Ricky Conlin never found proof of a Naval Academy urban legend, so he wrote the story of the most wicked midshipman himself.
The Black N club is said to be made up of mids who receive so many demerits they risk getting kicked out. The baddest of them all, a mid earning three of the academy’s scarlet letter, is only known to exist in rumors. In his trilogy, Conlin tells the story of that mythical mid, a character named Mick McGee. The first book, “The Black N,” is a fictional account of the 1995 drug scandal where dozens of midshipmen were caught using and selling drugs such as LSD and marijuana. The second book in the series, “Sex in the Hall” was published last month and describes a culture of ingrained sexism and forbidden relationships.
Conlin spoke with The Capital about getting into trouble and getting into the mindset of female mids.
What did you learn from writing the first Black N book that helped with writing this one?
Both of the books in the trilogy I’m working on, I wanted to have a relative level of realism and in making things hyperrealistic at times and not wanting to sugarcoat or downplay anything, there’s a certain level of vulnerability that comes with that. The truth can be a tough story to tell and in doing that in Black N there’s a vulnerability of “how are people going to take this?” What I learned from the first one was just to be honest. Just be yourself. Tell the story as it is. And if you’re honest about it and you’re trying to be true to yourself and true to what you want to convey, you can stand tall on that.
Did you get any pushback from telling those stories?
There’s a whole fan base that loves salacious details of midshipmen behaving badly, and then, of course, there are going to be people that don’t. I didn’t hear anybody say “That’s exaggerated,” or “That’s not realistic.” I think if there was any push back on the first book, there were people who said something along the lines of “Don’t glorify bad behavior, don’t air our dirty laundry.” I’ve never thought that this book was about airing dirty laundry or glorifying bad behavior. I think quite the contrary for the first book and even more so for this book, I wanted to paint the picture of what midshipmen went through. In “Sex in the Hall,” a big piece of me wanting to write that book was me having something to say: the women of the Naval Academy are really courageous people.
How do you put yourself in the frame of mind of a woman midshipman?
I really wanted to paint the picture that these ladies were courageous and brave and what they did took quite a bit of grit and gumption. I wanted to write the story as truthfully and accurately (as possible), even if it takes you to uncomfortable places.
I vetted ideas and talked to women midshipmen, not just in the writing process but… My wife is a former naval officer herself. She didn’t go to the academy but she was an officer. A lot of the challenges and experiences of women officers and women at the Naval Academy are unique. I put on my listening cap and really tried to not just listen but as I was going through the writing process to validate things and have them react to it. My production staff at Dream Oak Publishing is an all-woman staff. I thought that was an enormous advantage. I think as you get into the book and see some of the narratives from a woman’s point of view, I was borderline obsessive in that I got that right and that it was as genuine and true to form as possible.
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What did you mean in your intro note: “To the future brigade of Midshipmen, know that some of your best future heroes are on restriction?"
That quote isn’t to glorify the anti-hero or glorify bad behavior, but rather to say it’s OK to be a substandard midshipman… Sometimes it’s the grit and the fortitude to stick it through and to learn from your mistakes. The proof is in the pudding that there were multiple graduates of the Naval Academy that did serve restriction and did get black Ns and went on to do tremendous things in the fleet. John McCain is one of those people, Robert Heinlein — the father of science fiction — is one of those people. Several people that I lived with have gone on to command ships and do great things of their own when in their midshipman years that would be the last thing you would have expected from them.
How does this book fit into the current context of the multiple recent sexual assault accusations at the academy?
I think the Naval Academy has improved incrementally — and dare I say a good amount since I went there — but there’s still room to grow. In writing “Sex in the Hall,” that book does go to some uncomfortable places. Some of the things in that book mirror some of the things you read in these unfortunate headlines. In getting to fictionally tackle some of these tough conversations, you get a chance for an opportunity for something to say about it. What drives me to write these books is having that platform to talk about the things I feel passionately about. As an alumnus of the Naval Academy, I’m just very gracious to have that opportunity.
I am about a third of the way through the third book: “Honor Code.” This third book is going to tackle two predominant themes: the first is the midshipman honor system and secondly, I’m going to attempt to tackle the issue of race at the Naval Academy. I think in the spirit of what I’ve tried to do in the second book about gender, it’s a book of empowerment and if I do it right, a book meant to honor and respect the grit of the people who take on those challenges that are unique.