Archive for July, 2008

The Calm Before the Calm?

Thursday, July 31st, 2008

Advance copies of Seaborn arrived yesterday.  I tore open the package and there it was, an object that I can caress and inspect and pore over. But the arrival of the book is also fraught with anxiety: Will it measure up to my vision? What will I find lacking? What will I wish that I had removed or expanded or otherwise revised? What —gulp—typos will I find? No matter: The book as I held it in my hands became a revered fetish.  The editors and designer and copyeditors and printer and everyone else who worked on the book did themselves proud.  And now I will suspend my knowledge of writing it and try to read it as if I had just found it washed up on the beach like a treasure.

The advance copies of the book may have arrived, but this period before publication is a kind of limbo. As my friend Stona Fitch might say, is this “the calm before the calm”? “The calm” before whatever may happen regarding interest in the book is deceptive, though. Even before the book comes out, my publisher and I are working to drum up awareness of it. Arranging book signings, preparing a direct mail campaign, talking about the book to anyone who’ll listen…it’s all happening in a crescendo of activity as the publication date nears.

So while there’s a somewhat feverish amount of activity, there’s also a sense of anticipation and trepidation intensified by the wait. It reminds me of what happens when you’re at sea: You always need to be prepared because when something finally happens, it happens fast, as in this piece.



I look up. The sail hangs limp. In my loose grip, the tiller swings free. I let the mainsheet slither out of my fingers and gather on the deck. Beside me in the cockpit, you yawn and stretch and close your eyes. There’s nothing to do now that the breeze has quit but wait for it to return. But will it?

We’ve made it all the way out to Seal Rocks, at low tide a scattering of broken black teeth off Scraggy Neck. I scan the water to gauge the direction and speed of our drift. Beside us the buoy leans as though rooted to the lenslike surface, though curlicues of current unfurl in its wake. I can see we’ll float past it fast, outward. Miles beyond, on the widening silver blue of Buzzards Bay, Cleveland Ledge Light juts from the expanse of water like a castle tower in a dreamscape, a structure surreal enough to have been painted by de Chirico.

We ghost beyond the buoy, listening, watching, waiting: The rustle and slap of the sail, the yaw of the boat, the smack of the water’s lips against the hull, the air infused with the smell of salt and seaweed, the long view across the water to the opposite shore, the open horizon beyond the light, the wheel of sky spreading into infinity…all of it has draped a hush over us.

“Look where we’re drifting,” I say, and you nod, a shadow of concern crossing your face. The words sound loud for a moment, but the vastness gulps them before they can echo, showing us how minuscule our boat is, balanced between sea and sky. We rock softly on a slow heave, and I can feel it flutter inside me, a wingbeat in my stomach: a pulse of fear, elation, and wonder. The current carries us outward, faster——I can see the dimples on the water behind us and hear an occasional rippling sound——and now the buoy drops farther astern.

I sit up. “Better turn us around,” I say, working the rudder back and forth like a sweep to bring our bow around to point for home. We wait, still drifting outward on the ebbing tide, the bay widening, our boat shrinking. The buoy now lies ahead of us, though I can see it shrinking, too.

I know what you’re thinking: What will we do if we keep drifting farther out, out into the shipping channel? From the corner of my eye, I see you glance at me. I can always paddle, and I think that maybe I should fish the paddle out from underneath the deck, just in case. But would that be an admission, the first step into panic?

We bob. I look around. The sail slats. In the distance, I can see a barge, riding high, pushed by a tugboat, far out in the bay. What course is he on, I wonder, and I think about the paddle again. I check the sail, then look back out at the barge. In those few seconds it has taken on substance, and now I can see the white mustache of its bow wake. Is that its splash and swish I hear? I glance at you and make up my mind: It’s time to paddle.

