Juliet E. McKenna's love of fantasy, myth and history led naturally to studying Classics at St Hilda's College, Oxford. After she made a career change from personnel management to combine motherhood with book-selling for Ottakar's, her debut novel, The Thief's Gamble, was published in 1999. Her twelfth book, Banners in the Wind, has just concluded the Lescari Civil Wars trilogy, simultaneously published in the UK and US. She's now working on a new series. Also the author of assorted shorter fiction, Juliet writes regular articles and reviews for web and print magazines. She has taught creative writing workshops and seminars since 2003. Here she discusses Linda Greenlaw's The Hungry Ocean.
Juliet E. McKenna on The Hungry Ocean by Linda Greenlaw
Until the publication of Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm no one much cared that Linda Greenlaw was the only female captain of a swordfishing boat working the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. After the success of Junger's book, curiosity about Linda's life prompted her to tell her own story. I heard her interviewed on Radio 4's Woman's Hour and promptly went in search of The Hungry Ocean. I found it utterly absorbing.
The focus is primarily on one fishing trip; a typical month long voyage into the North Atlantic on the Hannah Boden with her crew of five. The captain's responsibilities are keeping the crew focused, staying alert to the ship's seaworthiness and the weather, and returning safely to port, ideally with a hold full of fish to cover all the costs and pay everybody's wages.
The book opens with Linda getting a phone call from Bob Brown, owner of the Andrea Gail, the ship lost in that appalling 'perfect' storm. That conversation prompts some observations on her employer for five years who was, to say the least, a contentious figure in the East Coast fishing industry. Thus in the first few pages, we get as much insight into Linda Greenlaw as she analyses Brown's reputation and her own working relationship with him. Pragmatic is the word that springs to mind. Subsequent portraits of her crew are similarly clear-eyed.
As the Hannah Boden prepares for sea, and throughout the voyage, the reader learns an awful lot of the fine detail of a commercial fisherman's life; the practicalities, the economics for the individual and the ship owners, the vital role of modern technology; sonar, Doppler and GPS. Some readers will consider this an awful prospect but I found it fascinating. Not the precise care of the engine, or the batteries or the ice machine, but the way all these concerns reflect the demands of this life. Captain and crew must pay constant attention to detail and routine as they sail further and further beyond reach of immediate help.
Then there's the loneliness. The importance of decent food. The perils of personality clashes which the captain must nip in the bud. All this while still commanding the crew's respect as well as remaining approachable. Above all, there is the knowledge that if they don't catch fish, no one gets paid. The better the catch, the bigger the paycheck. So at sea, 20-hour days are the norm. Work's never postponed because of darkness and rarely delayed for the weather. A swordfisherman must earn a year's pay in the four- or five-month season. That's the prospect ahead as the ship pulls away from the dock.
The story of this particular trip is interspersed with anecdote and reflection, in chapters entitled 'mug up' - the fisherman's term for a coffee break snatched in the middle of a day or night's work. Thus Linda explores her life as a woman in a male-dominated world, recalls old seadogs' superstitions, discusses the past and the future for the fishing industry. She describes her own childhood as blissful and unique. Given the eloquence of her recollections of watching fishing boats as a child, of exploring rock pools and collecting shellfish, it's no surprise that she went to sea herself, even if she could only do that as a cook initially. Just for a year, she promised her parents. Then she'd go to law school. Not so far, she hasn't.
This is no cosy memoir; the first of these digressions begins the story of an earlier fishing trip where she made some notably bad decisions. Together with the main narrative, it casts an unflattering light on the alcohol-fuelled life of many fishermen. But Linda's not offering criticism, merely telling it like it is: as when she explains why she not only fired a man for sleeping on watch but woke him with a slap in the face and a mouthful of profanity; as she details where co-operation between the fishing ships ends and serious rivalry begins; how all the modern technology sits alongside the potentially lethal dangers of this life; the medieval remedies for toothache out at sea far from a dentist.
This is only one of many books in my study telling different people's stories, from different decades, even different centuries. They range from In Search of the Red Slave, the story of teenaged Robert Drury shipwrecked off Madagascar in 1701, through Samurai William and The Floating Brothel to David Attenborough's Zoo Quest books from the 1950s, and more besides.
I read these books for their own sake and because 'just write what you know' is singularly useless advice when writing SF and Fantasy. Yes, like all authors, we draw on our own experiences to give our characters breadth and depth. But to give an invented world three dimensions to draw the reader in, to convince them to follow you into the fantastic, to believe in the magic and the monsters? We need fuel to fire the imagination. Fortunately so much wonderful non-fiction now explores different lives, past and present. So much material to sift and select and reshape with lateral thinking. I haven't written about any fishing trips in my books but more than one female captain of mercenaries owes a debt to Linda Greenlaw.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]