Sailing tale feels timely amid social distancing practices
As the COVID-19 pandemic marches on and Connecticut residents find themselves gearing up in masks and gloves before venturing out into public spaces, Amity Gaige said she believes her new book, “Sea Wife,” feels increasingly relevant.
Gaige, a four-time author and part-time lecturer at Yale University, explains that her book is about a Connecticut family that leaves the humdrum of their daily life to spend a year sailing.
“I feel very much like a person on a boat with my family right now, we’re all each other’s crew through good and bad and all weather. I’ve never felt more like I’m on a journey across the sea, unpredictable and at the mercy of the elements and I think that’s very appropriate now to the moment that we’re in,” she said of her book that was published on April 28. “It’s a book about survival and it’s a book about doing something you feel called to do and dealing with the consequences.”
While living a life at sea might seem preferable to being housebound right now, Gaige’s characters Juliet and Michael are living a far from perfect life as they take their two young children and their floundering marriage to sea. Michael feels the need to flee his corporate life and begs his depressed wife to relocate the family to a sailboat for a year despite her lack of sailing experience. Told primarily from the perspective of Michael’s captain’s log and Juliet’s recollections of the sailing trip, “Sea Wife” explores the squalls within the couple’s marriage.
“I would say that the story is really about the journey the family takes together, a family takes together, and the way they have to rely on each other and the ways they help and fail each other on the long journey,” she said.
Gaige said she was inspired to write “Sea Wife” after reading an article in 2014 about a family who was sailing in the South Pacific when one of the children became ill and the Coast Guard had to rescue them. While everything ended well for that family, she said they received a lot of criticism for their lifestyle. The real-life story paired with her interest in cruising families (people who raise their children at sea) led her to research people who raise families at sea.
“Truth is there are a lot of people who live on boats and they raise their children that way and there’s a community of cruising families and I did a lot of research about it. I was agnostic about that. I was interested but not sure I felt like it was a smart idea, but in the end I was very inspired and moved by the nontraditional ways people raise their children,” Gaige said.
In addition to researching the lifestyle the author decided to learn how to sail to properly understand her characters, which Gaige found to be difficult because she doesn’t have an affinity for sailing. “I was a terrible sailor,” she admitted.
Gaige also said she has a terrible memory which made it difficult for her to remember all of the nautical terms for everything on the boat. “In the end, I feel kind of impressed with myself that I did that — it was very touch and go — because I had to go learn how to sail, and I did, and reached the Caribbean island nation, Grenada, where I learned to sail by myself.” In addition to learning how to sail, the author spent time in Panama, where she learned about and visited the Guna Yala territory, where her characters spend some of their time.
“I had to do all of that to make the book convincing. When you’re writing a book you’re offering a reader a dream and they’re dreaming this dream with you and if you do anything that is implausible or wrong factually or ignorant, they wake up from the dream. I wanted to make that dream coherent for the reader,” she said.
Challenging herself to learn how to sail really helped Gaige understand her characters’ experiences. “I felt like I was finally understanding my characters,” she said about her time at sea. “I was awful and that really made me relate to Juliet. She’s really afraid that she’s going to fail again at sailing. I was very much in her place and scared and experienced some pretty bad weather. It was scary.”
She said her sailing experience also gave her newfound respect for the sea and sailors.
“I absolutely learned what I needed to know to write a convincing sea novel, and that is that the sea is gorgeous, beautiful, colorful and it changes in one instant,” Gaige said.
While sailing helped her gain a better understanding of her characters, the West Hartford resident said she didn’t feel like she particularly related to one character more than the other. She noted that she could become frustrated with Juliet’s low self-esteem and feels that Michael is a much bolder and handier person than herself. She did include some of her own ideas, like Juliet’s passion for Anne Sexton and poetry and Michael’s views on parenting, into her characters.
“I was grabbing from both my consciousness and kind of the cultural consciousness of the moment for both of them. I am sure I stole from friends and I know I steal from myself and my children a great deal and put words in the mouth of Michael and Juliet and the children,” she said.
Gaige’s previous books “Schroeder,” “O My Darling” and “The Folded World” also delve into the marital relationship. The author said she wasn’t quite sure why she writes about complicated marriages in all of her books, but admits that she feels it is “inherently dramatic” to see if a couple can stay together or not. “It makes sense to write about domestic relationships in which people really reveal themselves and in which the stakes are very high,” she said. “There’s the fear of failure and also the rewards are quite profound if you can do it well.”
When discussing her writing process, Gaige said she takes a slightly more difficult approach as she already knew what her characters would be like before she decided upon her plot.
“I come to it through the back door, like okay let me figure out what I care about and then let me give that a plot,” she said. “I hope that’s why the stakes feel high because they were. It was a genuine search on my part for what the story should be and what it should mean. It’s kind of a harder way to go about it, it probably would have been easier for me to have an outline or march through this, but I kind of wandered through it. In the end it was hard, but it was gratifying because I got to tell the story in an interesting way. It’s three voices and they’re all telling the story from different moments in time and they’re all discussing and reverberating with one another and that was super fun to write.”
Due to the coronavirus, Gaige isn’t able to promote her book with a tour so she’s taking the time at home to try and work on the next book when she isn’t homeschooling her 7-year-old and 14-year-old kids. As she only teaches creative writing at Yale in the fall, the author had planned to use this time to write. “This semester was kind of my self-chosen sabbatical and I was working great until the kids were home full time — so there goes that sabbatical. I know I will write again,” she said. “I’m interested in women and adventuring [for the next book]. I’ve been reading memoirs of women hikers, long distance hikers so that’s where I was headed.”
When asked if she has any advice for aspiring novelists, Gaige said she believes writers need other writers. “I think it’s good for a novelist first of all to get educated, have good teachers or coaches or writing groups of people that are better than you to raise your game,” she said.
For more information about Gaige and her books visit, amitygaige.com.