10 Books about Modern Piracy
I’m a research junkie. I confess it. I write novels, but I hate to make things up if I don’t have to. I want my stories to be more than authentic. I want them to be real, to be true even, if you can say that about fiction. That means I read voraciously—nonfiction, mostly, but occasionally fiction when it offers me a unique perspective. My reading list is like the national debt—always growing no matter how hard I try to whittle it down.
My process also means I travel a lot, sometimes way off the beaten path. I’ve studied sex trafficking in India, gender-based violence in Zambia, and for my forthcoming novel, The Tears of Dark Water, piracy and terrorism in East Africa and the Indian Ocean. I’ve gone undercover into Mumbai brothels, hung out in Lusaka slums, and landed on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea. I’ve also visited refugee camps in Mogadishu and Kenya under armed guard.
It’s a fascinating life, one I wouldn’t trade for anything. But there comes a point in every project where the research must end and the story must begin, where the things I’ve learned, the people I’ve met, and the places I’ve seen must make a passage of sorts, a kind of Matrix-esque red pill moment in reverse. Reality has to become fiction. Truth has to put on a veil so the story can come to life.
It’s always a bit nerve-wracking, waiting for the alchemy to happen. In fleeting moments, I wonder whether the magic will work again, as it has in the past. It takes a leap of faith to stare at a blank screen and start writing. But it’s also my greatest privilege—because it takes me there again to the edge of the world, but vicariously, in the footsteps of my characters. It lets me see and do things that were beyond reach in real life, either because they were too dangerous or hidden from view.
In writing The Tears of Dark Water, I got to experience a hijacking at sea from the vantage point of the pirates, the hostages, the FBI negotiator, the Navy SEALs, the U.S. government, and the hostages’ family. I saw the crisis play out, and then I walked with my characters through its aftermath, through the federal trial and the deal made by the pirate commander to tell the truth to the jury in exchange for America’s help in liberating his sister from al-Shabaab.
This is the delight of the fiction I write. It’s passionate. It’s thrilling. But it’s also grounded in a reality my readers can take to the bank. To achieve that verisimilitude, I rack up a fair amount of debt—to the experts who open doors for me overseas and to the authors whose work I consult time and again until the story is finished. Here are the books I loved reading while researching The Tears of Dark Water.
The Pirates of Somalia (Jay Bahadur, Pantheon, 2011) – a groundbreaking account of the pirates of Puntland, written by the journalist I traveled with to Mogadishu.
Pirate Alley (Terry McKnight & Michael Hirsh, Naval Institute Press, 2012) – an admiral’s account of commanding the counter-piracy naval Task Force 151 off Somalia.
Keeping Hope Alive (Hawa Abdi, Grand Central, 2013) – the moving autobiography of Dr. Hawa Abdi, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee who runs a refugee camp near Mogadishu.
A Captain’s Duty (Richard Phillips, Hyperion, 2010) – the story that inspired the film Captain Phillips.
Hostage (Paul Chandler, Mainstream, 2011) – the tale of British sailors captured by Somali pirates and held hostage for over a year.
Impossible Odds (Jessica Buchanan, Erik Landemalm & Anthony Flacco, Atria, 2013) – the story of an aid worker captured by Somali bandits, and the SEALs who rescued her.
Stalling for Time (Gary Noesner, Random House, 2010) – a memoir by the founder of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit, the most highly trained hostage negotiators in the world.
Al-Shabaab in Somalia (Stig Jarle Hansen, Hurst, 2013) – a rare glimpse into the hidden world of the radical Islamist group.
Dangerous Waters (John Burnett, Dutton, 2002) – a survey of modern piracy from Somalia to the Straits of Malacca.
Somalia: The New Barbary? (Martin Murphy, Columbia University Press, 2011) – an examination of piracy against the backdrop of Somali history, culture, and faith.