Olympia author Jim Lynch ventures again into some interesting family dynamics in “Before the Wind,” about relations obsessed with sailing.
Not just any writer could weave a story about sailing, speed dating, dysfunctional family dynamics and Albert Einstein into an emotionally resonant novel, but Jim Lynch is the man for it. The Olympia author, known for homegrown Northwest characters with an outsized capacity for thinking, feeling and coloring outside the lines, grew up in Seattle in a family for which sailing was “a central obsession … We didn’t question that that was what we did in whatever spare time we had.”
A similarly obsessed family inhabits the pages of his new novel, “Before the Wind,”(Knopf, 290 pp., $26.95). A boatbuilding father and grandfather, hanging on as their Seattle workshop crumbles around them. A science-geek mother. An almost supernaturally gifted sister, a rebel brother and narrator Josh, a lovelorn single guy whose life’s mission seems to be to keep the family unit from flying apart.
The author of “Before the Wind” will appear this month at these locations:
• At 7 p.m. Monday, April 18, at the Jansen Art Center, 321 Front Street, Lynden. Sponsored by Village Books in Lynden (360-671-2626 or villagebooks.com).
• At 7 p.m. April 19 at Village Books in Bellingham (360-671-2626 or villagebooks.com).
• At 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 21, at Olympia Timberland Library, 313 Eighth Ave. S.E. (360-352-0595 or trl.org).
• At 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 26, at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333 or thirdplacebooks.com).
• At 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 27, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
Lynch knows the territory, the boating community and the feeling of escape a sailboat gives, even when reality is waiting, tapping on its foot, on shore. Author of Northwest-based novels that include “The Highest Tide”, “Border Songs” and “Truth Like the Sun,” he talked recently about the novel, the fulfillment of a lifelong goal to make sailing understandable to the most landlocked reader (for a review of “Before the Wind,” see today’s books page):
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Q: What’s your history with sailing?
A: It started with my father, who grew up in the Pittsburgh area but got it in his head that he wanted to be a sailor. He moved out here in the 1950s to go to the University of Washington law school, but it was really for the sailing. He thought Puget Sound was the sailing capital of the world. (“Before the Wind” is dedicated to Lynch’s father. It also includes a highly athletic sister and a science-obsessed mother. Lynch says he had both.)
Q: The main character in “Before the Wind,” Josh, is the emotional Mr. Fixit of the family. Why did you decide to focus on him, as opposed to some of the more colorful family members?
A: That’s often the case in a novel when there are a number of flamboyant characters — there’s one observer. I wanted him to be in a position to step back and analyze … a kind of conventional narrator, someone who can synthesize and make sense of the larger-than-life characters around him. When you have someone writing as a first-person narrator, you want someone a reader will want to hang out with for an entire novel.
Q: Albert Einstein is a recurring motif in this novel. Besides his love of sailing, was that a way to highlight the perils and pitfalls of genius?
A: That’s my journalism background. I tend to overly research. I was looking at the history of sailing through some of our famous sailors, when I came across the fact that it was Einstein’s lifelong hobby or passion. I read everything I could find about him and sailing, the way he looked at sailing … Einstein worked as a bridge between the science and the sport. He’s also an irresistible personality as well.
Q: You seem to have adopted, as one of your ongoing projects, a chronicle of change in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. If Roger Morgan in “Truth Like the Sun” represented the city’s transformation in the 1960s, what do the Johannsens and their way of life represent?
A: The Johannsens represent a historical landmark, a Seattle family that goes back a few generations. The fact that their boating business has gone down the tubes and is obsolete, and the father is desperately holding on to the past. There’s a kind of passionate resistance to change in the family. That’s one of the threads that held them together for a long time and one of the pressures that pulled them apart.
Q: How has sailing changed? In the book you write about tech titans who spend lavishly on their boats. On the other hand, a lot of folks in the marina Josh works at are barely hanging on.
A: The cost of competitively racing the fastest large boats is a very expensive endeavor for the owner of the boat … But all the people that sail on those boats and race those boats with the owner do it for free.
And there is plenty of racing in small boats that is really quite cheap, including this wonderful fleet of about 20 old Star sailboats that race down here in front of the Capital … during the rainy season you can find people willing to simply give their boats away. And the vast majority of sailors just sail for pleasure, not to compete … I think it’s such a big part of the Northwest culture, just as much as the skiing world and the mountaineering world. It’s part of the fabric here.
Q: As a flatlander, I have found the lingo and principles of sailing to be almost impossible to understand, but you might have pulled it off. Is it difficult to translate for a general readership?
A: That was one of the motivating assignments for myself, to make sailing happen and be engaging on the page, without dumbing it down …
One of my favorite things to do is to take people on one of my two beer sails. We have dinner on the boat, we go down sailing out of the harbor, and suddenly you see it hit them. It’s a different vantage, it does seem like they’ve gotten a new religion. Then they get back on shore and the euphoria evaporates.
Q: All your books seem to feature at least one character who has outsized gifts — of intelligence, observation, or affinity for the natural world.
A: There is a pattern of me liking to create characters that tune into the natural world better than the rest of us. The tidal world in “The Highest Tide,” Brandon being immersed in the bird world in “Border Songs.” … Even in the characters of “Truth Like the Sun,” there was a sharp and intuitive politician and reporter. They’re all observant in the ways most of us aren’t. I’ve always been fascinated in the fact that there are these worlds around us that we miss. That people who simply pay attention are considered geniuses.
Q: And your books are all set in the Northwest.
A: What makes this part of the world exotic is our natural landscape. I find it endlessly interesting, and I find ways to tap into it.