Sunday, October 24, 2010

Why I Wrote Decline of Fishes

Set in the historic fishing port of Gloucester, Massachusetts during the summer of 1993, Decline of Fishes depicts the battle, led by an intrepid group of local citizens, to prevent the construction of a shopping mall on the last remaining parcel of the city’s harborfront. The mall’s promoters—city councilor Joyce Benson; the out-of-town developer Win Guest; and Jock O’Hanley, his well-connected attorney—claim that with Gloucester’s fishing industry threatening collapse, the harbor should be redeveloped as a tourist attraction and commercial center to raise tax revenue and create jobs. But the development’s opponents, led by native son Jason Makrides, artisan Frank Acciaio, and Nina Calogero, president of Save Our Fishermen, wage a pitched battle to convince their community that, instead of providing jobs and taxes for the city, the shopping mall will pave the way—literally—for this proud, gritty fishing port’s extinction.

Decline of Fishes is a multi-layered novel about the recklessness of growth at any cost, the survival of an endangered industry, and the value of hard-won principles. The novel tells the story of a choice faced by cities and towns across America: whether to stay true to their historical selves or sell out to the highest bidder.

I had long wanted to write a novel about my hometown that encompassed the struggles of the often beleaguered fishing industry of America’s oldest seaport and my own conflicts about having come home to live and work. But it wasn’t until I returned in 1962 that another dimension of the struggle surfaced. Urban renewal was eating away at the infrastructure of Gloucester’s working waterfront, as well as the fabric of the city, followed by the stirrings of what would shortly surface as a building boom—subdivisions, condos, industrial parks—that threatened to transform both the nature and character of this historic fishing community. Not only was the city under economic pressure because of fluctuations in the fishing stocks, we also faced the social and environmental consequences of overdevelopment. Everything we loved about our human-scale city was under siege.

Instead of setting to work on my novel, I was forced into activism by the urgency of what was happening to the place in which I had chosen to spend the rest of my life. A series of skirmishes against luxury condominiums and upscale subdivisions soon turned into a struggle over the soul of the city itself. Would Gloucester remain the gritty working-class community we’d grown up in and loved, or would we give in to those development pressures that would transform the city into a bedroom for Boston while making housing unaffordable to natives? This was not an idle question as we watched towns like Newburyport, Portland, Maine and Newport, Rhode Island fall captive to the allure of tourist dollars and condominium lifestyles, which ended up forcing fishermen off the their waterfronts and natives into low-paying service jobs.

For three decades I worked with citizen-based groups opposing what many of us felt was inappropriate development and advocating for long-term comprehensive planning that would provide for orderly growth while preserving the vital character of the city. During this time I published At the Cut, a memoir about my childhood in Gloucester, and Broken Trip, a novel-in-stories based on my experiences as a social worker at Action, Inc., the city’s antipoverty agency. I also contributed over 600 weekly columns about local affairs to the Gloucester Daily Times. While carrying on these activities, I continued to be haunted by the novel I had hoped to write about the tensions I was experiencing in my daily life in a city rocked to its foundations by the battles between those who pressed to transform our community and those who fought to maintain its traditional character and folkways.

As I searched for a dramatic focus for my novel, an event or issue around which I could construct a narrative, a Boston developer announced his proposal to build a shopping mall on the last open parcel of the city’s industrial waterfront. The battle that ensued over that mall practically tore the city to pieces. I had become so intimately involved in the struggle, along with dozens of individuals and local groups, that it didn’t occur to me until much later that I had finally been given the subject and basis for my story, what Henry James called a donne`. I would write about the fight to stop the mall, which, in reality, proved to be the key struggle to preserve the soul of Gloucester.

During the battle over the mall, in the mid-to-late-80s, the fishing industry fell deeper into crisis with the virtual collapse of the North Atlantic stocks, actuating the most stringent government restrictions on fishing the industry had known. After days at sea were cut, along with the institution of catch limits, many fishing families lost both their boats and a large portion of their livelihood. Gloucester suffered from the effects of these onerous regulations along with the entire seacoast of New England. I observed the impact of the government regulations as I watched my friends in the fishing community fight to maintain their way of life. As a social worker, I experienced first hand the economic and emotional fallout from the crisis in the lives of the families I attempted to help stay afloat. Feeling the need to incorporate this crisis into my narrative, I decided to set my story about the mall in1993, eight years after its actual occurrence. This was the precise time when government regulations were beginning to have their most dramatic impact on the city and when, capitalizing on the crisis, out-of-town developers began to exert increasing pressures on city officials to grant permits to build what many citizens looked upon as unsuitable development projects in terms of size, placement and potential impact on the local character and environment. Combining the crisis in fishing and the city’s economy with the seductive demands of developers would, I hoped, increase the novel’s dramatic potential.

