Arts and Entertainment

Vashon author reveals new truths about why Titanic went down

Brad Matsen says he enjoys writing on Vashon. “There’s something sublime about staring at the water.” - Amelia Heagerty/staff photo
Brad Matsen says he enjoys writing on Vashon. “There’s something sublime about staring at the water.”
— image credit: Amelia Heagerty/staff photo

Islander Brad Matsen may have rewritten history.

His book, “Titanic’s Last Secrets,” posits a shocking new theory about the mammoth ship’s sinking, a theory that implicates the ship’s builders and designers in the tragic accident at sea.

Matsen, 64, tells the story of Titanic from the eyes of the people who envisioned it, designed it and built it, as well as from the eyes of the divers and the marine forensic expert who discovered evidence that the shipwreck could have been avoided.

An accomplished writer, he masterfully crafts the factual accounts of individuals in the Titanic’s rise, fall and rediscovery. “Titanic’s Last Secrets,” published by Twelve Publishers and released last month, is 100 percent true, he said, and based on exhaustive research, reporting and interviews.

But the book is more than a tome of facts — each scene is full of life, animated with dialogue and richly descriptive.

“The art of writing is to make people see,” Matsen said, “with aromas and sounds and an enormous amount of archival research.”

The book writing process is, for Matsen, much more than sitting down and letting the ideas flow. His thorough research took him to Belfast to examine the archives of Titanic’s parent company, to Maine to spend time with a naval architect who examined the wreck and to Greece to witness a scuba dive into the sunken hulk of Titanic’s sister ship Britannic.

It’s tough to distinguish between the scenes Matsen was present for and the ones he reconstructs from video footage, interviews and documents.

The book is Matsen’s 19th and spent two weeks last month on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list (peaking at #33). Though Matsen said he was wary of adding another book to the immense stack of those already written about the ship, “Titanic’s Last Secrets” takes a different perspective, and puts forth a new premise, than the volumes preceding it.

It is based on evidence discovered and documented three years ago — enormous sections of Titanic’s hull at their watery final resting places — that led divers, naval architects and Titanic experts to a new conclusion about the ocean liner’s sinking.

Matsen, thoughtful and forthcoming, explained from his dining-room table what had drawn him a little more than a year ago to Vashon. He’d spent more than 10 years dividing his time between Ballard and New York City. But once his daughter and her family moved from New York to Oslo, Norway, he gave up his Manhattan apartment and became a full-time Ballard resident — which turned out to be “a little slow for me,” he said.

The day after Matsen walked through an Island home with panoramic views of the Puget Sound, he decided to move in.

His only regret, he said, is that he didn’t move to Vashon sooner.

“Vashon’s a great place to write,” Matsen said. “Apart from the little routines here, there’s something sublime about staring at the water.”

He calls himself a late bloomer, for though he’d written his first novel in 1971, and published thousands of magazine articles, Matsen didn’t publish a book until he was 40.

He was a commercial salmon fisherman in Alaska, then editor of the Alaska Fisherman’s Journal. He served in the Peace Corps at age 55 on an Island 300 miles from Tonga, where he learned a Polynesian dialect and its 19-letter alphabet.

He was a creative producer for a National Geographic television series, and is the author of not only gripping nonfiction volumes, but also seven children’s books that make evolution, science and nature appealing to a young audience.

Matsen is on a nationwide book tour through the end of this month and looks forward to a month or two of relaxing on Vashon, perhaps appearing at a Vashon book store in 2009, he said.

He finished his latest book, “Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King,” just before he launched his tour for “Titanic’s Last Secrets” last month. His next book will be released next summer, by which time he’ll be deep into the research of yet another endeavor, one that whisks the reader away to an oil platform that exploded off the shore of Scotland in 1988.

He’s looking forward to breathing new life into yet another moment in history, he said, and plans to write from his Vashon home.

He depends on an Island routine when working on a book, he said — working out in the morning, visiting the library and walking on the beach.

“I must look like a caged zoo animal to people looking in, pacing back and forth,” Matsen said. “But it’s really a necessity for me. ... I’m not a very social person, but for me it’s a delight to run errands for an hour and see the same people.”

"Titanic's Last Secrets" by Brad Matsen is available at Vashon Bookshop and Books by the Way.

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