Comox author credits Mark Twain for his career

Best-selling novelist has a series of novels surrounding a character in the British Navy

  • Jan. 26, 2015 4:00 p.m.

Sean Russell’s series about a British naval officer has been translated in numerous languages.

Renee Andor

Special to the Record

Sean Russell has always loved the water.

That love — combined with his passion for history — is apparent in the Comox bestselling novelist’s series about a British naval officer, set during the French Revolution.

Under Enemy Colors; A Battle Won; Take, Burn or Destroy; and Until the Sea Shall Give Up Her Dead follow the journeys of Charles Saunders Hayden, who starts out as a young lieutenant and moves up the ranks of the British Navy, as war is waged between the British and French.

Russell says his interest in writing, adventure and water started when he was a child growing up on the shores of Lake Ontario. Born in 1952, he and his family moved to a small cottage on the lake when he was three.

“I had a bedroom — it was a tiny little bedroom, really it was like a walk-in closet now — but it had windows that looked out on the water, and I grew up with that, grew up playing on the beach and making boats,” he says. “I always tell people I had a Tom Sawyer childhood because it was just like that.”

His interest in writing took hold when he was 10, and he says he ‘blames it all on Mark Twain.’

“I read (The Adventures of) Tom Sawyer and (The Adventures of) Huckleberry Finn over and over and over again when I was a kid, and I just thought, ‘Wouldn’t this be the greatest life in the world to be able to write books and make a living, and not have a real job,’” he recalls with a laugh, adding he had a hyperactive imagination and was constantly imagining stories.

Russell’s writing career didn’t start right away, however. He took philosophy at the University of Waterloo as a young man before he decided to drop it.

He did some travelling, moved out west and became heavily interested in outdoor activities like rock climbing, spelunking, downhill and backcountry skiing and hiking in the mountains.

Fittingly, during this time Russell worked in managerial roles at Mountain Equipment Co-op, in Vancouver and Toronto locations.

He wrote during this time but not with the idea of being published in mind.

“I got to my late-20s and I thought, ‘I guess if I’m going to do this I actually have to write things and submit them,’” he chuckles. “No one’s going to come to my door and sign me up.”

His first novel, a historical fantasy called The Initiate Brother, went to many publishers before it was sold in 1989 to Penguin.

“We had a lot of publishers say, ‘Oh, we just love this book but it’s not a historical novel and it’s not a fantasy novel, and we don’t really know how to publish it,’” recalls Russell, noting this genre wasn’t really developed at that time.

“Finally, an editor at Penguin … literally said, ‘Well, I don’t know if we’ll make any money on this but it’s too good a book not to be published.’

“It was really successful,” he continues. “It was a bestseller, so all of a sudden publishers wanted me to write fantasy novels for them.”

He ended up writing nine of them, and Russell says the books provided a good living but eventually he wanted to write something different.

“So, against everybody’s advice, I wrote a historical novel,” he says, noting his agent and publisher advised against this decision because what he was doing was working.

“I wrote this book that became Under Enemy Colors, (2007) which turned out to be the most successful book I ever wrote, so I guess it was a good move.”

Under Enemy Colors made the London Times bestseller list and became hugely popular in England.

While not as successful in North America as in Europe, Russell notes it was by no means a failure here, and many of his books have been more popular in Europe than North America. Many of them have been translated in 10 or more languages.

Russell has called Comox home for the past 12 years. He enjoys sailing around the waters of Georgia Strait with his wife and son, and he spends time writing while out on his 36’ sailboat.

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