Walking and Writing and Fishing
I ran into my neighbor and her little dog one cool summer morning, and our conversation fell easily into writing (as it usually does, and this will make perfect sense within a few paragraphs). She asked about my book project. I explained that I’d written 35,000 words of a nonfiction memoir-style book to date, and had even started formatting the chapters. Which all sounds great and like quite an accomplishment, but in reality, I’ve been stuck at 35,000 words since March.
“I just got to that point and couldn’t write another word on the topic,” I admitted.
She nodded with deep understanding and said, “Ah. I see. It’s the wrong book.”
“Yeah, that’s what it feels like,” I agreed. “It’s like, the writing urge is there, but it feels like that project is not the right place to put my energy.”
We then turned to her writing project, which was decidedly farther along, seeing as it was about to be published.
See, this is no ordinary neighbor. She happens to be Janna Malamud Smith, author of NYT Bestseller My Father is a Book, which is a memoir of her father Bernard Malamud, who happened to be the Pulitzer-prize winning author of The Natural. Remember that movie? Well, it was first a novel published in 1952 and deemed “an unusually fine novel” by a NYT book review critic at the time (and that review itself is worth reading).
Janna also happens to be a longtime contributor to WBUR’s Cognoscenti and the author of many other books including the recently released When the Island Had Fish (DownEastBooks 2023), an extraordinarily well-researched and exquisitely well-written history of fishing on the Island of Vinalhaven, in Maine. Yes, fishing, but it’s more than that. As the summary states, the topic feels less local and more allegorical, and her telling feels less like a lecture and more like a meditation. As one reviewer states: “Vinalhaven’s fishing history is in every way America’s history.”
I was wondering about the backstory for her book. After all, she’s a psychotherapist, and her book catalogue leans more in that general direction. I was personally very curious, and from my several years’ experience teaching in a writing course for healthcare professionals, I know that the students are also always fascinated by this, the story behind the story.
So I reached out to Janna and asked her how her fishing book project came about in the first place?
“As a summer person visiting a Maine island for decades, I developed a soft-focus view of the tiny place – gorgeous, tranquil, relaxed, filled with delicious wild mushrooms and raspberries, and great kayaking. Somehow, I managed not to see it as it was and has long been — a vibrant fishing community where for over 5000 years, people had lived by the sea and worked out a sometimes harmonious and sometimes harsh existence catching the fish that were everywhere around them.
As I started researching and interviewing fishermen, I realized that I had lived like a blindfolded person, utterly unaware of the present and past around me. Writing of the book was like putting on virtual reality glasses that allowed a whole lost world to come into view. It taught me a lot about community, and about all the skills and craftsmanship and courage that sustained this particular life. And I heard and recorded story after story.
As I proceeded in my learning, I bumped hard into the reality that the world I was finding was ending as I watched. Fin fish had collapsed and climate change was making the future even more uncertain than the future always is. This merry-go-round of discovery and loss is part of the energy that gradually spun the book into existence.”
Wow. Just from this tidbit from the author, one gets a clear sense of the calibre of craft and scope of relevance one will encounter in her little book about an island and an industry. I really love this recounting from Chapter 3:
“In 1893, a ninety-year-old Vinalhaven fisherman climbed into his dory and rowed out onto the bay alone. He dropped his fishing line into the water, and, after some time had passed, hooked a 332-pound halibut. A very old person and a huge fish. By all rights, the halibut should have snapped the line, or wearied the aged man, or tipped the boat. Instead, Timothy Dyer hauled it in, killed it, and rowed six or seven miles home towing it in the water behind him.
The feat was remarkable enough to warrant a newspaper story in the Rockland Courier Gazette. Although Dyer caught the halibut at century’s end, his family’s story offers a different glimpse of fishing on Vinalhaven in the early nineteenth century.  As the reporter wrote about Timothy’s childhood, ‘Mr. Dyer says that in those early troublesome times, the battle for subsistence was a hard one and that his family suffered many hardships and privations. He avers that he himself had never worn a shoe of any kind until he was 18 years old.’
Timothy’s childhood years were tough ones for many in Maine, and particularly for fisherman…”
See what she did there? An old newspaper article from a long-defunct local paper– likely sourced from a yellowed clipping serendipitously captured on digitalized microfiche– became the source for an Old Man and the Sea-inspired rendition, colored by the reporter’s tidbit and this impressive photo below:
The book is full of such treats, facts told as stories leading into more facts and illustrated by more stories… I also enjoyed when the author herself entered the scene, as in her curiosity and quest to locate the remains of the Red Paint People unearthed on the island in the 1930’s, which brought her to the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology ay Harvard (in the section of Chapter 7 titled Coda: Relics and Skeletons). You’ll have to read it to find out.
Basically, If you’re the type whose pulse picks up upon crossing the threshold of a proper local bookstore, if you feel a thrill upon breathing in the fragrance of a beautiful old library, then you may enjoy this nonfiction gem. I might also point out that When the Island Had Fish would make an excellent gift for happy academicians, history buffs, climate change concernists, and anyone with a penchant for Maine beach vacations.*
*And please note, I do not receive any compensation for this recommendation. There are no “affiliate links” on this website, no kickbacks for a good review, and that is intentional.