I met Miriam McNamara when I was a visiting faculty member to the Vermont Master of Fine Arts. Her energy was infectious, something I admired in that 3 degree weather (January in Vermont!). A wonderful conversation ensued when Miriam graciously drove me to the airport at the end of my stay and I knew good things would be coming from that creative mind. And I was right! Today we celebrate Miriam’s first novel, The Unbinding of Mary Reade (Sky Pony Press).
The spark for The Unbinding of Mary Reade (Sky Pony Press) happened many years ago, when I was in undergrad. I wrote a paper for a history class arguing that individuals who were oppressed in mainstream society—people of color and women, namely—sometimes found some kind of equality within the democratic structure of pirate ships. During my research, I fell in love with Mary Read and Anne Bonny. Their alleged romance and piratical ways made my imagination run wild. Years later, when I decided that I wanted to write a novel, I knew instantly that I wanted it to be about them.
Obviously female pirates are inherently riveting, but what initially made me hone in on Mary is that the story goes that she came to be disguised as a boy on board a pirate ship because she had been raised as a boy for duplicitous reasons—not the usual story of a woman taking on a masculine disguise by choice, to gain access to a world that was forbidden to her. What kept my attention is that she moved through the world as both a man and a woman, and she has relationships with both men and women. So many elements of the story told about Mary involve issues of gender and sexuality that are so relevant in my own life and in today’s cultural conversation.
Too often women, and especially queer women, have been written out of history. I love historical fiction, but I almost never find characters like me and the people I love most in those stories. I desperately wanted to tell a story that was queer and romantic through and through. I wanted to explore a character who ultimately is not satisfied with the either/or binary of gender, and who instead choses to embrace themselves as someone whose identity contains both. Mary was also said to have had relationships with both men and women, most notoriously her relationship with the pirate captain’s mistress Anne Bonny. I wanted Mary to have meaningful, romantic relationships with both genders, and for both relationships to exist outside of the traditional heteronormativity celebrated in almost every other romance novel.
I chose not to adhere too closely with the widely accepted version of her life, which was recorded in A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, published under the name Captain Charles Johnson in 1724. Although I know some people will question this choice, A General History is notoriously inaccurate source material published under an alias (many say Daniel Defoe wrote the book, but most experts believe this theory to be false), so I decided not to take it as truth as so many people do. I think of A General History’s account as a sort of legend or fairytale about the real-life Mary Read, and I decided to do a retelling of that story putting the elements that originally drew me to her life front-and-center—namely, Mary’s complicated relationship with gender, sexuality, and culture during a fascinating time in history.
Miriam McNamara earned a Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she won the Norma Fox Mazer award for a historical young adult manuscript work-in-progress. The Unbinding of Mary Reade is her first novel. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but she also calls Asheville, North Carolina home.