It’s a tale as old as boats themselves: young person buys the old, forgotten boat on the dock and the misadventure of a lifetime ensues. There is something addictive about this timeless arc, especially when the darkest hours filled with stormy seas and miseries are read from a comfortable couch next to a roaring fireplace. These stories are not the ones about nautical miles travelled over the ocean; rather, they are about the unconquerable human spirit and a devotion to the long way around. Farley Mowat’s memoir The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float printed in 1969, to whom I recommend to anybody with a pulse, comes to mind.
Tranquility: A Memoir of an American Sailor is a new, Pacific Northwest-focused adventure memoir by debut author Captain Billy Sparrow that carries the torch of this trope into 2016. Tranquility is on bookshelves around the Pacific Northwest and has collected recognition including a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award nomination and status of Staff Pick at the University Bookstore in Seattle, Washington and Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon. It is available in paperback from inlandwaterspress.com for $20. We reached out to Captain Sparrow for an interview to meet the man behind the pen.
Q: First of all, congratulations on the Pacific Northwest BooksellersAssociation Award nomination. How does it feel to not only publish a book, but to see it gain traction among literary circles?
Thank you very much. I’m incredibly grateful to my publisher, Matt Khachadoorian at Inland Waters Press. He saw the potential in the book and really made it come to life. When Shawn Donley at Powell’s City of Books and Brian Jeunemann at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association read and showed real interest in Tranquility: A Memoir of an American Sailor, I was floored. Their attention and the enthusiasm of Washington State AP English teachers and that of Baker & Taylor, the national distributor, were truly unbelievable. I had very little hope for the book while I was working on it and when it was finished it was a great relief. Everything that came afterward was totally unexpected.
Q: Set the scene a bit for us. Who are you exactly and what is your memoir about?
In 1997, at the age of 24, I bought a 29-foot wooden sloop which was built around here (Puget Sound) in 1938. I intended to sail this vessel to the Channel Islands near Santa Barbara, California. When I shoved off I figured it would take me a month to sail there, but it took me 5 years all told. Soon after buying the boat the engine promptly blew up, she caught fire, and I fell in love with Godfrey Stevens’ youngest daughter in Port Townsend. After leaving Puget Sound, I ran aground on the Columbia River. I was forced to send the boat back to Seattle on a flatbed where I rebuilt her just down the road from where I bought her the year before. My log was filled with such experiences (the good and bad) and I arrived in Santa Barbara a different man, on a different vessel, after having learned much about real life along the way. It’s an age-old story that for some reason never seems to get old.
Q: Tell us a bit about Tranquility, the vessel in the story. What inspired you to make the jump from landlubber to sailor? Why this sailboat?
Tranquility was a tired wreck of a ship who’d passed through too many hands. She was typical of a small yacht built in the Pacific Northwest in the thirties. Narrow at the beam, low free-board, poor windward performance, cranky — the works. She had a coach roof that was too low for the average person to stand up. She was traditionally planked with some sort of pine or fir on oak frames. She had a fake bowsprit that didn’t let in to the stem! She was an orphan, a widow, and a tub with no known heirs or pedigree. I bought her for $5,000 without much thought because she was the only boat I could afford and I didn’t have the patience to look for a better one. I decided to set sail on that sort of adventure because I was 24 years old and didn’t have anything better to do. Even though it was a colossal misadventure at the time, and I nearly got myself killed, looking back I see that it was my wisest mistake.
Q: It is clear when reading this book that the Pacific Northwest environment is integral to the story. How do you think the Pacific Northwest shaped you as a sailor and a writer?
