Author Erika Marks reveals the inspiration behind her latest novel — fiction based on legends of shipwrecks — and the North Carolina locations that shaped her story.
Chat with Erika Marks on Twitter Friday, August 5, from 1-2 CST (2-3 EST; 11 a.m.-noon PST) using the hashtag #southernlit. We’ll also have a giveaway of The Last Treasure starting on Friday!
After writing about competitive surfing, a lighthouse keeper and lost love in her past novels, Erika Marks delves into shipwrecks and lost treasure in her latest summer read. Based on the real-life story of the mysterious Patriot — a schooner that disappeared off the Carolina coast in 1813 with Aaron Burr’s daughter, Theodosia, aboard — The Last Treasure brings together three students with a passion for shipwrecks who embark on one last salvage mission.
Once a close-knit trio, Liv, Sam and Whit have drifted apart, especially since Liv left Sam for Whit nine years ago. Liv has given up her obsession with Theodosia Burr to focus on her career as a salvage diver and her fervent but troubled marriage to Whit. But when a diary of Theodosia’s is discovered in the attic of a North Carolina beach house, Liv is pulled back into the world of the Patriot and the love triangle that will cause her to choose once and for all between two men with very different hearts.
Marks says she loved the romance behind the idea of treasure hunting, but isn’t a diver herself, so the topic required much research and two years of writing to flesh out. She also found her setting of North Carolina’s Outer Banks fascinating because of all the lore and legends related to shipwrecks along the coast. Known as The Graveyard of the Atlantic, the Outer Banks is a prime spot for treasure hunting, with 500-plus wrecks documented, including the Patriot.
“There are even some wrecks that are on the beach and you can just be walking along the stretch of national seashore and see these ribs and pieces of wreckage sticking up,” says Marks, who lives in Charlotte.
She came across Theodosia’s tragic story during her research. Marks is more familiar with Theodosia’s father, Aaron Burr, now that the musical “Hamilton” is so popular, but at the time, she had limited knowledge of who he was. What she read was that the father and daughter were very close, almost to the point of Aaron being demanding of her, and the storyline paralleled what she had in mind for Liv’s relationship with her own father.
Tales of the the Patriot being captured by pirates off the coast of Hatteras, fallen prey to the Carolina “bankers” (ship wreckers) or taken by a storm also aligned with Marks’ plot. “She [Theodosia] is a character that had a lot of sadness and tragedy and loss in her life,” she says. “She gets on this ship and is never seen again. I wanted to know what happened, and my heroine [Liv] wants to know what happened. To me, it’s a compelling mystery.”
Marks admits it was probably a storm that took Theodosia’s (pictured) life, but that doesn’t necessarily make for good fiction. “It was a lot of fun to write the character of Liv and use all of these myths or legends – pirates claimed on their deathbed they were involved in the seizure of the Patriot — all of these stories that came out that allowed you to possibly tease out another ending,” she says.”
We won’t give too much away, but Marks manages to add a bit of romance to Theodosia’s final days, while also giving us two present-day leading men that may cause readers to go with Team Sam or Team Whit. “I think that for women in fiction, there are these archetypes of heroes and as readers we can be drawn or attracted to one type or another just as we are in life,” she says.
In her usual charming style, Marks brings us yet another book set by the sea with true-to-life characters faced with some tough decisions when it comes to their relationships. Only this time she weaves in a historical legend that will have readers going beyond “Hamilton” to find out more about Theodosia Burr and whether the ending Marks imagines for her is possible or not.
North Carolina Locations From The Last Treasure
For Liv, Sam and Whit’s last salvage mission to recover the Siren, Whit rents a “three-story Caribbean style castle” on Topsail Island. “I’ve been several times to Topsail and I loved it there,” says Marks. “It seems to me to be a good place, slightly outside the Wilmington area, to open the story.” She didn’t base the over-the-top beach house on any specific home but says there are plenty of ostentatious houses she could picture in her mind. Thus, The Last Treasure opens in this overwhelming setting with the crew placing all their last hopes on this one wreck. Liv and Whit are also awaiting the arrival of Sam after being estranged for many years, so tension runs high.
