Boats and Books by Peter Behrens

The plan was simple: Live. Eat. Write. I left Southern California for Downeast Maine with a novel-in-progress that wasn’t. I aimed to live quietly on a sea-hammered Maine peninsula and finish the book. Twelve years earlier I had published a collection of short stories, Night Driving, but career had branched out (or gone off-track) into screenwriting. Leaving L.A. behind, I hoped to rewrite myself as a novelist.

The novel was based on my great-great-grandfather’s life: he had left Co. Clare for Canada during the Great Famine of the 1840s. I had been trying to squeeze the book in between screenplay assignments but all I had so far were notebooks crowded with research and a few sections too undeveloped to call ‘chapters’.

On the Maine coast I would pare my life down to essentials and the book would come together. Somehow. That was the plan.

I rented an eighteenth-century farmhouse half a mile from the general store, post office, and library that composed Brooklin village. It was a seafaring town. My house and barn were on twenty acres, a classic Maine saltwater farm, home for most of its history to families who fished for cod, sardines, lobster and when they weren’t fishing, cut hay, ran sheep, and tapped sugar maples. Beyond the meadow a trail led through gnarled New England woods to Center Harbor, a cove where the loveliest sailboats I’d ever seen rode elegantly on their moorings.

I started work in a studio/office in the barn loft. To write about an Irish boy I imagined as my g-g-grandfather, I needed to snatch a story out of history’s mouth. I had the research and the raw material, but little idea how to put it together. And that was when I started spending time at the Boatyard.

A sign near the Brooklin town line welcomes visitors to “The Boatbuilding Capital of the World”. There is some sly, dry, Yankee self-deprecation inside that boast but if you ranked “boatbuilders per capita”, or “depth of boatbuilding knowledge per resident”, Brooklin, Maine, pop. 2000, would score high. There are four major boatbuilding operations in town not counting men who turn out a peapod here, and a lobster boat there, but spend most of the year fishing.

That winter the biggest shop in town, Brooklin Boatyard, had a crew of fifty building a pair of sleek wooden sloops, “Tendresse” and “Lena”. I found myself walking over to the yard most days, especially when the writing wasn’t going well. For a first-novelist, it was a relief to watch other people at work on complicated projects, making progress, getting things done. I began to see that building a sailboat had a lot in common with constructing a novel. Both projects started with abstraction – an idea. They both have to be imagined before they are anything else. Boatbuilders and novelists have to nurture and sustain the idea for a long time before it becomes a thing. They must work on pieces, and never lose sight of the whole.

I watched Tendresse and Lena go from ideas to sailboats during that Maine winter. There were deadlines but no one ever seemed in a rush. Boatbuilders and novelists need patience. Wooden sailboats, and novels, are complex systems, assemblies of handcrafted parts joined into systems that move together, work together. All the grunt and sweat – the intricate, painstaking workmanship – has to be invisible. In boats and books the appearance – or illusion – of effortless grace is mandatory. No one likes to see a sailboat, or a novel, straining.

Maine winters are cold. Eighteenth-century farmhouses are colder. When my project threatened to overwhelm me with all I didn’t know, I’d head for the boatyard. I needed inspiration, and found it there. Not for the ideas in the novel, but for the idea of daring to write a novel. If they could shape a sailboat out of all those pieces then I might, with patience, work a tangle of sentences, images, and scenes into a book.

Whenever I doubted myself, action at the Boatyard encouraged me to trust process. Thousands of handmade pieces – sentences – could be planed and fitted to form a seamless unit: a vessel that would be all about movement, integration, and layered strength. A sailboat. Maybe a novel.

Boatbuilders and novelists have this in common: on launch day they never know for certain if she is going to sink or float. Maybe that’s why new-book parties are called launches, and why there’s palpable tension when a sailboat first goes into the water. How does she look in her element? Graceful and sleek, we hope. We hope she sails well, and stays off the rocks, but the boat – the book – has achieved a life of her own; she’s a thing now, not just an idea. Time to let her go.

 

Peter Behrens has written two novels, The Law of Dreams and The O’Briens, and a collection of stories since he moved to Brooklin, Maine. A third novel, Karin, is on the way.

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