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Nicola Skinner : ‘Starboard’

Nicola Skinner : Nicola is a writer of great originality and wit. Starboard is her third novel and is inspired by Brunel’s ship the SS Great Britain, which is docked in her home city, Bristol. Nicola talked to us about the influence of the nineteenth-century record-breaking feat of engineering that is one of the lead characters in the book.

First up, let me say that I love a good character, male or female, and I don’t want to rule out writing a book with a boy as the hero. But when it comes to writing a book with a strong female lead, I suppose I started with my first book, BLOOM, and haven’t really stopped? It’s hard to run out of inspiration when I’m surrounded by amazing women. I can barely leave the house without tripping over one. The latest just happens to be a ten-metre high, 322 feet long Victorian iron steamship; but at her heart, the SS Great Britain is still a strong female lead. All ships are she, after all, and as Isambard Brunel, her creator, says in STARBOARD, the SS Great Britain ‘is more she than most.’

This magnificent shiny black ship is docked down at Bristol’s floating harbour, not far from where I live. As with all true divas, her story was too mammoth for me to understand all in one go. But I knew she was magic, the moment I saw her, and something kept drawing me back. One day, as a parent helper on my daughter’s class outing to the ship, I had that lightbulb moment – what would happen if the SS Great Britain decided she had one more ocean trip to make? And where would she go?

Ss Great Brtain licensed under creative commons

I started to read more about her journeys; I visited the Brunel Institute, right next to the ship itself, and read Brunel’s diaries. I became transfixed with one particular part of the ship’s history – the eighty years she spent in a slow decline, out in a lonely cove in the Falkland Islands, wrecked and abandoned.  When she was on the brink of breaking in two, a group of people came together and decided to work together to bring her back to Bristol. 

I found this incredibly moving. I began to understand that this ship was more than just a ship – that she seemed to bring out the best, and the worst, of people. I felt that she understood humanity, as she had seen and carried so much of it. And when I realised that the ship might be quite maternal, and caring, but also marked, and scarred, in some way, by what had happened to her, I began to understand what the story might be. 

The ship’s history, and capacity for survival and endurance is, to me, what makes her so incredibly special, and what shapes the ultimate plot of the STARBOARD – as the ship and her next captain, Kirsten, set off for the ocean, they both revisit meaningful places that ultimately help Kirsten come to terms with events of her past and rebuild a better life for herself. I’m so honoured that I am able to share this story with readers looking for a hopeful message about survival, and strength, and friendship, as we all look towards a brighter future.

Starboard by Nicola Skinner is published by HarperCollins and is available to buy now from the Just Imagine Bookshop: Starboard | Just Imagine… (