Author Interview: Mark G. Mitchell on Raising La Belle

Raising La Belle by Mark G. Mitchell (Eakin, 2002). From the catalog copy: “Under the mud below twelve feet of water lay La Belle, the prized ship of famous French explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle. In 1995 the ship was discovered by the Texas Historical Commission. For the next year, archeologists labored to extract the ship and her amazing cargo. The excavation made headlines worldwide. The Belle was the last hope of escape from Fort St. Louis, a Texas settlement in trouble. When the ship sank, the fort’s inhabitants, including pirates, missionaries, and orphans, confronted an unmapped wilderness and [] Karankawa Indians. Raising La Belle interweaves highlights of one of America’s most exciting archeological finds with the story of Texas’ lost French colony.”

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

I was asked to do it by Pam Wheat, the education coordinator for the “La Salle Shipwreck Project” of the Texas Historical Commission. The Commission had just finished excavating the Belle. It cost $5 million to bring up the wreck from the bottom of Matagorda Bay, and it was going to cost perhaps another $1 million to preserve the hull and the thousands of artifacts. A good chunk would be paid by the State of Texas. So the Commission was anxious to justify and raise awareness about this ambitious endeavor. Pam thought a children’s book would be a good outreach to the Texas schools.

I should say here that the Belle was not an ordinary sunken ship, but a 17th century shipwreck with bronze cannons and chests and barrels packed with goods — and a human skeleton curled in the bow. And the Belle had belonged to somebody historically significant, the North America explorer Robert Cavelier, the Sieur de La Salle. The Belle actually was a present given to La Salle by King Louis XIV — in gratitude for La Salle’s having just claimed the Mississippi River for France.

To make an epic story short, La Salle took the Belle on his next adventure in the New World, as King Louis wanted him to do. She wrecked on the Texas coast in 1686, inside Matagorda Bay, where Austin’s own Colorado River empties.

Pam Wheat saw a nonfiction book that I had written and illustrated about the McDonald Observatory, Seeing Stars, which Eakin Press had just published for middle grades. Seeing Stars follows astronomers around at the observatory in the Davis Mountains north of Big Bend.

Pam asked if I would consider doing a book like Seeing Stars on the archeology of the Belle.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I was brought on board (so to speak) at the end of 1997. Pam Wheat signed on as my consultant editor. To finance my own work, I obtained a cultural arts contract from the City of Austin, and additional funds from the Texas Commission on the Arts.

I made trips to Matagorda Bay and the East Texas forests and the Texas A&M Riverside campus in College Station, where the Belle soaked in water tanks in hundreds of pieces. I read and did interviews and wrote between other writing and illustration assignments. One was illustrating the October 1999 Cobblestone magazine issue devoted to La Salle. The issue included stories on La Salle’s Texas expedition and the Belle excavation. Cobblestone, a children’s magazine about American history is owned by Carus Publishing.)

I turned in the ms. and the illustrations in 2001. The book was edited by a fine editor at Eakin Press, Angela Buckley, as well as Pam Wheat, and published at the end of 2002.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

In the beginning I actually wondered if there actually was enough going on here for a kids’ book. How many people, how many young people, would relate to archeologists and scholars all breathless with excitement about the stuff they’d found on this high-profile salvage operation? That was my question.

So I guess my inspiration for creating this book (to return to your first question) came later, when I read a journal of one of the survivors of this Texas trip of La Salle’s. It was written by Henri Joutel, who was the same age as La Salle. Joutel and La Salle had known each other as children, growing up in Rouen, France. Joutel’s journal recounts how the Belle wrecked on Matagorda Peninsula and La Salle was murdered by one of his own men in the woods near present day Navasota and seven people (of the 189 or so who decamped from the ships) made the trek back to civilization (the log cabins of Montreal, then.) The seven included Joutel, La Salle’s older brother Jean Cavelier and the skipper, Tessier who had run the Belle into the sandbar.

The journal tells of the culture shock and dismay they felt among the Caddo Indians and other tribes, who wound up helping them.

Joutel’s journal puts faces and voices to the men, women and children of La Salle’s base at the bay, Fort Saint Louis. This probably was the first white settlement west of the Mississippi. These settlers depended on the Belle. She was their only remaining ship, before she wrecked, their only hope of escape by sea.

Now I felt like I got the dynamic of the shipwreck subject, a larger meaning than archeologists pulling artifacts out of the sand. The Belle was a relic and a symbol of some of America’s very earliest pioneers. Her story was a wilderness survival drama.

One challenge included this business of allegiance to facts. Children’s nonfiction author Russell Freedman said once, “A nonfiction writer is a storyteller who has taken an oath to tell the truth.”

I believe that, as a former reporter. I took the oath. Yet I wanted this to be a “living” book. By that I mean a book you can pick up again and reread and feel as if everything and everyone is still alive in it, and get carried away by the story unfolding again.

So between the facts and “the truth” something hard to explain would have to occur. I wanted to impart the story in its fullness without killing it with information and words. And so this became the real job of doing Raising La Belle. As I guess it’s the real job of all writers, of nonfiction and fiction alike.

What kind of reception has the book received?

The book was a featured children’s book at the 2002 Texas Book Festival, and I got to make a slide presentation at the festival. It was a finalist for the Writers’ League of Texas Teddy Children’s Book Award. Then it won the Spur Award for best juvenile nonfiction book of 2003. Spur Awards are given each year for “distinguished writing about the American west.” The previous year’s winner in my category was – hey – Russell Freedman, for In the Days of the Vaqueros.

I flew out to Helena, Montana to receive that award from the Western Writers while they were holding their 50th anniversary annual convention.

A children’s writer in Austin, Phil Yates kidded me. “Why are you wining an award for a Western? Shouldn’t you be getting the “Ship in a Bottle” award?

I said, “I’m not sure there is one.”

Then Cynthia Leitich Smith alerted me to a competition – The United States Maritime Literature Award. So I entered and won the U.S. Maritime Literature Award for 2003. That led to City of Austin Mayor Will Wynn proclaiming November 7, 2003 as “Mark Mitchell and Raising La Belle Day.” The book was a city-sponsored arts project, remember. And as if enough wasn’t enough, the Texas Governor commissioned me as an Admiral in the Texas Navy. Yes, Texas claims a navy. So I think this means I can pull rank on editors and art directors, now.

I’ve also been included in programs by the Texas State History Museum in Austin, where the Belle will come to rest with its artifacts in a few years once it’s been chemically preserved.

Cynsational Notes

“Austinite (Mark) Mitchell has done a brilliant job of making a potentially dull subject (an archeological recovery) lively, fascinating and slyly educational.”
— The Austin American Statesman

Cynsational News & Links

Attention Texas Authors: if you have already entered a book for consideration for the Friends of the Austin Public Library Award for Best Children’s Book and Best Young Adult Book, sponsored by the Texas Institute of Letters, please note that the address for the award chair (Jane Roberts Wood) was originally incorrectly posted to the Web site. It was corrected on Oct. 3. Double check your entry; hit reload to view the updated page.

Congratulations to Libba Bray whose Rebel Angels (Delacorte, 2005) was named a NAIBA (New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association) Book of the Year. October issue offers an emphasis on breaking into teen markets, including an interview with an editor at Girl’s Life and a special report on the magazine. See also how to be a columnist, keeping idea seeds ready to plant, tips on selling poetry, how to win magazine jobs with your portfolio, and download an ebook of a collection of past articles. See also an Interview with Violet Nesdoly on Being a Writer of Faith.