Sebastian Junger's 1997 bestseller, The Perfect Storm, told the harrowing story of the Andrea Gail, a 72-foot swordfish boat that disappeared in a hurricane in October of 1991. Linda Greenlaw, as captain of the Andrea Gail's sister ship, the Hannah Boden, was the last person in contact with the doomed vessel's crew.
In the introduction to her literary debut, Greenlaw explained, "Junger's portrayal of me as not just the only woman swordboat captain, but 'one of the best captains, period, on the entire East Coast,' afforded me the opportunity to tell the true story of a real, and typical swordfishing trip." The Hungry Ocean would spend more than three months on the New York Times Bestseller list, as curious readers soon discovered that typical entailed, among other things, treacherous weather, uncooperative fish, wildly entertaining shipmates, and the exhausting, mind-bending pressure of ten consecutive 21-hour days.
Another bestseller followed "about family and community and going home after seventeen years away." In The Lobster Chronicles, Greenlaw described her transition to a quieter life on Isle au Haut, a tiny island seven miles off the coast of Maine where almost half of the forty-seven year-round residents are her relations. After almost two decades of swordfishing adventure, downshifting to a two-man lobster boat, and returning home to her family, was not without challenges of its own.
Now, in All Fishermen Are Liars, Greenlaw calls on the storytelling skills of her fellow seamen. "I was sick of just writing about my own experiences captaining fishing expeditions," she tells readers, "so I enlisted a few of my closest (and drunkest) friends to help out." The result is "a crackling collection of fishing yarns" (Kirkus Reviews), a thank-you to the man who gave Greenlaw two opportunities that changed her life, and a memorable tribute to people who go to sea.
Dave: In a note before the first chapter of All Fishermen Are Liars, you explain that you were intrigued by the idea of writing nonfiction accounts of fishermen's tales. "The more I thought about this oxymoron," you write, "the more excited I grew." How did you know where to start? There must have been a thousand stories.
Linda Greenlaw: There are. Anyone who's ever spent any time on the water has a sea story. I did have many, many stories to choose from. What was fun for me was that they didn't all have to be my stories, so I could actually interview people and collect them, which was fun, to be on the other end of the interview.
Everyone wanted to share a disaster story, people dying or the worst weather they'd ever seen, but I didn't want an entire book of disaster stories. I'm intrigued with the Titanic. I like that kind of stuff. But there's so much more about the sea than just disaster. I wanted to write a book with more texture. That made it a little easier to pick and choose. Okay, I don't want all fishing, I don't want all bad weather, I don't want someone to die in every story. I had so many to choose from, some of the different ones stood out.
Dave: In The Hungry Ocean and even going back to The Perfect Storm, we see how dangerous this profession can be. Many people you know through your work are no longer alive. What is that like, then, setting out for a thirty-day trip?
Greenlaw: Fishermen don't dwell on the fact that they're engaging in the most dangerous profession in the country or maybe even in the world. The biggest evidence of the danger is the price of insurance for a boat. But every time you set out, you don't dwell on what if what if what if and remember so and so. If you did that, you'd never leave the dock.
Most of the danger in fishing is due to the weather, and, you know, there are things you can do to better your chances. Obviously, some boats go down for no reason other than bad weather maybe everything had been done right but in most cases the Coast Guard, when they investigate, can point a finger to neglect or poor seamanship or a boat that was not in seaworthy condition. It's not all about luck.
I've had so many people share their opinion with me, thinking I'd been awfully lucky to spend all these years on boats and still be alive to tell about it. Well, I like to think it's more than luck. There are things you do to increase your chances of survival. If I believed luck was a major player in my survival, I'd also have to believe that some day it's going to run out. I wouldn't dare step foot on a boat.
Dave: But it is dangerous and, as you describe in The Hungry Ocean, there's no real guarantee that you're going to walk away with a lot of money. You might go out on a trip and not earn any at all. So why do people get into it? What is the allure?
Greenlaw: Different reasons. I'm always very quick to say that any fisherman who goes offshore just for the money is a very miserable person. You don't always make money. There are trips when the weather's bad or the fishing's bad or both, and you just don't make any money. It happens. It happens more often than I even care to think about.
Other people, also miserable, think they're born into this profession and they don't have any other option. I have friends lobstering off the coast of Maine who are fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-generation lobster fishermen, and they think that they were born into this and they just can't do anything else.
There are other reasons to go offshore. You like the way you feel on a boat, you like being at sea, you're passionate about pursuing a fish or a lobster. Those are the things that keep you going back. It's the feeling you get when you're on the boat, engaged in this activity. It's a hard thing to describe.
