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Greenlaw plots course in fiction

The Baltimore Sun

Linda Greenlaw is making stuff up.

The fisherman-turned-lobsterman-turned writer has turned another page, making the transition from nonfiction to fiction in her latest book.

As a fisherman, Greenlaw knows a lot about fibs. She has heard plenty and probably told a few. But her first three books and a cookbook written with her mother stuck to the facts.

With Slipknot (Hyperion, $24.95), she removes herself from the story in favor of Jane Bunker, an ex-police detective who flees the crime of Miami for the coastal tranquillity of Green Haven, Maine.

Except for the body that washes ashore in the first paragraph.

Solving the crime takes Bunker into the deepest recesses of commercial fishing boats, under docks and behind the scenery of the small waterfront community of her birth.

The most vividly drawn scene -- and naturally the climax -- has Bunker trapped far below deck of a fishing boat foundering during a massive storm while three men, one most likely the killer, labor to save the boat and themselves:

A stream of cold water blasted me in the face, awakening my worst nightmare. The ocean was surging over the stern and had forced its way into the engine room, flowing down through the spaces between the steel plates above me. The water must be rising quickly in the bilge below me, I thought. Although it was pitch dark, my sensation of partial submersion illuminated the horror. Pushing on the plate above me was useless. The weight of the water coming down was too great for me to overcome. Remain calm, remain calm, I thought as my steel casket continued to fill.

The struggle to survive is frightening, claustrophobic, exhilarating and, given Greenlaw's background on the high seas, entirely believable.

However, some of the dialogue involving her landlubber characters -- the waitress in the coffee shop, for example -- is less authentic and will need fine tuning in future books.

"The parts about boats and fishing were the only parts that didn't have heavy editing," Greenlaw acknowledges, chuckling.

Bunker is not Greenlaw, the author insists in a recent interview. But, in keeping with this work of fiction, that statement is not entirely true, I point out. Both author and character like an occasional dram of single-malt scotch. Both live in Maine. Both are sarcastic.

"Every thought Jane had went through my brain," says Greenlaw, laughing and protesting the line of prosecution. "It's hard writing in first person and not making her Linda Greenlaw."

Bunker wouldn't be much of a neighbor, the author concedes.

"She doesn't reach out. She's not going to have a lot of girlfriends. She's frugal to a fault, and that's going to get her in trouble some time," Greenlaw says. "Jane is a celebration of average. She can't bend spoons by staring at them. But she's persistent and she's got a great work ethic." Like the author.

The spotlight fell on Greenlaw, 46, a decade ago, when Sebastian Junger described her as "one of the best captains, period, on the entire East Coast," in his book, The Perfect Storm. In the movie version three years later, Greenlaw was played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.

Hyperion signed her to a three-book deal, resulting in The Hungry Ocean, which spent 30 weeks on The New York Times' best-seller list, The Lobster Chronicles and All Fishermen Are Liars. Then came the cookbook with Martha Greenlaw, Recipes for a Very Small Island.

Writing fiction caused a lot of "nervous anticipation," she says. "I know people who only read nonfiction. I wondered if people who have read me would read a novel. It was nerve wracking."

Entertainment Weekly gave Slipknot a "B-plus," and Working Waterfront, a Maine-based newspaper for fishermen, said: "Greenlaw builds tension and suspense perfectly. What a terrific first novel and let's hope there will be more for Jane Bunker to investigate."

For an author who has weathered the worst conditions the Atlantic Ocean can muster, Slipknot, "was the hardest thing I've ever done."

"It took me a year to write this book and I didn't enjoy the process. I wrote the first seven chapters and Will called and said, 'This has to be in first person,'" she says of her conversations with editor Will Schwalbe. "After nine chapters, he called and said, 'You need an outline.'"

The thought of an outline with Roman numerals and ABCs gave Greenlaw the willies, but she realized that without it, the plot was like a boat stuck in idle. She also realized that an outline would force her to decide which of her characters was a villain.

Slipknot doesn't take place in isolation. The book also looks at the dying commercial fishing industry and the controversy about putting wind farms at sea in areas used by both watermen and recreational boaters.

"I don't want to lecture, but I think that discussion of current issues and showing both sides brings a little richness to the book ..." she says.

A future mystery may include a detour into the conflicts between the lobster industry and aquaculture, something Greenlaw researched eight years ago, when she was looking for a new career after swordfishing.

The author is signed through two more mysteries. The mythical town of Green Haven (closest living relative, Stonington, Maine, the jumping-off point to Isle Au Haut, Greenlaw's home) and its quirky residents will get her that far. Then, she says, Bunker may have to move.

With friends on the Eastern Shore and near Ocean City, maybe Greenlaw can entice her alter ego to give Maryland a whirl.

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