The boatbuilding family in Jim Lynch’s latest novel, Before the Wind, is imperfect and unpredictable, sometimes working together seamlessly, other times colliding and combustible, mystified by their differences. Josh, the protagonist and middle child, is the last to leave the crumbling family home, while his siblings range around the world and his parents continue in more or less the same roles they have always filled. Lyrical passion for sailing is tempered by a humorous but realistic portrayal of the wandering dreamers who take up with it against all good judgment. I had an opportunity to ask Jim a few questions about his characters, what he’s reading now, and what he sees as essential northwest reading.
EA: The Johannssen family residence in Ballard, the Teardown, exudes character; its creaky floors and ramshackle appearance playing a central role in Josh’s upbringing. The singular passions of its residents, be they science, boatbuilding, or sailing lead to neglect of their home. Was this intended as a metaphor for the family’s lack of cohesion?
JL: I didn’t think about it that directly. The house just seemed to fit a family so distracted with aspirations and obsessions that their neglected house is on the verge of tumbling down the hill. And I enjoyed the fact that these master boat builders couldn’t spend a minute maintaining their own house. Also, it’s a bit satirical of my own childhood home, which, decade by decade, increasingly leaned toward Lake Washington.
EA: Josh is depicted as the “mild middle child,” the only directionless person in a family of driven dreamers. Does this reflect your own upbringing? Which of the Johannssen siblings do you resemble most?
JL: My family only faintly resembles the Johannssens’ but the seeds are there. My father was a sailboat fanatic. My mother saw the world through the lens of science. And my sister was a dazzling athlete. Of the Johannssens, I’m most like Josh in that I was the observer in the family. But I’m no handyman, nor so passive, and I sometimes wish I was as fearless and righteous as Josh’s brother, Bernard.
EA: Your depiction of the live-aboard community, with its quirky characters and loveable eccentrics, forms a perfect backdrop to the Johannssens’ story. Do these characters draw on people you’ve known?
JL: Researching this book, I spent many days talking to people who lived on or worked on boats. Grady, the gregarious live-aboard who insisted on putting a piano in his rotting boat, is based on a real person with similar aspiration. The rest of the marina and boatyard characters were invented. I enjoyed bringing low budget boaters into the light. So often people assume sailors are wealthy when more often they’re simply hooked—on the boats, the marine lifestyle, all of it.
JL: I’m in the research phase for my next novel so I’m geeking out on non-fiction books, reading about computer hackers and whistleblowers, including Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide on Edward Snowden and Gabriella Coleman’s illuminating Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy about the vigilante hacker group known as Anonymous. The novel that most recently thrilled me was one I should’ve read years ago —Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
EA: If you could give someone traveling from another country five books in any genre that represent Western Washington, what would they be?
JL: My four novels and Skid Road by Murray Morgan. Kidding, though I would suggest Morgan’s classic because it captures old Seattle and the colorful scoundrels and visionaries who built it. After that, I might recommend Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins (or anything by Tom, so they know how wacky-brilliant people can be around here); Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple for an outsider’s modern satire of life out here; Measure of a Mountain Bruce Barcott’s book scrutinizing Mt. Rainier and its impact on our psyche; and 100 Classic Hikes in Washington (or whatever hiking guide they can grab). And I insist they read them all while exploring the Olympic Peninsula and the San Juan Islands.
EA: What question do you wish someone would ask you?
JL: I like questions that help me understand how and why I do what I do. For example, I’m not clear exactly on how ideas for novels snowball in my head. I don’t know how to explain how or why my characters burst to life on the page—or don’t. I’m not sure how to adequately describe how tedious and hopeless writing feels most days nor how exhilarating it feels when it flows, how on those grandest of days the entire unwieldy novel finally, amazingly, lifts off the runway. I don’t even know how to describe that sensation or what it takes for the rhythm and content and grace of a single sentence to suddenly feel JUST right, much less what it takes to feel that way about an entire book! I like questions that poke around at the mysteries of all that even if I can’t answer them very well.
Emily Adams is a bookseller at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park just outside Seattle. If she’s not reading, she might be found exploring outdoors, as Jim Lynch recommends.