This is a great question! I know for sure how it shaped me as a sailor. It made me a pretty good one. I’ve sailed from Seattle to the Aleutian Islands and back in a 50-foot wooden ketch built at Lake Union Dry Dock in 1930. I rebuilt her from hand-hewn timbers near Ramp Island and wintered over in Sitka and again in Dutch Harbor. I sailed in countless gales and hove to in one or two Gulf of Alaska storms. That’s no big deal if you earn your anchors in these waters. Coastal sailing as a whole is far more fraught than offshore, so you learn a lot more. Around here, you begin to expect the unexpected on a boat because that’s what can destroy you. You don’t just drop anchor and hit the rack at two in the morning off the south side of Sutwik Island, Alaska. You don’t beat west in the Strait of Juan De Fuca on an outgoing tide with a strong westerly forecast. They say constant vigilance is the price of safety at sea, and I’ve found that to be true. The Pacific Northwest is a challenging environment to run a boat in and a Puget Sound sailor is a very good sailor because of that. As for the writing, well, you might say that all of the above is great material for a generation widely derided as the wimpiest in American history.
Q: Your voice is pretty apparent in the story. Is finding the humor in bleak situations a valuable tool?
I think finding the humor in life’s ups and downs is a sign of overall mental health. Remaining positive in dangerous or challenging situations is a must for the individual and for anyone in a leadership role, such as a captain. But as a captain, I do not look for the humor in trying situations when they’re happening and I find that tendency in fellow mariners to be disconcerting. Plastic pirate garb and a nip of rum or two is fine times on a boat in the right set of circumstances, but I see it more often that I like. The sea commands your respect and if your crew doesn’t respect you, as captain, and they do not see that you’re taking things seriously, well, that’s a problem. The sea doesn’t suffer fools for very long.
Q: Do you have a writing process? Journaling? Locking yourself in a cellar until the manuscript is written?
When I write, I write for myself. I have to be totally alone to do it and I cannot work on anything else. It’s an incredibly tedious process for me. I write and rewrite until I think it can’t be improved. A good editor is very, very important. Because you, as the writer, know the story you’re telling, so in the back of your mind you’re adding important details known only to you and that makes you think you’ve written or explained something well when in fact, you haven’t at all. You editor must be proficient in language and usage and they must be an astute and careful reader as well. Your sweetheart or spouse can’t do this for you. It takes time to find someone compatible with your approach who is also willing to edit your work. Tranquility would not have been possible without my Inland Waters Press editor, Megan Kathleen Stocklin.
Q: So the adventuring is obviously the fun part of the story (ex. wrecking, heartbreak, rough seas, etc). What does it all mean, at the end of the day? Any lessons to take away?
I don’t have the faintest idea what Tranquility means as a story. Honestly. I’d be very interested to hear what readers make of it, but I’m too afraid to ask. I hear that it’s not half-bad and that’s incredibly nice to know.
Q: Any other books in the works?
I’ve lived a life of adventure and Tranquility was intended as book #2 in a trilogy. I wrote #2 first, because for some reason, I was losing touch with all of the details of the voyage. I’m currently writing the book that comes before the Tranquility years. I was working on a freighter out of Rarotonga in the South Seas prior to 1997. The ship was the Avatapu, captained by the legendary Pacific sailor, Nancy Griffith. I got marooned on a motu, — it’s a long story — the book is about that sort of thing. Books one and three are years away from being done. It’s pretty hard to write when you’re working so hard promoting a finished book.
Q: What words of wisdom would you have to the sailor-writers-adventurers out there who want to see their books on the shelves someday?
No one will like this answer, but I mean it. All good writers are self-taught. If you’re writing sea story/adventure/memoir then by all means, write what you have really lived and know. Stay off the internet and forget about writing groups. Don’t expect any encouragement from the outside world, don’t read what you’ve written to your friends and family. Their comments may be well meant but they’re an unhelpful distraction to a book-length manuscript. Write if you must write and try to forget about the rest. The respect and esteem you think writing will bring you once your book is on the shelf, isn’t waiting where you imagine. It’s up to YOU to know whether what you’ve written is any good. Writing is a tough job and you might want to think about treating it like one. There’s a Niagara Falls of writing these days but there’s only a thimble’s worth of capacity for any of it. I know a writer who pitched herself to agencies for five years before she found an agent. It took her another three years to sell her first book and she will wait another two years to see it in print. Does that sound like a good business to be in? If you want to write, do it for yourself and try to forget about the rest. If you just can’t give up on being a “writer” writer, then I say: go for it.