When Justin Scott wrote The Shipkiller in 1978, it made the New York Times Book Review list and earned a spot on the International Thriller Writers list, Thrillers: 100 Best Reads, alongside The Odyssey, The Bourne Identity and The Hunt for Red October. TIME magazine wrote, “The saga…is as heady as Francis Chichester’s narrative, with a draught of Melville and a slosh of Josh Slocum.”
Since The Shipkiller, Scott has written 29 more novels, some under the pen name Paul Garrison, and has established himself as something truly unique: a successful sailing fiction writer. The Shipkiller is enjoying a 35th anniversary reprint, so we caught up with the author to learn what it takes to write a compelling sailing saga.
How did you become interested in sailing?
I’ve always liked boats. When I was little I would draw pictures of ocean liners and then my mother would draw the portholes because she was an artist and could draw circles. Growing up on Long Island, boats were around all the time. I had a little boat as a kid and drove a workboat in college. When I started writing, it never occurred to me to write sailing stuff per se, but I was writing mysteries and made excuses to write in some boat scenes.
How were you inspired for The Shipkiller?
I was trying to write a thriller, and it wasn’t working. Then one night I was reading Super Ship by Noel Mostert. In it, Mostert writes that shortly after the Israeli-Arab war, giant oil tankers began going around the Cape of Good Hope and then 50-ton South African fishing trawlers began to disappear. These giant oil tankers were hitting trawlers, driving them under the sea and destroying them. No one knew, including the people on the tankers, because they were so big.
Every now and then writers get lucky and get the whole idea, the whole book in one sentence. I thought: “What if a couple in love are sailing and are hit by one of these tankers and the boat is destroyed, and the wife is killed and the man survives by a miracle, and nobody knows it’s happened except him, but he can’t prove it?” The novel began.
How did you research the technical aspects of Shipkiller?
My editor suggested I book a passage across the North Atlantic in the winter on the smallest ship I could, so I did! I left Cape Fear in March on a Polish ocean liner with 12 cabins. Leaving at night with the river wild and the pilot boat roaring alongside was romantic and exciting. I wrote down everything.
Back in Long Island, I had a friend who was a good sailor and very articulate. We’d go sailing all day and he would tell me everything he was doing while I took notes. I also read up a storm of sailing books.
After I published Shipkiller, everybody invited me to come sailing because they figured, “This guy knows what he’s doing!” It gave me some lovely adventures: the Atlantic, deliveries to the Caribbean. It’s a different world offshore. A beautiful, beautiful world.
What does it take to become a successful sailing fiction writer?
Sea stories are hard to sell because they attract small audiences. I think one reason is because the sea is so far from anyone’s experience these days. When Melville was writing sea stories, people were hungry for information about the sea because they knew how important it was. Now it doesn’t stick in our minds, even though what goes on out there is hugely important to every one of us. I’ve always dreamed I would be the one to bring back sea stories in a huge way.
Why did you choose to write five of your later sea novels under the pen name Paul Garrison?
When I wrote the big sea story, Fire and Ice, my agent said, “You know they’re liking you as a mystery novel writer now, but if they could attach this book to a new name, to someone who is not a mystery writer, I might be able to sell it for lots more.” Without even putting much thought into it I said, “Sure, go ahead.”
Do you have any advice for writers?
Write the kind of book you like. At the end of the day you need more pages than when you started with, and it becomes a job of production. To make books, you have to sit down and write them.