MARBLEHEAD — For a group of people who were often criminals and murderers on the high seas, pirates have always held a firm grasp on our imaginations, sense of adventure and lexicon.
There was “Long John Silver” in “Treasure Island.” Or “The Pirates of the Caribbean,” and “The Pirates of Penzance,” which even penetrated the world of high opera.
Jimmy Buffett got into the act with “A Pirate Looks at 40.” Illegally downloading software and using it, without a license, is called “pirating.”
And the rogues of the sea even found their way into professional sports, with teams such as the Pittsburgh Pirates in baseball and the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Now, Marblehead’s Eric Jay Dolin — who began his professional life as an environmental engineer and took an unlikely journey into the life of writing non-fiction books — is out with his latest, “Black Flags, Blue Waters,” which is billed as “an epic history of America’s Most Notorious Pirates.”
If that seems like a fun topic to pursue, that’s because it is. His son and daughter, now grown, always found the topics of his books rather dry. But when Dolin floated the idea about doing his next book about pirates, they were all ears.
“My kids (Harry and Lily) are proud of me,” Dolin said, “but they wouldn’t read any of my books. When I asked them about the idea of writing about pirates, their eyes just lit up.”
Dolin’s books cover a wide variety of topics, from whaling to duck stamps to lighthouses. Aside from their eclectic nature, they mark a clear path from his beginnings writing about the National Fish and Wildlife Services (as part of a series explaining various positions in the U.S. government) through cleaning up the Boston Harbor to national wildlife refuges.
He came by his writing curiously.
He wanted to be a malacologist (a seashell scientist), but realized he really didn’t like being in a lab. And no matter what he did, from his Ph. D. dissertation through the various jobs he held in an attempt to find out what he really wanted to do, he always found he liked the writing part best.
“I once wrote 150 pages on mollusks on Long Island Sound,” he said. “I’ve written articles for the Washington Post on being a stay-at-home dad.”
Finally, he told his wife, Jennifer Rooks (whose family owned and operated Rooks Department Stores) that he wanted to write for a living.
“She has always supported me,” he said. “And she agreed that I should try.”
In the beginning, writing wasn’t self-sustaining, and he had to take jobs to supplement his income. They’d lived up and down the east coast, until they finally settled in Marblehead.
Dolin kept writing books, and while he didn’t get rich, or even famous, they made money — until one day his wife told him they were doing well enough for him to stop working his day job so he could concentrate on writing.
His latest book, due out in September, is set against the backdrop of the Age of Exploration, and reveals a part of American history spanning the late 1600s to the early 18th century.
Dolin writes that in the beginning, colonists supported pirates as an early display of resistance to the British crown. Later, as their interests started to become more and more threatened, that support turned to violent opposition.
There are some familiar names in the book, including Blackbeard, Captain Kidd and Edward Low. Also featured prominently are the colonists who ended up fighting the pirates, such as John Winthrop, Cotton Mather and a young Benjamin Franklin.
While most writers confine their material to what they know best, Dolin picks topics about when he knows little. That way, he said, he can take the time to do his research and learn without any preconceived notions in his head.
“Writing a book involves a certain kind of temperament,” he said. “And a certain kind of skill. It’s a great thing to be able to do, but like most jobs, it’s not that easy.
“I’ve always been fairly driven, whatever the given project is,” Dolin said.
Part of writing a book, Dolin said, is promoting it.
“You have to get the word out,” he said. “If you don’t do it, who is?”
Toward that end, he will be speaking and signing books in several locations throughout the area once “Black Flags, Blue Waters” is released in September. The sites include the Corinthian Yacht Club in Marblehead on Sept. 21 and the Abbot Public Library on the 26th; two stops in Salem, one at the Salem Literary Festival Sept. 22 and again at Wicked Good Books the same day; and the Swampscott Public Library Oct. 24.