I really liked the title of my first book, The Hungry Ocean. It's from a Shakespearean sonnet, but to me the title really does refer to the ocean's ability to totally consume. I've been fishing since I was nineteen, and I've been consumed by it in a good way. I know it sounds cliché to say you're drawn to or taken by something, but to be consumed by what I love is my greatest success. I'm very proud to be a bestselling author, but nothing makes me prouder than saying I'm a fisherman, period.
Dave: When I read Shadow Divers recently, I was impressed by the alien nature of those deep wreck divers' existence. Spending so much time offshore, diving hundreds of feet below the ocean's surface, the divers have an intimate knowledge of a part of the world that is completely foreign and indecipherable to most people. Is that a part of the draw of all this time on the sea, that going-off?
Greenlaw: Maybe, the pioneer thing of going off. Every trip is an adventure, and it is something that most people know nothing of. It is a bit of the draw. I've never actually thought of it in those terms, but now that you bring it up, that makes sense.
Dave: What's the most scared you've ever been at sea?
Greenlaw: I've obviously encountered some terrible storms, but you don't really think too much about being frightened until after the storm passes. Then you realize, Wow, we're pretty lucky to still be upright here. Life is pretty good. In the midst of a storm, you make all kinds of promises: I'll never go again. Please just let me get home safe from this one. Every seaman does that at some point.
But there are other things that scare me aboard a boat. This may sound silly, but my biggest fear the whole time I was swordfishing was of failure. When we threw the lines off the dock and were heading out to sea, my biggest fear was, What if I caught my last fish on the last trip? It's terrifying to think you're going out to sea for thirty days and you could come back a total failure.
Dave: There's a story in All Fishermen Are Liars about two men adrift in the ocean far away from their boat in the middle of a hurricane.
Greenlaw: David Marks. That's maybe my favorite story in the book. I think it's a remarkable story of survival.
Dave: I love the description of these two men as the eye of the hurricane passes over them. In the middle of the ocean in a perfectly calm sea, this close to death, waiting for the eye to pass and the storm to reassert itself?
Greenlaw: Imagine being in the eye of a hurricane, bobbing around in the ocean; imagine how small you'd feel. It's bad enough aboard a boat. I can't even imagine being in the water, bobbing like a cork. His descriptions of being forced beneath the surface, and salt water forced in his nose and down his throat? It's a great story.
Dave: Now you've gone from swordfishing to lobstering, which are very, very different. Describe that transition.
Greenlaw: It's tough. I miss swordfishing every day.
I thought lobstering would be a great idea. I was ready to give up swordfishing. It was getting really hard to make a living because of government regulations, this reduction in effort thing you can't fish as much as you'd like to and you can't catch what you'd need to make a good living. I thought, I've been doing this for seventeen years. Maybe it's time to go home. I can still make my living on the water. I have my own boat. I'll go lobstering.
I thought that would be the perfect and easy transition, but it's very difficult. Lobster fishing is not exciting. Every day is not an adventure. You know pretty much in the first five minutes of your day, hauling a few traps, what the rest of the day is going to be like. Swordfishing, you have a forty-mile piece of line in the water with a thousand hooks on it; you could catch nothing all day and then catch ten thousand pounds in the last five miles of gear. It's totally different.
Dave: Do you think growing up in a small community prepared you for this other reclusive existence, living with five or six men for a month out on the sea?
Greenlaw: Definitely. People make choices. If you choose to live on a remote island offshore, you're choosing to not have a lot of company. If you choose to go to sea with a handful of people, you're going to be alone a lot. Whether it's that fishing prepared me to live on the island or that life on the island prepared me to go fishing, I think they have a lot of similarities. Being resourceful and being independent, having just a handful of people that you can count on, are things that fishing and living on an island have in common for sure.
Dave: And now you're writing, which you admit is not as fulfilling on a day-to-day basis. I think most writers would know where you're coming from.
Greenlaw: Writing is very difficult for me, just the process itself of having to sit with a notebook and a pen, particularly in the high season for fishing. I know what my friends are doing and I know what I'm doing; I'd rather be doing what they're doing.
It's a lot of work, but I treat it the way I do fishing. If I sign a contract to write The Lobster Chronicles, I sit down and I do it every day. In order to do it well, it's the same as fishing for me. I don't feel like I'm a natural at anything. I've had to work hard at everything I've done. If that's what it takes, that's what I have to do.
