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Q&A: WDB Author Cap'n George Choundas

Cap'n George Choundas, author of The Pirate Primer: Mastering the Language of Swashbucklers and Rogues, talks about researching the pirate life and living the writing life.
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George Choundas [KOON-dahss], author of The Pirate Primer: Mastering the Language of Swashbucklers and Rogues, grew up in the pirate port of Tampa, Florida, and lives and works in New York. Educated at Emory University, he is a corporate litigator and a former FBI agent.

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What originally inspired you to write The Pirate Primer?

The owner of the finest costume shop in Key West was known for wearing full pirate regalia. Whenever tourists happened by, he’d shake a sword and berate them in fluent buccaneer. I know this because my wife and I spent a few days on the island. When our tour trolley passed his shop, he sprinted after us for a block or so, spouting foulest brine from all seven seas.

I thought to myself: That’s got to be the best job in the world. And then I thought: If only there were some kind of manual.

How long did it take you to compile all that research?

Nigh on two year. Much of it on the train to work and back. The conductor would walk down the aisle and see Wall Street Journal, Wall Street Journal, The Dealings of Captain Sharkey, Wall Street Journal.

What’s your favorite part of the book?

I’m fond of Chapter 15. It’s the world’s only systematic treatment of the term “Arrgh,” its origins, and its manifold uses.

But the pirate epithets in Chapter 9 are, for me, what it’s all about. Once you put down the book, you wonder how you ever stumbled through life barren of phrases like “You’re the bilge-sucking, chuckle-headed son of a double-eyed whore.” One’s prior existence seems a pale and pointless trifle.

What was the hardest part to create?

The book has a serious mission: to be the last word on the pirate language. And I think it succeeds largely because of its sections on pirate grammar. They are no joke. The chapters on structural and functional forms, and on parts of speech, really lay bare the language from the inside out. It was a challenge to identify and articulate these often hidden patterns in the language. It’s tough enough to speak English good—well. I meant to say “well.”

What’s the piratical phrase you use the most in your daily life?

“Aye, dearie.” I’m neither single nor stupid. Hence my prolific deployment of the phrase.

Who’s your favorite historical or literary pirate, and why?

Too many great ones for a favorite. But I will tell you this: Every modern Western nation has a memorial for the Unknown Soldier. We might consider one for the Unknown Pirate. The pirate who, in August 1703, drew brandy from a barrel with a lighted candle in his other hand and thereby blew up his ship and everyone on it off the coast of Bermuda. The pirate in Edward England’s company who, mad with envy, beat his giant diamond into 43 bits, thinking to make it more valuable than his comrades’ 42 slivers. The pirate in 1718 who, just before being hanged, was asked if he repented, and replied that, yes, he repented that he hadn’t cut more throats and that those in attendance weren’t being hanged also.

We don’t know his name, and in most cases he made life hell for everyone he met, but the Unknown Pirate, from a historical perspective, is an excellent thing.

If you could encapsulate what you hope readers will take away from the book in a sentence or two, what would it be?

“Who is this author? And how might I best worship him?”

What’s been the most fun part of authoring The Pirate Primer?

Thirty-one radio interviews on Talk Like a Pirate Day. The NPR affiliate challenged me to an English-to-pirate translation lightning round, while the Sirius show demanded pirate synonyms for “penis.” An impeccably dignified end to two years of intense scholarship and focused writing.

What piece of advice have you received over the course of your career that has had the biggest impact on your success?

Write every day. Write every day, if only 50 words. Write every day. Unless you’re busy, or sick, or on vacation, in which case you should write every day while being busy or sick or on vacation. Write every day.

What's the one thing you can't live without in your writing life?

My laptop. It’s a miracle. I’m able to get things down almost as fast as I think them up. And it plods on agreeably, despite the pound of granola detritus that’s fallen between the keys.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Nine days out of ten, I board a 7:48 am train for Manhattan, then step back onto the same station platform at 8:0 7pm. In between is work (I’m a lawyer) and hopefully a quick workout (I’m an eater). I write on both trains if possible, the evening train in every circumstance, and usually at home for about an hour after our spawn shows the world mercy by falling asleep.

If you could change one thing about publishing, what would it be?

The reluctance of many publishers to embrace good, perfectly saleable work because it doesn’t fall strictly within timeworn, often arbitrary, counterproductively rigid categories of what’s marketable.

Do you have any advice for new writers on fostering a strong author/editor relationship?

First, earn your credibility: read everything there is on the topic, so that you are capable of acting the professional. Second, protect your credibility: make every deadline and be hyper-responsive—I’m a fan of returning calls and e-mails the same day unless you’ve contracted something named after a person—so that you are perceived and treated as a professional. Third, reap the fruits of your credibility: communicate responsibly by always expressing your concerns, but never before you’re sure you have listened to, and are comprehending well the reasons for, what’s coming at you the other way.

These are basics, but basics easily overlooked in the normal course, let alone in the crush of a publication schedule.

What are you working on now?

I have only two superstitions: the bills in my wallet must face the same way, and I can’t blather about projects before they’re done. But it’s a novel, and it’s historical, and—like the Primer—it’s requiring substantial capital investment in the way of research. It’s been a good time. Hard work, but good time.

Any final thoughts?

I don’t like haircuts from bald barbers. Not relevant, perhaps, but definitely final. I can’t be persuaded otherwise.

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Download an excerpt from The Pirate Primer's Chapter 8: Insults.

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