The breeze that brushes past her is fragrant with the dry, herby smell of sunbaked dune grass. The water is calm today, at least on the surface, part of the stretch of sea known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Liv traveled its length like a highway when she and Sam and Whit ran their treasure-hunting charter. – Chapter 2
Marks chose to have Liv, Sam and Whit attend college at East Carolina University in Greenville due to its nautical archaeology program. The three of them meet after attending a lecture on “The Hunt for the Patriot—Separating Mystery from Myth.” Marks also knew Greenville would put them close enough to the coast for missions. The trio’s first trip together is to Hatteras, about four hours away.
The three friends travel to Hatteras not long after meeting each other to check out a wreck site that could be the Patriot. Whit calls the tip of this part of the coast “the end of the world.” He takes them to a home facing the Atlantic, where they cook clams for dinner, drink wine and have a bonfire on the beach. A game of truth or dare results in Whit going for a swim in the ocean and Liv and Sam heading upstairs to explore their budding romance.
“I wanted their first experience there to be in a relatively remote place,” says Marks. “A lot of the Outer Banks is national seashore, very remote and untouched and so beautiful, so it’s believable that Liv feels she’s starting to reach the end of the world.”
According to Bald Head Island legend, the ghost of Theodosia Burr haunts this stretch of coast. Liv, Sam and Whit talk about it around their bonfire in Hatteras, saying that people near Bald Head have seen Theodosia “running through the dunes in a white dress, chased by a headless pirate.” Marks says it’s unlikely her ship crashed at Bald Head since it was found drifting off Nags Head, further north up the coast, in 1813.
Of course, the ship. Liv’s focus has always been on Theodosia, but this information will provide answers to the final resting place of the Patriot too. Assuming it’s all true.” – Chapter 8
Sam and Liv travel to Nag’s Head to the Outer Banks Shipwreck Museum to view the diary of Theodosia’s that was found in an attic. Liv feels young and reckless again, the way she did on the trio’s first trip to Hatteras, only she’s married to Whit now and shouldn’t be running off with Sam. The museum is on the main drag, “on the edge of Kill Devil Hills,” and is a long, square, white modern building. Marks says she made this museum up, but there is a Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum (pictured) in Hatteras that’s part of North Carolina Maritime Museums and looks similar to the one she describes. New exhibits go up annually, and programming runs from mid-May through September.
It is a common misconception that when a ship sinks, its wreck is frozen at the bottom of the ocean, forever locked in silt and sand—actually it’s quite the opposite. When a ship settles on the seafloor; it is still in motion. Despite the anchor of bed and darkness, it continues to move throughout its new life of decay.” – Chapter 3
Nag’s Head is also home to more lore about Theodosia Burr. She is said to have been traveling aboard the Patriot with a portrait of herself (pictured above) that supposedly turned up later in a cottage near there. Whether the painting is really of Theodosia or not, it’s now called “The Nag’s Head Portrait of Theodosia Burr” and is on display in the Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington, Connecticut.
After college, Whit buys a boat and asks Sam and Liv to join him in a treasure hunting charter business. FCC Treasure Tours (the initials represent their last names) is located in Wilmington, which Marks says allowed her to stay on the coast and picture a city she loves in her mind. “Wilmington is very romantic and it brought out all of those feelings,” she adds. Unfortunately, the business goes south, but Liv and Whit do reunite and spark their romance here. Whit has Liv over for dinner at his Riverwalk apartment. “They ate on the balcony under a full moon,” then go for a boat ride on the Cape Fear River.
Photo credits: Featured image of Nag’s Head, Topsail Beach, Cape Hatteras, Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum and Wilmington Riverwalk courtesy of VisitNC.com.