Michael Parker smiles as he looks into the camera.

Of all the characters in Michael Parker’s new novel, the pirates caused him the most trouble.

“I couldn’t get the dialogue right,” he says. “I didn’t want it to be ‘The Pirates of the Caribbean.’ I wanted it to have the feel of another time and space.”

His novel, “The Watery Part of the World,” uses pirates to explain the 1813 disappearance of Theodosia Burr Alston, daughter of Vice President Aaron Burr. He also weaves in the story of two white women and one African-American man who, more than 150 years later, become the last inhabitants of the same island where Theodosia establishes a new life.

Anytime someone disappears people are interested. You need a good mystery.

Released in April, the book has drawn a great deal of national publicity. It’s been reviewed by The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and People magazine just to name a few, and was also included in Entertainment Weekly’s Must List for the week of May 16.

“I’m really pleased with all the publicity,” Parker says. The UNCG creative writing professor attributes the attention to the historical subject matter and the shift between the past and more modern day. “Anytime someone disappears people are interested. You need a good mystery.”

The story of Theodosia Burr Alston’s disappearance first struck him when he read “Myths and Legends of North Carolina” to his daughter when she was young. Theodosia, who was married to South Carolina’s governor, was sailing from South Carolina to New York to meet up with her father. But she never arrived. It has been supposed that she died in a shipwreck off the Outer Banks.

But what if she didn’t? “For a fiction writer it’s unexplored territory,” Parker says. “The writer has complete control over what happens next. The fact that she disappeared made her perfect. I was able to transform her into who I wanted her to be.”

In his first attempt to tell her story, Parker wrote 100 pages and put it aside. The language felt stiff and uncomfortable, he says.

The other half of the novel originated from a short story he wrote years ago called “Off Island” about the last three inhabitants of Portsmouth Island. While that story was published, it still felt unfinished to him.

When he reworked the two pieces and put them together, he found the story he wanted to tell.

While he researched Theodosia Burr and her father, the Eastern North Carolina native relied on memory to map the feel of the ocean and coastal life. In the book, one character notes: “It was winter, clouds hugging the coast to where she could not see thirty feet. She could hear the sea but all that was visible was the final roll of water on sand, the part that delivered and took away.”

“The landscape is important to me,” Parker says. “The way they (the characters) see the island is the key to their personality.”

And while in some ways the book is a departure from his novels set in the 1950s (“Hello Down There”) or the 1970s (“If You Want Me to Stay”), it still grapples with some of the same ideas.

“All my books are variations on one theme: people who are trying to square their vision of reality with the rest of the world; aligning their inner life with what culture and society says is real.”

His next novel is set in modern-day Texas. He spent the fall working on the novel in Texas and plans to go back to make the finishing touches.

When writing, he doesn’t have a pre-set idea of where the story will take him.

“I like to find my way as I go,” he says. “I want to discover along with the reader. If I don’t discover anything, they’re not going to discover anything.”

Photography by Chris English, University Relations