Longtime Narratively contributor Dylan Taylor-Lehman has a passion for stories of the strange, unusual, and straight-up weird. For Narratively, Taylor-Lehman has written about bigfoot chasers, supreme court justices gone wild, treasure at the bottom of the sea — and the plot against the principality of Sealand. Now, he’s brought that last topic to an entirely new level, writing the definitive story of a tiny nation whose population can usually be counted in the single digits. Taylor-Lehman’s second book, “Sealand: The True Story of the World’s Most Stubborn Micronation and its Eccentric Royal Family,” comes out June 9.
Narratively: This book devotes its 300+ pages to the tumultuous history of Sealand, the military platform turned semi-sovereign micronation off the coast of England. How did you land on this topic, and what makes Sealand so compelling to you?
Dylan Taylor-Lehman: Anybody who really goes out of their way to live life on their own terms makes for a pretty inspiring tale. This family behind Sealand has done that for themselves, definitely. Sealand’s longevity is pretty impressive too: over almost 53 years at this point. It’s had really high financial and emotional expenses for the family, so the fact that they’re continuing to do this after so long is a pretty interesting aspect of the story too.
I realized that aside from Prince Michael’s autobiography, there wasn’t a longform exploration of the topic of the kind that I would want to read. So I felt like that was a good opportunity to try to integrate myself into the Sealand story, and build a fun assignment for myself.
Narratively: This book, along with your previous book and much of your freelance work, is about bizarre, obscure moments and places in political history. How do you find your stories? What’s your research process like?
Taylor-Lehman: I really like knowing the behind-the-scenes aspects of things. Any way I’m able to poke my nose into a world that I’m not familiar with, that’s pretty engaging to me. I tend to find things that other people might find to be boring fairly interesting, so I think that allows me to dig into some stories that might otherwise go overlooked.
For this book, I scoured the internet for every possible thing I could find about Sealand: scholarly journals about maritime law, German newspapers, Slovenian newspapers. This professor named Dr. James Grimmelman has written about Sealand extensively. He was nice enough to give me access to all his files. That really helped, because he had done a lot of work getting stuff from the British National Archives. I got that way ahead of time, which helped me build the skeleton of all this.
Eventually, I pestered my way into getting an interview with the Sealand family. Since Prince Michael has his own book out, he was initially hesitant to contribute to what might be a competing publication.
Narratively: How did you convince him?
Taylor-Lehman: His is a first-person memoir, while this is more of a journalistic counterpart. It fills in some of the gaps. I tried to make it more like a companion to the book he already wrote. I eventually met up with him. The first thing Michael said to me—he opened his apartment door, and he goes, “ah, my nemesis.” And I was like, “oh no!” because like I said, I’d been pestering him for a long time. But he was super nice, and his sons are awesome. Then his son, James, said, “well, do you want to go to Sealand?”
Narratively: You went, right?
Taylor-Lehman: Yeah! It really was like a dream come true, because I’d been following this so long that I could picture every corner of the country and I just wanted to see it for myself.
Narratively: In one section of the book, you describe your trip to MicroCon — a convention of small and unrecognized nations, ranging from ones like Sealand to a constituted nation made up of small obsidian stones that a woman carries around in her pocket. What was that like?
Taylor-Lehman: You know, that was one of the most lighthearted and innocent joys of this whole experience. Most of the micronations there, they don’t have pretensions of being an actual country. They aren’t fighting for genuine independence. So it’s somewhat distinct from Sealand’s example, where they do have, at least on paper, laws and precedent backing up what they’re trying to do.
I’ve been to a Star Wars convention, and this was honestly more like that. It’s people inhabiting this role and getting this chance to play-act diplomacy. It was effectively like cosplaying the United Nations. So that was really heartwarming.
Narratively: Given the current political climate, do you think another Sealand could happen today? Or is it now a thing of the past?
Taylor-Lehman: Far into the future, given the effects of climate change — there are going to have to be alternate modes of nation-building. I think it’s not too far out of the realm of possibility to imagine something like vast floating cities. I don’t know how sustainable something like Sealand would be, because it’s so small, but kind of magnifying that idea on a much bigger scale
I’ve been reading a bit about “sea-steading,” and there are people who are very serious about this approach to things. They do tend to be libertarians, which I don’t have a lot in common with, but I do appreciate this notion of living in these communities outside of international law.
Narratively: What’s next for you after finishing up with Sealand?
Taylor-Lehman: I’m well into what will hopefully be my next book! I lived in El Paso, Texas for a while, and got to know a guy named Jay J. Armes, who is now 87 years old. He’s been a private eye for 60 years, and he has two metal hooks for hands — he blew off his hands playing with dynamite as a kid, as you do. He’s just been this larger-than-life, super flamboyant private eye for decades. I’ve been working on a biography about him. So that’s my next thing. (Editor’s Note: Look for a Narratively piece on Jay J. Armes soon, too!)
To spotlight all the exciting book projects out there by Narratively contributors, including Dylan Taylor-Lehman’s riveting book Sealand: The True Story of the World’s Most Stubborn Micronation and Its Eccentric Royal Family. we just created The Narratively Bookshop. When you buy any book from the Narratively Bookshop, 10% of the purchase price goes to Narratively, helping us publish lots more great stories, and another 10% goes to supporting independent bookstores.