Nelson, James L. 1962-

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NELSON, James L. 1962-

(Elizabeth Garrett)

PERSONAL: Born April 5, 1962, in Lewiston, ME; son of David (an English professor) and Selma (an English teacher; maiden name, Wagner) Nelson; married Lisa Page, April 11, 1993; children: Elizabeth, Nathaniel, Jack. Education: Attended University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1981–83; University of California—Los Angeles, B.A., 1986; graduate study at Sonoma State University, 1993–94. Hobbies and other interests: Sailing, travel, model building and woodworking, "though they are much intertwined with my vocation."

ADDRESSES: Home and office—P.O. Box 462, Harpswell, ME 04079 Agent—Nat Sobel, Sobel Weber Associates, Inc., 146 E. 19th St., New York, NY 10003-2404. E-mail[email protected]

CAREER: The Landsburg Company (television production company), Los Angeles, CA, assistant editor, 1986–88; boatswain on ship Golden Hinde, 1988–89; rigger and sailor on ship Lady Washington, 1990–91; third mate/director of education on sail training ship H.M.S. Rose, 1991–92; writer, 1992–. Served as technical consultant on the motion picture Master and Commander. Has also worked as a disc jockey and radio broadcaster.

MEMBER: Harpswell Neck Fire and Rescue.

AWARDS, HONORS: Ray Stark Award, and Hollywood Radio & Television Society award, both c. 1985, both for excellence in the field of television production; W.Y. Boyd Award, American Library Association, for excellence in military fiction.


(Under pseudonym Elizabeth Garrett) The Sweet Trade (nonfiction), Forge (New York, NY), 2001, revised edition published under name James L. Nelson as The Only Life that Mattered: The Short and Merry Lives of Anne Bonny, Mary Read, and Calico Jack Rackam, McBooks Press (Ithaca, NY), 2004.

Glory in the Name: A Novel of the Confederate Navy (first book in "Samuel Bowater" series), William Morrow (New York, NY), 2003.

Reign of Iron: The Story of the First Battling Ironclads, the Monitor and the Merrimack (nonfiction), William Morrow (New York, NY), 2004.

Thieves of Mercy: A Novel of the Civil War at Sea (second book in the "Samuel Bowater" series), William Morrow (New York, NY), 2005.


By Force of Arms, Pocket (New York, NY), 1996.

The Maddest Idea, Pocket (New York, NY), 1997.

The Continental Risque, Pocket (New York, NY), 1998.

Lords of the Ocean, Pocket (New York, NY), 1999.

All the Brave Fellows, Pocket (New York, NY), 2000.


The Guardship, Avon (New York, NY), 1999.

The Blackbirder, William Morrow (New York, NY), 2001.

The Pirate Round, William Morrow (New York, NY), 2002.

SIDELIGHTS: A former professional sailor and avid naval historian, James L. Nelson has built his writing career around the lore of the sea. With such titles as By Force of Arms and Lords of the Ocean, the novelist describes life on the sea and shore in colonial-era America.

The American Revolution is the setting for By Force of Arms, a work that introduces Isaac Biddlecomb, who has worked his way up through the ranks to command of a merchant ship, even as his fortunes lead him to make history. Having done his research for the book by spending time in Nassau ("very selfless indeed," as he remarked wryly on his home page), Nelson conceded that the protagonist is based on someone he knows well. "I think every author puts some of himself into his characters. It's only natural. So yes, Isaac and I both like to quote Shakespeare and we're about the same age and have similar outlooks." "Nelson's seagoing experience is evident in his clear, convincing description of the sailing," remarked a reviewer for Publishers Weekly about the novel. The critic went on to fault some of the author's dialogue, but ultimately recommended By Force of Arms as "an engaging start to what promises to be a fine adventure series."

For someone whose fictional repertoire revolves around the tall ships, Nelson resisted writing about pirates for many years. As he explained on his Web page: "Piracy is an odd thing. Pirates were vicious people; killers, rapists, robbers. I think it is fair to say that they were analogous to the outlaw biker gangs today. In any event, it is an odd thing how pirates have been romanticized. I mean, you would not expect to see a ride at Disneyland called 'Outlaw Bikers of Oakland'—yet you have 'Pirates of the Caribbean.'" But "despite all the nonsense, pirates at their core are a fascinating subject," Nelson continued. "They were outlaws, yet they wrote rules to govern themselves. They elected captains in and out of command. They were perhaps the purest democracy in the 18th century. And the evidence suggests that they treated black men as their equals, shipping them as regular crew members."

So in 1999 Nelson debuted his "Brethren of the Coast" series featuring Virginia planter-turned-captain Thomas Marlowe. In the first book, The Guardship, the year is 1701. Marlowe, having killed a wealthy tobacco scion in a duel over the honor of a young widow, faces the wrath of a powerful family while defending his ship, the Plymouth Prize, from pirates. What the gentry do not know, however, is that Marlowe himself is a former member of the "sweet trade"—a pirate—who was born Malachias Barrett. "Lots of plot twists, some nifty seamanship and a nice collection of secondary characters add ballast to the narrative," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Nelson's wide-ranging knowledge of pirate lore caught the attention of Booklist contributor Roland Green, too, who praised the book's "sound historical scholarship [and] brisk pacing."

