I’m excited to be back with you today to present and share our interview with noted North Carolina author, filmmaker and historian, Kevin Duffus. Mr. Duffus has had quite a career and has made numerous historical discoveries. These are just a few:
- When he was 17 years old, he found, explored, and identified a sunken Confederate gunboat. He hasnʼt been the same since.
- In 2002, he solved what was called “the greatest mystery of American lighthouse history” and found the 6,000-lb., 1853 Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Fresnel lens missing since the Civil War.
- His book, The Lost Light—A Civil War Mystery, follows the incredible 150-year odyssey of the lens.
- In 2012, Kevin wrote and published War Zone—World War Two Off the North Carolina Coast.
- He is also the author of Shipwrecks of the Outer Banks—An Illustrated Guide, and the controversial and groundbreaking The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate.
In 2013, the North Carolina Humanities Council presented Kevin with an award for Excellence in the Public Humanities. In October 2014, the North Carolina Society of Historians named Kevin, NC Historian of the Year. WRAL-TVʼs Bill Leslie called Kevin, the “Indiana Jones” of North Carolina History.
At this year’s conference Mr. Duffus will be presenting a worshop titled:
Solving Historical Mysteries—Research, Analysis, and Non-Fiction Writing
For a complete list of books and films go to http://www.kevinduffus.com
And now our interview with Kevin Duffus:
Question: At 17 you found a Confederate gun boat, how did that experience influence your career?
Finding and solving the mysterious origins of the gunboat in Chicod Creek seven miles west of Washington in 1972 was a watershed event in my life—one of four or five inflection points I can single out in retrospect that altered the course of my life for decades to come. For the first time in my young life, I began to sense and embrace the residual energy of the past. Beneath those coffee-colored waters of the creek, what I found was not just a sunken warship, it was an artifact marking a place where something momentous had occurred, and yet was still taking place, where the human emotions of excitement, fear, anxiety, and hostility, 110 years later, seemed palpable. I thought I could feel the energy resonate through my skin, like a subsonic vibration—a mystery that somehow seemed alive, tangible, inviting. Who were they, those men who, under great duress, brought that huge, newly-constructed vessel up that narrow, winding creek, in the stormy spring of 1862, and scuttled it purposely? Why did they do it? Why, after 110 years, did no one remember what happened? It was then that, in order to search for answers, I first stepped tentatively across that threshold of the door that leads to the past. But what I didn’t realize then, I was at the same time stepping across a gateway to my future. A letter I found in 1972 among the records of the War of the Rebellion at ECU confirming the origins of the sunken gunboat, 30 years later became the first clue that set me on the path to one of my greatest historical discoveries—solving the longstanding mystery of the lost Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Fresnel lens.
The British historian G.M. Trevelyan wrote: “The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all are gone, one generation vanishing after another…” Of course, we all walk in the myriad footsteps of the departed. They call to those of us who will listen. They want us to know the truth of their history, who they were, what they did, why they did it. I think the best historians are able to travel back in time, to see, feel, and experience the events of the past in their minds and in their hearts, and then share those moments of the past with their readers.
Question: What is it that fascinates you about history?
History is a wellspring of fascinating mysteries—not just because so much of our past has been forgotten or hasn’t been preserved in records, but because so much of our history is buried in myth and falsehoods.
I am particularly intrigued by the maritime history of North Carolina’s barrier islands and capes. For more than four centuries, notable events of American history have occurred along those narrow strips of sand. And, like the sun-bleached timbers of a once majestic 4-masted schooner melting into the sands, the true, accurate accounts of what took place there have blended with the fuzzy, faded memories of those who may have witnessed what happened. Historical truth has merged with the natural embellishments of story telling; facts have been confused with literary inventions, mangled by poor scholarship, rewritten for political purposes or financial gain, cast away for versions more entertaining and humorous. The result: truth and legend, romance and reality, are woven together like a colorful but flawed tapestry of time. Can truth and legend be unwoven? Is it possible to find and identify the threads of historical truth? That’s what interests me, and challenges me about researching and writing about history.
Question: If you could visit another time, where and when and why?
Often I find myself wanting to travel back in time, mostly to ask those who were there what truly happened. The writer Simon Schama once said: “Historians are left forever chasing shadows… doomed to be forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner and out of earshot.” That’s me, constantly chasing shadows, calling to apparitions. I would give anything to be present in the parlor at Tobias Knight’s house at the mouth of Bath Creek when Blackbeard visited him between midnight and 5 a.m. on the 14th of September, 1718, to hear what they discussed. I would love to be in the presence of Washington’s Dr. David T. Tayloe when he arrived at Hibernia Plantation in Granville County in April 1862 with the entire 6,000-lb. Fresnel lens from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse to see where he and his host Col. John Hargrove hid the lens for the remainder of the Civil War. I wish that I could be present in the lifeboat from the torpedoed passenger-freighter City of New York, pitching up and down on 15-foot seas off Cape Hatteras as the 28-year-old woman Desanka Mohorovic delivered a baby boy in late-March 1942.
Now that I think about it, I have experienced those events, at least in my mind and in my heart, and I hope my readers have too.
Sounds interesting, doesn’t it?
If you want a seat, you’ll need to register for the
4th Annual Writers Conference & Competition
at the Turnage Theatre, Main St., Washington, NC, March 18th & 19th.
If not, you might not get a seat in this or one of our other amazing workshops.
Don’t miss out, register today.
For more information or to register for the conference go to our website at: www.pamlicowritersconference.org
See you at the conference!