When publishers started courting swordfish boat captain Linda Greenlaw more than a decade ago, she wasn’t interested in writing a book. As captain of the commercial swordfishing vessel "The Hannah Boden," Greenlaw was a major character in Sebastian Junger’s 1997 bestseller The Perfect Storm. Female deep sea captains are a rare species, and after publishers kept bombarding her with offers, Greenlaw realized that The Perfect Storm gave her an opportunity she’d be silly to reject.
Her first book—The Hungry Ocean, published in 2000—was a runaway hit. Nine books later, she spends more time writing than she does deep sea fishing (though she still goes out on day-long fishing trips closer to her home on tiny Isle au Haut, off the coast of Maine). Greenlaw’s latest book, Lifesaving Lessons, is about how she ended up raising a troubled teenager after years of solitary living on sea and on land. It’s a moving account of becoming an unexpected mother and is told in Greenlaw’s straightforward yet lyrical style. The reader truly feels the isolation and self-sufficiency required to live in such a remote part of Maine a boat ride away from everyday luxuries.
Greenlaw spoke to Co.Create about how that isolation is both inspiring and maddening, how to make the most of a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and how hauling lobster traps gets her creative juices flowing.
I’ve always had to be really disciplined. Ninety percent of my work experience is fishing. I’m used to saying, “Hey, see you later,” and being away from everyone for 30 to 90 days. Since I’m used to being cut off from the world, having to cut myself off for four to five hours [to write], it’s not like jumping on a boat and leaving for 90 days.
The things I love about being on the island or at sea are also the things I dislike. The solitude can be a little bit overwhelming or overbearing. I find the ruggedness and the solitude stimulating, but I also find human interaction very stimulating. I need a bit of both. There are just writers who can lock themselves away and pour a book out. I need to be out and about both with nature and human nature.
The one lesson I took from fishing that applies to every bit of my life, whether it applies to writing or every day things, is this sense of eternal optimism. In fishing, it’s the next trip, the next moon, when the tide changes, around the next corner there’s always going to be a sunny day, or better fishing. Eternal optimism is a way of coping with bad weather and low morale. You always have to be looking for the next whatever it is. It’s the same thing with writing: If I’m feeling particularly challenged by something I’m working on, I never give up on it. I am confident I could find a solution or resolution.
My experience [as an author] is really unique. I never had any intentions or desires or aspirations to write. Because I was portrayed so generously by Sebastian Junger in The Perfect Storm, I was invited to write my first book. [Editors told me], “We were intrigued by this female fisherman thing you have going on.” At first I was absolutely not interested, but they were offering me money, and I had to understand the opportunity I had been handed. I was very fortunate to do this, and nobody was more surprised than I was when The Hungry Ocean became a best seller. Nobody was more surprised than I was when it led to book number two, and then to book number three, and now to number nine [Lifesaving Lessons], which will be released next month. It’s been a great opportunity and it has been a great deal of work.
I love promoting the books, but the writing process I don’t enjoy at all. I enjoy the travel, I like talking about my work. Most of my promotional tours, people are interested in my fishing life, so I’ll get the opportunity to tell fishing stories that I really love.
I am a morning person so most of the writing I do is in the morning. I get up, I put on a pot of coffee. If I’m alone, I spread out my stuff on the kitchen table, and I work hopefully uninterrupted until around lunchtime. I get up pretty early—usually I’m writing by six.
I’ve trained my family and friends to not disturb me while I’m writing. I talk to my mother and sister every day on the phone, but they know when I’m working on a book, they can’t call until the afternoon. I don’t enjoy writing at all, I’m really weird about it. I need no one to come knock on the door, because I’ll gladly take any distraction.
If I’m working on a book I treat it like I would my fishing. I need to eat, breathe, and sleep the writing, or it just isn’t good. I need tunnel vision, really single focus. Even when I’m not sitting down and writing, the rest of the day I’m still working on it in my head. When I’m hauling lobster traps in the afternoon, it’s a very mindless activity for me. It’s just physical, and I spend that time thinking about what I’m working on the next morning. I don’t sit down and wonder what I’m going to write about. Often I’ve already worked out the first paragraph in my head, to the point of it being really polished. I’m off and running the second I sit down to write.
[Image: Flickr user Emrys Roberts]