The Very Slow Creation of "Before the Wind"

April 24, 2016

Tags: before the wind, sailing, einstein, puget sound, family novel, sailboats

I’ve spent most of my life preparing to write this novel. From the first to the last sentence took just six years, but a story along these lines has been building inside me for decades.

Growing up, my family seemed to spend as much time on sailboats as we did in our house. That’s not even close to true but sailing takes up disproportionate space in my memory. My earliest sailing recollection is riding along in a plywood boat my father built in our driveway. It leaked so profusely I assumed constant bailing was part of sailing.

My father rationalized over-spending on sailboats by hauling sack lunches to work, driving cheap old cars and never paying to park. When I was twelve, he advised me to have my future boat bills mailed to my future office instead of my future house so my future wife wouldn’t see them. Even politics was explained through this boating lens: Republicans are power boaters, he told me, Democrats are sailors. The best part of sailing for me, my sister and my mother back then was that whenever we were under sail Dad was in a fantastic mood.

By my late teens, I started secretly thinking of myself as a novelist-in-waiting and daydreamed of writing a book that captured what life felt like in this water wonderland loosely called Puget Sound. I wanted to split it all wide open—the natural beauty, the sailing obsession, the push and pull of family, my clumsy quests for meaning and romance.

But what was the plot? Where was the story? This all loitered in the back of my mind until my wife, daughter and I were sailing around Canadian islands in the summer of 2009. That’s when I decided to quit worrying and embrace the challenge of immersing readers in the addictive thrill of flying along in a boat powered by an invisible force out where water, wind and sky collide.

I started interviewing the best sailors I knew. I read books about famous dead and living sailors. I crewed on big and small race boats—and even fell off one mid-race. I examined the complex physics of sailing and unpacked the confusing subtext of a Viagra commercial that starred a middle-aged man sailing by himself. But it wasn’t until I tripped over the fact that Albert Einstein was an avid solo sailor that this novel began to snowball in my head.

Einstein helped anchor the book and bridged the gap in my fictional family between science and sport, between the mother, a high school physics teacher, and the father, an Olympics sailing medalist and their three children. And so this gifted and volatile Icelandic family compelled to build, cruise and race sailboats began to emerge. (Call it my family squared, though, in the end, the Johannssens bear little resemblance to the Lynches.)

Before I wrote the final draft, I bought a big old sailboat that I’d had a crush on since I was sixteen and turned it into my new writing office. I was afloat in this boat, hunched over my laptop at sea level with an electric heater whirring, when these imaginary characters started to feel more real than my own friends and family and the book finally began to take off.

My father wonders why the hell it’s taken so long. Turning ninety next year, he keeps telling me that he’s worried he’ll die or lose his mind before he can read his boy’s book on sailing. Well, here it finally is, Dad.

My Favorite Five Reads of 2015

January 14, 2016

Tags: The Unwinding, George Packer, The Whites, Richard Price, We're All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler, Fates and Furies, Lauren Goff, Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Only two of these books, THE WHITES and FATES AND FURIES were actually published last year. The others I just finally got around to enjoying, including THE UNWINDING , LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA and WE’RE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES.

THE UNWINDING, by George Packer.
The only non-fiction book of this bunch struck me as the most daring and insightful examination of the United States since AMERICA WHAT WENT WRONG. Through artful stories of unknown and famous Americans, it captures what’s happened to the country in the past twenty years and how and why the inequalities snowballed. It’s also just a creative portrait/collage of current America.

LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Not sure why it took me till now to get to this, but what a thrill and a pleasure to read it for the first time. Such an inspiringly funny and wise meditation on love and aging. From puppy to elderly love, from lust to adoration, from falling in and out and all the comic and tragic complications. And of course it’s about death too, because all his stories are. His twists and dalliances in this one are irresistible.

WE’RE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES by Karen Joy Fowler
This is a daring book that somehow manages to be a family novel, a collegiate comedy and a brilliant meditation on how we treat animals. Avoid reading about the book or even glancing at its summary. Just dive into that wonderful opening chapter. It won the 2014 Pen Faulkner Award for a reason.

THE WHITES by Richard Price
This novel is about veteran New York cops obsessing over crimes and criminals they still can’t get past, and how they each deal with their psychological white whales. Might be tedious in other hands, but we’re talking Richard Price, whose pitch perfect reportage fiction, palpable language and dialogue has dazzled me through all of his books, starting with Clockers—the seed for HBO’s THE WIRE.

FATES AND FURIES by Lauren Goff
This unpredictable novel about marriage and secrets rides Goff’s electric and original prose from beginning to end. One downside? It may leave you feeling short and undersexed.