Marlowe finds himself caught between friendship and duty in The Blackbirder. An abolitionist who has freed his own slaves, Marlowe has aroused the ire of his new neighbors in Tidewater, Virginia, over his stance toward slavery, particularly galling ex-Bostonian Frederick Dunmore. As Marlowe prepares to go back out to sea as a privateer, he waits for his letter of marque to be delivered by the royal governor. Complications arise when Marlowe's good friend and former slave, King James, kills the abusive captain of a slave ship during a barroom brawl, then flees to Africa in the ship, the Blackbirder. Marlowe is ordered to hunt down the fugitive and return him to justice, and Dunmore sees to it that his letter of marque will be withheld until he does. Facing social and financial ruination if he refuses, Marlowe sets off on his grim task. When the two eventually meet, they realize some profound truths about themselves and each other, and endure a final scene of violent betrayal unfolding around them. A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that "on the whole this is a creditable adventure tale, deepened by Nelson's unusually detailed and nuanced account of the slave trade" and its attendant social and financial aspects. "This action-packed, authentically detailed sea yarn is distinguished by the sobering moral undertones of its electrifying plot," commented Booklist reviewer Margaret Flanagan.

Thieves of Mercy: A Novel of the Civil War at Sea is set during the American Civil War and focuses on Confederate naval action and early American seafaring. When Union forces captured New Orleans, Confederate Lieutenant Samuel Bowater was cut off from his ship. Ordered to travel to Memphis to take charge of a new ironclad ship, Bowater and his crew travel up the Mississippi river on a gunboat captained by the rough-and-tumble Mississippian Mike Sullivan. Bowater barely tolerates the drunken Sullivan and his crew, but when he arrives in Memphis, his new ship is not finished. In between raids on Union naval forces upriver, Bowater helps Sullivan write a dime novel that stirs some controversy. In Norfolk, Bowater's fiancée Wendy Atkins, undertakes a daring scheme to reunite with her lover out west, as well as to capture useful intelligence from none other than Abraham Lincoln. A Kirkus Reviews contributor observed that the novel contains "realistic combat, rowdy humor, and tense adventure, all combined in a well-researched historical that's authentic and enjoyable." A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that "Civil War buffs, particularly Southern sympathizers, will be well pleased" with Nelson's work.

Reign of Iron: The Story of the First Battling Ironclads, the Monitor and the Merrimack chronicles the pivotal battle between the two legendary Civil War ironclad ships, the Monitor and the Merrimack (also known as the Virginia). Though the battle between the two had little effect on the outcome of the Civil War itself, their conflict permanently changed the nature of naval warfare. Nelson provides a detailed account of the origins and creation of both ships, as well as in-depth material on all the important figures on both sides who contributed to the conception, construction, and deployment of the iconic ironclads. A blow-by-blow recounting of their meeting illustrates not only the tenseness of naval combat but the utterly untested type of warfare that the two ships inaugurated. Even as the two craft landed hit after hit, the crew still kept a watchful eye on the effects of their strikes. Nelson keeps the technical jargon and explanations to a minimum, crafting a narrative that those unfamiliar with naval battles can follow. "This exciting retelling of a famous and groundbreaking battle is an excellent addition to Civil War collections," commented Booklist reviewer Jay Freeman.

Nelson once told CA: "The old adage goes 'write about what you know,' and I think most writers would agree with me that this is nonsense. However, it is true that you must know about what you write. It was inevitable for me that I should write about ships and the sea, and indeed I never seriously considered writinh about any other subject. My personal experiences at sea have greatly aided me in my writing, though they have not relieved me of the need for copius research."



Booklist, February 1, 1997, Roland Green, review of The Maddest Idea, p. 926; August, 1999, Roland Green, review of Lords of the Ocean, p. 2027; January 1, 2000, Roland Green, review of The Guardship, p. 878; June 1, 2000, Margaret Flanagan, review of All the Brave Fellows, p. 1860; March 15, 2001, Margaret Flanagan, review of The Blackbirder, p. 1355; July 1, 2002, Margaret Flanagan, review of The Pirate Round, p. 1687; April 1, 2004, Jay Freeman, review of Reign of Iron: The Story of the First Battling Ironclads, the Monitor and the Merrimack, p. 1344.

Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2005, review of Thieves of Mercy: A Novel of the Civil War at Sea, p. 78.

Publishers Weekly, January 8, 1996, review of By Force of Arms, p. 64; December 6, 1999, review of The Guardship, p. 54; January 29, 2001, review of The Blackbirder, p. 65; May 20, 2002, review of The Pirate Round, p. 44; February 21, 2005, review of Thieves of Mercy, p. 157.

Wisconsin Bookwatch, November, 2004, review of The Only Life that Mattered: The Short and Merry Lives of Anne Bonny, Mary Read, and Calico Jack Rackam.


James L. Nelson Home Page, (October 5, 2005).

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