Temperatures were falling the evening of Feb. 9, freezing rain was forecast and after-school activities had been canceled across the region. It wasn’t exactly a dark and stormy night, but it was close. Still, Nicole Castroman was having the first book signing for her debut novel and, despite the weather, friends, neighbors and fans poured into the Barnes & Noble at the Collection at Forsyth.
Castroman watched them arrive from behind stacks of her first book, “Blackhearts,” a young adult novel with a ship in a bottle on the black dust jacket and a famous pirate cast as a young swashbuckler between the hardback covers.
Among the early arrivals was Tattyanna Acosta-Gill, a Riverwatch Middle School eighth-grader who jumped at the chance to be the very first fan to have her book signed by the author. A member of the store’s teen book club, Tattyanna had bought “Blackhearts” Saturday night and, three nights later, had handily dispatched all 384 pages. Her enthusiasm seemed an equal match for Amazon’s engaging blurb: “In this stunningly creative debut, Nicole Castroman reimagines the origins of history’s most infamous pirate – Blackbeard – and tells the story of the girl who captured his heart and ultimately set him on his path of destruction.”
“It was surreal to sign my name in my own book,” Castroman said later. “I can’t even describe it. A dream come true!” She would add her signature and the occasional personalized note to over 50 copies that night. Then, a week later, she did it all over again at another packed house in Salt Lake City, where she grew up and earned her bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University.
More readings and signings followed in Decatur and Athens in late February, and Castroman seemed determined to savor every second. After all, success had been a long time coming. Her struggle would eventually involve two literary agents, several manuscripts and six years of capitalizing on everything she would learned about rejection and, in the process, her craft.
“During that time, I found a critique partner, someone who wasn’t afraid to tell me if something wasn’t working,” said Castroman, a Forsyth resident for nearly 12 years.
Finally, in April 2014, her agent updated her on “Blackhearts,” which had already been rejected by 28 editors despite a strong crossover appeal to adults with its rollicking romance between Anne Barrett and Edward “Teach” Drummond, later known as Blackbeard. One of those 28 editors had changed publishing houses and wondered if the manuscript was still available. It was. Soon, it had been sold to Simon & Shuster, one of the largest English-language publishers in the world.
Castroman was pulling into a Kohl’s parking lot when she got the news and was so overcome at the thought of all her work finally coming to fruition that she had to pull over.
As she said, “ ‘Blackhearts’ is the story of my heart, the one that flowed from my fingertips when I wrote it. And after all this time, it finally found a home.” Years of writing, rejection and persevering had paid off.
“That’s what I love the most about this whole experience,” she said. “My children saw the importance of hard work and persistence. They learned that, no matter how challenging things might seem, you just can’t give up.” The night of their mother’s first book signing, Sophia, 16, and 12-year-old Anthony looked on proudly alongside their father, Miguel, whom Castroman met in college during a work-abroad program in Germany.
“My family was always so supportive of me, including my husband. He told me I should pursue my dream.
“And so I did.”
Months after the Simon & Shuster sale, Castroman received a mock-up of the cover, which triggered tears of joy. As she explained, authors don›t have control over cover artwork, as that is left to sales and marketing teams. “But I couldn›t have come up with a more fitting one,” she said. “It›s stunning. Minimalistic, beautiful and so emblematic of the story, of Anne and Teach›s struggle for freedom.”
Castroman is often asked how she came to write that particular story. Where did she get the idea to spin a yarn about a young Blackbeard before he became a pirate?
“Trivial facts, random dates and important battles are fascinating to me,” she explained. “So when my family decided to take a trip to Charleston, South Carolina, in August 2012, I did what I always do: study the history of the place. I discovered that Blackbeard actually blockaded the port city of Charleston and held it hostage in May 1718. His only demand was medication. He could read and write, which meant he came from a wealthy background. At the time, the rich were the only ones who could afford an education. All of these discoveries got me thinking. What kind of person would leave his life and home behind to lead such a harsh existence?”
Her imagination took over and, three months later, she had penned “Blackhearts,” which she spent another three weeks revising. She sent out her first query letters for literary representation the week before Thanksgiving 2012 and, about two months later, signed with her new agent, who was clearly captivated by Castroman’s tale about young love on the high seas.
“People have always had a fascination with pirates because pirates embraced freedom, riches and unchartered territories,” Castroman said. “Blackbeard was one of the most notorious pirates to sail the seas. He himself built up his ferocious persona by attaching burning ropes of hemp to his hat. He was taller than most men at the time and wore his hair and beard long. With the smoke surrounding him from the burning ropes, it gave him a demonic appearance. Most people capitulated to his demands without putting up much of a fight.”
At this point, visions of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow may be dancing in your head, but it’s an association the author doesn’t encourage. “Some people might think ‘Blackhearts’ will be like ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ but it’s not,” she said. “There wouldn’t have been much character development if I’d simply written a story about a young man on a ship and have him ‘act like a pirate.’ That would have been too easy.”
As she said, “Blackhearts” is more like a BBC period piece, similar to the British TV drama, “Poldark,” which debuted in 2015, three years after she’d written her book. “Blackhearts” is definitely a romance, she said, “and it’s Anne’s story as much as Teach’s. It’s been fun to see people’s reactions to my characters so far. I hope more people will fall in love with them as much as I have.
“I wanted to write characters that would stay with people even after they turned the last page, and I hope I accomplished that.”
Careful readers who think Castroman might be hinting at a possible sequel could be onto something. Though she said she still has more stories in her head that she wants to write, she admits she’s waiting for the green light to pen another “Blackhearts” story.
As she said, “Blackbeard didn›t become a pirate overnight.”
For more information about the author and her book, go to nicolecastroman.com. ■