But when I lean forward to reach under the deck, I feel a caress on my cheek, and I turn to see behind us a patch of water stippled like gooseflesh. I look up at the masthead to see our wind indicator inch one way, then the other, as if on the scent, then spin around and rivet on a point off our starboard stern. I push the boom out with a clatter of rigging, take up the sheet, and grip the tiller as the breeze breathes over us. I can feel the hands of the wind take hold of our boat and push us ahead heavily at first until we gain momentum. Soon we‘re slipping over the blue green water, our wake burbling behind us, the barge and tugboat steaming far astern. I see you settle back against the combing and smile to the sky.

The boat embraces the breeze, our sail belling out, lines taut, and we pass the buoy in smart fashion, the rocks safely off to port. You still have your eyes closed. Are you asleep, relieved and rocked by the cradle of the boat?

I look back at the lighthouse in its lonesome strangeness. Thankful as I am for the homeward breeze, a wave of longing comes over me. Out there is where I secretly want to be, out there and beyond, where the pulse, the wingbeat of my sea-swept dreams awaits.  


Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008

Last week we spent a few days on Nantucket. One morning, my son buzzed off on a solo bicycle expedition while my wife and daughter went shopping. So I found a sandy point overlooking the harbor and the town dock to spend some time doing one of my favorite activities: scribbling with my fountain pen in my notebook. Here’s what I wrote, slightly edited:

A light easterly breeze ruffles the water on the mooring field I’m facing, keeping me somewhat cool in spite of the unadulterated sunshine pouring forth from a pool-blue sky showing a single line of puffy clouds along the horizon. I’ve taken off my hiking shoes and now I wriggle my toes in the cool sand in the shade cast by the picnic table. Catching my eye as it crosses the water beyond the docks is a catboat with a royal blue sail, and beyond it, behind larger yawls and ketches and sloops and motorboats, I see another catboat about the size and make of Piper, the boat Luke and his father sail in Seaborn. I had this harbor in mind when I wrote the scene when they arrive in their first anchorage.  I can picture them now, out on that catboat, groping their way within themselves along a course they’re unsure of.

That wasn’t all I wrote while I sat facing the harbor, but what strikes me about it now is how fluid the boundaries between imagination, memory, and reality are. I sat looking at a real harbor with real sunshine burning down on me. I could envision products of my imagination as real people aboard one of the boats. And one of the reasons I imagined them in the first place was the past when I had visited the harbor before, once mooring there with my family during a dank gale. So in a sense I was a time traveling ghost even as I sat there, only my hand moving across the page. I lived in three dimensions at once.

Later, when my wife asked me what I’d been doing, I said, “Oh, just looking at the boats.” 

By the way, on July 15 Kirkus gave Seaborn excellent marks overall.

About Seaborn

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008

One of my greatest fears when I was a deckhand on commercial fishing vessels was to wake up to find myself alone on the boat, the skipper having been washed overboard. The prospect haunted me. When we were steaming out at night, headed offshore, and I was off watch, down in the cabin on my bunk, sometimes I would climb back into the pilothouse to check to see if he was still at the wheel.


For Luke Emerson, the sixteen-year-old narrator of Seaborn, finding himself alone on a boat is real. Just before the family’s annual summer sailing trip, Luke’s mother unexpectedly leaves. Luke’s father decides to take the trip anyway. Luke now must face an angry and confused father—and his own turmoil. Then a storm catches them, and Luke’s father is swept overboard. Luke must figure out how to survive on a wrecked sailboat far at sea—alone, unprepared, and terrified.


People have asked me if my stories are autobiographical. Many of my stories spring from personal experience, and if that is the definition of autobiographical, then I would say that a great many of them are. But Seaborn is among many stories of mine that do not confine themselves to lived experience. True, I’ve drawn on my sailing and fishing experience, my love and awe of the sea, to write the novel. And while Luke is not me, I recognize in him many of my quirks and sensibilities when I was his age. But I have been lucky enough never to have faced the trials he must face alone. So in a sense many of my stories, especially Seaborn, are lived inventions, built of the ribs and planks of my life but driven by the sails of my imagination.



A book undergoes many stages in its metamorphosis from idea and manuscript to galley and printed hardcover. Right now Seaborn is in its final stage called bluelines or blues before it goes to press. When will we see copies? Soon, so stay tuned.