Dave: When you go out on a fishing trip, you might come back with a big haul or a small one. Do you feel like any of the books are more successful than the others in terms of achieving your initial goals?
Greenlaw: I've been surprised that all three books have done as well as they have. Nobody was more surprised than I was when The Hungry Ocean did well. I'd thought, This is a neat opportunity. Somebody's going to pay me to write a book. I was proud to have my name on it. Then, Wow. It caught on and did well, and I was asked to write the second book.
The Lobster Chronicles was more difficult to write because it's more personal. It's about family and community and going home after seventeen years away. I was writing a lot about my family and myself. Everything I sent to my editor, he was calling me and saying, "You really have to go a little deeper here." That's not easy to do. It's very difficult to write about yourself and to write about people in a small community when you're related to most of them, using real names in most instances and not always being very complimentary.
Dave: In the new book especially, you're not complimentary at all about several of the characters.
Greenlaw: George and Tommy.
Dave: Judging by the picture on the back cover, they seem to be fine with the treatment.
Greenlaw: I've mentioned George and Tommy in all three books. I was very unkind to them in The Hungry Ocean, and my editor kept saying, "Are you sure you want to use their real names?" I told him, "Yes. They're my friends. I'm going to use their real names. They'll get a kick out of it." Well, then it got to the point when it was too late to change anything in the book, and I thought, Oh shit, what have I done? They'll never speak to me again!
I was on the book tour promoting The Hungry Ocean when George's wife, Maryann, somehow tracked me down in a hotel room on the telephone she got the number from a publicist or something and she said, "They have your book." I said, "Yes?" She said, "They're at the bar doing a book signing."
Unbelievable. They had hats and tee shirts made up. And as you can tell from All Fishermen Are Liars, they showed up for the photo shoot. They had read a manuscript, so they knew exactly what I had said, and they still showed up to have their picture taken.
Dave: You can't trust anything a fisherman says, anyway. It's all lies, this new book you've written.
Greenlaw: That's right. That's what has made this book tour interesting. The title of the book doesn't lend much credibility. I can defend or deny anything. Read the title.
Honestly, All Fishermen Are Liars is a book I'm really proud of, a book I would enjoy reading. Beyond that, my intentions were to have it be a tribute to a way of life, to people who choose to go to sea. It's also a thank-you to Alden Leeman, my best friend.
When I was nineteen years old, Alden took a real chance and hired me to go for thirty days on the deck of his swordfishing boat. He didn't know me from Adam. I think anytime you're hiring anybody to do anything you're taking a chance, but really to go for thirty days and be so far offshore that if I didn't like it or wanted to go home, well, too bad, you're stuck with me? That was something. A few years later, Alden really went out on a limb and offered me my first boat to run as captain. Those two opportunities have really become my life. I'm very grateful for someone taking a chance on me.
You've read the book, and you're probably thinking I have a strange way of showing gratitude, but Alden wouldn't have it any other way. When I told him I was writing the book and I wanted him to be a focal point, he was really proud, but he made me promise not to say anything too nice about him. He didn't want me to harm the reputation that he's worked so hard to build.
Dave: You mention in the note at the beginning that you've thought about writing a novel, maybe a mystery set at sea. Even before I heard that, when I read The Hungry Ocean, I thought of Anthony Bourdain, particularly in terms of the restaurant staffs he writes about in Kitchen Confidential. His crews share many characteristics with the ones you describe. Your books may not be too similar, but some of the characters could make appearances in either one.
Greenlaw: It's interesting when people will read my books, people from different industries, and they'll say, "I know these guys. You could have written about my crew. I work construction." I guess there are a lot of similarities.
Same thing with The Lobster Chronicles. Every small town I've visited, if people have read the book they'll say, "Are you sure you didn't write this about this town and just change the names? Those people live here."
Dave: Are you going to write a novel?
Greenlaw: Yes. I have been paid some money to write a novel, so I'm sure at some point the publishers are going to say, "Okay, we're ready." I was actually paid right after The Hungry Ocean, then the novel got pushed aside because they wanted another nonfiction. Then after The Lobster Chronicles they wanted still another nonfiction. It was my editor's suggestion to write the book of sea stories.
I'm doing a cookbook with my mother next. That will be published in July, so the novel again has been pushed to the back burner. Maybe it will be next.
Dave: How did the cookbook project get started?
Greenlaw: My editor has come out to my little island on three different occasions to work with me. There's no restaurant on the island, so he's had to eat my mother's cooking. He's had some success with cookbooks. You're probably familiar with The Naked Chef, Jamie Oliver that's one of his. So he really enjoyed my mother's cooking, and he thought it would be fun if we did the book together.
