By Kim Howard
Linda Greenlaw became a writer – and a famous one—seemingly overnight.
The captain of Hannah Boden, a commercial swordfishing boat, Greenlaw was “very happy with my female fisherman thing,” she said, when Sebastian Junger published “The Perfect Storm” a decade ago. The book tells the story of the Andrea Gail, a swordfish boat based out of Gloucester, Mass., that became lost at sea and whose crew perished during a 1991 Nor’easter. In the book, Junger called Greenlaw, whose character went on to have a significant role in the Warner Brothers movie, “one of the best sea captains, period, on the entire East Coast.”
Publishing houses began calling, wanting her to write her story.
“It changed my life,” Greenlaw, in her mid-40s, said earlier this week by phone from Madison, Conn., where she was scheduled for a book signing. “I have friends who would kill for the opportunity I’ve been handed…. I never had a desire to write.”
Now the Colby College graduate is on tour for her fifth book, and her first fiction endeavor, since Junger crossed her path a decade ago. Scheduled to arrive in town this week for two book signing engagements – one in Shelburne and one in South Burlington – Greenlaw has years of experience from which to draw for her writing.
To help pay for college, where she studied English “because I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Greenlaw said one summer she headed to the commercial fishing industry in which there was a lot of money to be made in 1979. She said she lied her way onto a commercial boat for a job as a cook (though she enjoys cooking now, she said, she had no skills at 19). To her delight she soon found herself as a deckhand when the hired deckhand was forced into the galley due to an injured back.
“I love physical work,” Greenlaw said. “I love being outside. I spent my childhood trying to catch anything that crawled around my home.”
In time she became a captain, one of a few women in a largely male-dominated profession.
Her first book, “The Hungry Ocean” (1999), chronicles a 30-day swordfishing voyage, interspersed with tales of other moments in her then 15-plus years of professional fishing. The book became a bestseller. Hyperion, her publisher, offered her a two-book deal to follow, Greenlaw said: “The Lobster Chronicles,” a book about lobster fishing, a profession to which she had recently shifted after moving to an island off of Maine, and an “untitled novel.” After the lobster book, Hyperion asked her to hold off on the novel while she completed another non-fiction book, “All Fishermen are Liars,” and a cookbook with her mother, Martha Greenlaw.
After winning the U.S. Maritime Literature Award in 2003 and the New England Book Award for nonfiction in 2004, Greenlaw finally had the chance to try her hand at fiction. “Slipknot,” a maritime mystery, is the result.
Greenlaw makes no bones about the fact she finds writing to be hard work – this from a woman who once worked 21-hour days for 10 days at a time on swordfishing trips.
“I assumed that writing fiction would be easier than writing nonfiction,” she said. “But starting with a blank page where anything was possible was a lot more difficult than I had anticipated.”
Slipknot’s protagonist, Jane Bunker, is a Miami homicide investigator turned marine insurance investigator, who returns home to her sleepy native town of Green Haven, Maine. A dead body shows up on page one, and the lead character decides to find out who is responsible.
“I felt like I floundered around for the first few months,” Greenlaw said of the plot. She rewrote the first seven or eight chapters when the book was done, she said, “to make everything work.” For the next two Jane Bunker books for which she’s contracted, Greenlaw said, she’ll do an outline at the beginning.
Though Greenlaw in print does not take sides on controversial issues – she touches on wind farm construction and fishing regulations in “Slipknot” – she is not shy in person about sharing her views.
The biggest public misconception currently about the fishing industry, according to Greenlaw, is the idea that people shouldn’t eat certain fish for fear of mercury poisoning.
“It really sickens me because I’m well aware the number one killer of women in this country is heart disease,” she said. And, she added, the country is facing an obesity epidemic.
“And there are people out there saying don’t eat fish because of mercury poisoning?” she said. “Forget about the french fries. Eat the fish!”