The news I alluded to earlier was that after 16 years I finally finished something I started! Namely … Fish.
I think it was in the summer of 1994 that I holed up in a little Studio Apartment on Capitol Hill in Seattle for a summer and a half. It was the first place I lived that wasn’t a hostel after the beginning of 1989, when I started fishing in Alaska. From 1989 – 1994 I just traveled around the country and world, staying in hostels and camping, returning to a storage unit in Seattle where I had a duffel bag of fishing clothes, which I would drag up to the boats for another tour.
But in the summer of 1994 I wanted to see what it would be like to live in a place for months on end, and so I found a nice little studio in a brick building with hardwood floors. I enrolled in a couple of acting classes at the UW, a couple of private art classes from an artist in Pioneer Square, and a mystery writing class at the University of Washington extension taught by Stephen Greenleaf, a California author.
The other thing I did was write a book. The idea of writing the book came after one morning when I read a particularly interesting article in the NY Review of Books by Jonathan Raban. It occurred to me that he lived in Seattle, probably just around the corner from me, and so I opened the phone book and dialed his number (back then I suppose he felt sufficiently anonymous to list himself — he probably unlisted himself shortly after!). Knowing his interest in the sea, I invited him down to Pier 91 for an insider’s tour of a factory trawler. I figured his innate curiosity would overcome any doubts he might have about receiving an unsolicited phone call from some fan. I was right, and he met me there the next day.
He was surprisingly tall — the image I had created in my mind from reading his books, the first one when I was about 15, about his trip down the Mississippi — was one of an enormously clever, humorous, and impish personality. In person he was a bit more regal than I imagined he would have been. His language was what you might expect from someone educated in the best schools of England — and his manner was that of a perfect gentleman. I talked about the sub-culture of the factory trawlers in Alaska, particularly the relationship between the Norwegian immigrants who were brought in on visas to teach the Americans how to fish, and those Americans who were the ostensible students — something he was particularly interested in. When I suggested that this topic might be one that he would be interested in writing about, he cocked an eyebrow and said, “It’s YOU that should write about it, not me …”
That brief conversation stuck with me, and later that summer I dove into a plot that I had been thinking about — a mystery set on a factory trawler. For the ensuing 25 days I wrote about ten pages a day. My days went like this:
6:30 Wake — write until 8
8:00 — breakfast in a cafe down the street
9:00 – 1:00 PM write
1:00 – 3:00 — walk to the Post Office box that I had in the U district, and back.
3:00 – 7:00 – write
7:00 – 8:00 eat at a restaurant
8:00 – midnight — write.
So, writing about 12 hours a day. I did this every single day for about 25 days (walking to the PO Box on Sunday was replaced with walking to a bar that served good microbrews) and during one of the walks I saw a poster or ad for the mystery writing class at the UW extension. At the end of the summer I took the class, and was able to let Stephen Greenleaf read it as part of the class. He said it was “good enough to publish” but it needed a “frame.” He explained how to write one, but I never got a chance to write it. I just put it on a shelf.
14 years later, in 2008, I found the file on an old computer and started working on the book. The reason, of course, was the kids. I wanted SOMETHING to leave behind, even if it was a silly mystery. I first wrote a frame for it, then I ended up rewriting large parts of it. I changed the sidekick character from a young black man from New Orleans to a Samoan fisherman, and I added some details here and there. But, in general, I was surprised by the way the story had held up.
It took all of two years, but I worked out the logistics of self-publishing — actually started a publishing company by buying my own ISBN numbers — and the result is a 230-page murder mystery named “Fish.” It was hard, hard work — I think I went through four Proof stages. I can think of fewer painful tasks than to proofread a book you have written. After the fourth time reading it you are so sick of it that you cannot imagine anyone reading it, much less buying it.
But what a great feeling to be DONE.