On Writing & Exploration: A talk with Kitty Pilgrim

How did your 24 year career as a journalist help you to start writing novels?

In the course of reporting for CNN, I had the opportunity to travel widely and research a variety of subjects. In many ways the old adage that “Truth is Stranger than Fiction” applies. The craft of reporting is not very far from the craft of storytelling. I wanted to try my hand in spinning an entertaining story from a strong factual base.

Your novels – The Explorer’s Code, The Stolen Chalice and Summer of Fire are a great balance between a page-turner with James Bond-esque action, and an old-fashioned love story. Why was it important for you to strike that balance?

I have read a lot of popular fiction, mostly grabbing something from a shelf at the airport while heading off on assignment. I love the adventure and technical details of a good breathtaking thriller. And I also enjoy the luxury of curling up with a good old-fashioned romance. My novels are a blend of both.

Your novels take readers around the world to interesting, exotic and sometimes relatively unknown places. How do you choose particular locales for your books?

At the end of a long day, reading should be a pleasant experience. I want to make my novels escapist in the fullest sense of the word. The Explorer’s Code, The Stolen Chalice and Summer of Fire have adventurous places- such as the high Norwegian arctic, or a volcano in Iceland. But luxury is an essential ingredient…from a glorious country estate in England, to Mediterranean cruise, to a beautiful Parisian apartment on the left bank.

Why did you decide to write about Capri in Summer of Fire?

I visited Capri for the first time about ten years ago. The island was so rich in history – ancient Roman artifacts are everywhere. I visited a small villa up in the hills of Anacapri and immediately fell in love with the place. When searching for a location for Summer of Fire, it was the perfect spot. And the location fit beautifully with the theme of volcanoes – the historic Mount Vesuvius is right across the bay.

Do you always travel to each of the places you write about?

I put myself on assignment to the most beautiful glamorous and interesting places I can think of and travel to the places that I write about, so they are true to life. It comes from being a reporter. I can’t report the scene without being “on the ground.” Perhaps I lack imagination, but I think going to each place gives it authenticity that it doesn’t have if you make it up in your head.

Many of the characters in the book are explorers of some kind. You are an active member of the historic Explorer’s Club? When did you passion for exploring begin? Where does it come from?

I have always loved the whole romantic ideal of the great age of exploration. To me civilization is at its best when we go on a quest to find out more about our physical world in medecine, geology, space travel, ocean exploration. Technology is developing so rapidly to expand our horizons.

In your novels what is fact and how much is fiction?

I try to write fact-based fiction. Many details are true to life. For example in The Stolen Chalice the finale of the book takes place at an infectious disease medical center in Cairo. I traveled there to research how they might treat an outbreak of a biochemical attack. In The Explorer’s Code I consulted with real scientists on the decoding of the 1918 pandemic genome, the Alvin submersible. In Summer of Fire, I actually climbed Mount Vesuvius to look into the smoldering caldera.

Are the characters based on real people?

I feel it is important to create my own characters, with their own personalities, quirks and physical characteristics and not borrow details from real people. I don’t think that is fair to the people (or the characters) to try to blend personalities. Also if I kill anyone in the course of the story, I won’t have to apologize to anyone.

Ships are often in your books. Why?

I spent a lot of time on the water. During the summer months I am on a boat most of July and August and even do part of my book tour by boat. I also travel frequently on Cunard ocean liners – particularly transatlantic on the Queen Mary and through the Mediterranean on the Queen Elizabeth, or the Queen Victoria. Boats are wonderful places to write. They are quiet, peaceful and the view is wonderful.

What’s in store for you next?

I am continuing to write every day. I have recently begun a new series that is geopolitical, and espionage-based. After being in the news business for many years, I continue to follow world events quite closely. I have a whole new set of characters under development. There is no telling what happens next!