I'm going to do the writing. There will be a series of maybe twenty little essays interspersed throughout, and my mom is busily getting together recipes. She's been collecting them for fifty years.
My younger sister had the chore and I will say chore of teaching my mother how to use the computer so she could get things to my editor. My mother was calling my sister just about every day in tears. "It's all gone! I've lost it! All my work is gone!" And my sister would have to talk her down. Thank God that wasn't my job.
Dave: It's quite a family project then. And you have your father working with you on the lobster boat, right?
Greenlaw: My dad works with me. He's my stern man. He loves when I go on book tour. I'm dragging my feet around and my lower lip is sticking out. Oh, I have to leave my island for two months. And my father is like, "See ya."
I'm doing sixty cities in sixty days right now, so my father has hired a stern man of his own. He's tending my traps for me and taking care of the boat. That works out well for everyone involved because he'd really rather take out the boat himself than go as my helper.
Dave: What do you like to read?
Greenlaw: I read bits and pieces of everything. I don't stick to any particular type of book. The best book I think I've ever read is A Confederacy of Dunces. It's well written, it's funny. Another book that I really enjoyed was Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides. I've read that several times.
It's funny: no one ever used to give me books until I wrote one. Maybe they didn't know I could read. I don't know. After my first book was published, I started getting all these books in the mail. I can't keep up.
Dave: Would you recommend any particular books about fishing?
Greenlaw: I've read Cod [by Mark Kurlansky]. That's a great book. Working on the Edge [by Spike Walker] was a popular fishing book about the Alaskan King Crab Fishery. I've read a lot of lobster books recently. Trevor Corson's The Secret Life of Lobsters was excellent.
I have a book I'm dying to read, but I haven't yet. It's called The Lobster Coast. Somebody gave it to me in a bookstore, and my boyfriend grabbed it. Every day on the phone, he says, "This book is so good. You're going to love it!" It's supposed to be a comprehensive history of the state of Maine and the lobster fishing industry. I'm looking forward to reading that when I get home.
Dave: Why don't you have more of a Maine accent?
Greenlaw: Everyone asks me that. I'm one of these oddballs who picks up accents very easily. For instance, I was in Michigan reading my first book for Books on Tape, and it was my third day in the recording studio. I could see on the other side of the Plexiglas these two women one was a technician and the other was the producer and I could hear them laughing. I'm like, "What the hell is so funny in there?" They asked, "Why are you talking like that?" I said, "Like what?" They said, "You sound like you're from Fargo."
I suppose this is my book touring accent you're hearing, which is no accent at all because I've been all over the country.
I'll give you another example. The book tour really is quite simple. The publishers make it as painless as possible. I get off an airplane and my author escort meets me at baggage claim. I was in the car with an author escort in Denver, Colorado, the other day, and I was talking on the cell phone with my mother. I got off the phone and this woman's laughing. I said, "What are you laughing at?" She said, "You suddenly sound like you're from Maine." I said, "Well, I am."
I don't do it intentionally, but I only need to be around someone a short time and I'm sounding just like I'm their twin.
Dave: You mention in the new book that you have only a vague idea of how to sail. I don't really know why I'd expect you to be proficient it's not as if fishing boats have sails but still I found that surprising.
Greenlaw: I've spent my life at sea, I should know more about sailboats, right?
Dave: Something, I would have figured.
Greenlaw: I know a little about sailboats, but very little.
Dave: Occasionally in the books there's an allusion to fishing with rod and reel. Have you ever fly-fished? Does it hold any of the same allure?
Greenlaw: Oh, yes. I do all different types of fishing. I'm accused all the time of taking busman's holidays. I take a vacation in the winter down in Florida, and one of my buddies takes me charter fishing. I actually pay people to take me fishing.
Yes, there's an allure. You have a hook in the water, and you're trying to catch a fish. Whether it's commercial or just doing it for fun, it's all the same, that tug when you have a fish.
Dave: What's the best fish you've ever caught?
Greenlaw: It was commercial fishing, a 635-pound swordfish, seven or eight feet long. I caught it on a hook. It was very exciting. It's fun to see a big fish.
Linda Greenlaw visited Powell's City of Books on August 26, 2004, twelve days after I was married in a field about fifty miles from Isle au Haut, her year-round home. Oddly, the field is the property of another Maine Leeman, Penny, unrelated (as far as we could gather) to Greenlaw's good friend Alden.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State