of education at Arapahoe Community College. He was a sailing historian. I was visiting him one day in his office at the college and he started telling me about Mary Ann Patten and the next thing I knew we were in the library and he was pulling books off the shelf. And that’s how it all started.

Q: How long did you research Patten’s story before changing course and setting off to write a novel instead?

A: About six months.

Q: Your book comes alive with such believable and clearly written details about navigation and shipboard life. Do you sail? If not, how did you absorb all this information?

A: Although I served in the Marine Corps, I’m not a sailor. So I lived in libraries and exploited the good natures of the librarians. Bless them all.

Q: Can you tell a bit more about your research process? Do you read a lot? Whose books do you enjoy?

A: I depended a lot on the Internet, interviewed sailing historians, actually visited nautical museums in Massachusetts, New York, and San Francisco, and read everything I could get my hands on about the clipper ship era. My work is strongly influenced by Ken Follett and Frederick Forsythe. But my all-time favorite is John Steinbeck. I also have a couple of favorite local authors—Joanne Greenberg and John Dunning.

Q: It appears from your website that the next book you intend to publish is a thriller titled The Reluctant Spy. Can you tell us a bit about it?

A: I’m in the process of rewriting it and then I’ll start pitching it. The history of that novel is I worked in Iran for three years in the mid 1970s. I worked for AT&T in public relations. The company was there to help upgrade Iran’s telecommunications technology. And so while there I witnessed the rise in Islamic fundamentalism that led to the takeover of the U.S. Embassy and the failed effort to rescue the hostages. Those experiences persuaded me to write my first novel, The Persepolis Project. But it was never published. In the meanwhile I published two other novels featuring the protagonist I created for The Persepolis Project, Clint Jagger. Now retitled The Reluctant Spy, that novel is intended to complete the Clint Jagger series of geopolitical thrillers.

Alicia Rudnicki©, National Library Examiner,, 2008

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