The narrative extends over the course of a single summer, in 1993. The novel opens with a demonstration at the federal National Marine Services office building during which fishermen, organized by Nina Calogero, president of Save Our Fishermen, try to prevent government workers from going to work, just as they believe restrictive federal regulations keep them from fishing daily; and it reaches a climax with the final vote of the City Council for or against the mall. The action of the story, its plot, unfolds in a series of contrapuntal chapters narrated from the point of view of four of the principal characters (Jason Makrides, Allison Banks, Nina Calogero, and Lori Lambert), beginning and ending with Jason. This enables the story to be told and the action and meaning of events to be perceived through diverse points of view, hopefully lending greater dimension to the novel. Narration is in the third-person, selective-omniscient, except for the chapters devoted to Jason, who speaks in the first person to create a subjectivity that I hoped would enhance the tension among voices while maintaining his role as the novel’s protagonist.

The dramatic payoff comes after the build up of suspense leading to the City Council’s vote that will determine the fate of the mall for its adherents and opponents. In the course of achieving this resolution in the narrative, each of the principal characters surmounts a personal conflict or challenge that results in growth or change, even if those changes are often painfully won.

Finally, this novel is about the process of its own composition. Jason has long wanted to write a novel about the struggle of his hometown to maintain its identity in a changing world and his own conflicts as he came of age as a writer. Decline of Fishes enacts that struggle. It is the novel that Jason has dreamed of writing and ultimately writes.

Though the actual battle against the mall took place twenty-five years ago, the story I’ve fictionalized has not lost its relevance. As federal restrictions continue to plague the fishing industry, which is still fighting for its life even as stocks recoup, and Gloucester, like the rest of the nation, suffers from the collapse of the global economy, new proposals continue to challenge our community, as we attempt to balance necessary growth against the equally vital imperative to retain our fundamental character, which brings people from all over the world to our city. But the will to persevere among fishermen and their families has not wavered, nor has the love of place of the majority of the city’s residents. It is these verities I hoped to celebrate in Decline of Fishes.

In conclusion, let me offer a word about the way this book has been published. Believing that writers themselves should have ultimate control over the content, editing, design, marketing and distribution of their books, Schuyler Hoffman and I founded the Back Shore Writers Collaborative in 2005. To date we have published two books under the imprint of Back Shore Press, Peter’s Tuttle’s road poem, Looking for a Sign in the West, and my novel, No Fortunes, both of which have been well received and reviewed. We have worked with local artists and designers and regional printing facilities to produce our books, and we distribute and sell them through local distributors, independent booksellers and the Internet.

(Decline of Fishes is a available from area book stores and from our distributor Len Bolonsky, Good Harbor Books, 978-283-4769 or 978-283-9294. Also available from

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Paul Sawyer Honored at Charles Olson Centennial

The final weekend of the Charles Olson Centennial, October 8-10, began with a celebration of the life of a man who was a poet and writer himself and the friend of some of the country’s leading poets and writers, including Gloucester’s recently appointed Honorary Poets Laureate, Charles Olson and Vincent Ferrini.

On Friday, October 8 at 3 p.m. the life of Rev. Paul Sawyer was commemorated in words and music at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Gloucester, a church he often attended and sometimes preached at. Family members, friends, former colleagues and poets and writers, who had traveled to Gloucester for the Charles Olson Centennial, joined together to pay tribute to the life of this remarkable man at the church where Vincent Ferrini often read and Olson wrote about in his Gloucester epic, “The Maximus Poems.”

Rev. Sawyer, who died in Pasadena on June 23 of pancreatic cancer, was the animating force behind the newly founded Gloucester Writers Center, formerly the home of Vincent Ferrini, where Ferrini and Sawyer spent countless hours talking during Sawyer’s many visits home to Gloucester. Even as he struggled with cancer, Sawyer campaigned for the project, helped to raise funds for the purchase of Ferrini’s house, and visited Gloucester to garner final support for his dream’s realization, writing to board members:

“The Ferrini Olson Poetry Center will provide a setting for writing and scholarship in the spirit of these two outstanding Gloucester writers. It will carry forward their commitment within the Cape Ann community as well as the wider world, reaching out to schools and writers engaging in the ‘unfinished business’ in front of us.”

A native of Saugus, Sawyer grew up on Cape Ann during the summers, where his parents, a brother, sister, nieces, nephews and cousins lived. His schooling was completed nearby at Phillips Andover Academy and Harvard University, and Sawyer returned frequently to Gloucester to visit family and friends, always marveling at the natural beauty of the city and its ability to attract and nurture artists and writers.

As much as Sawyer was animated by poetry, which he shared often with his congregations as a Unitarian Universalist minister and graduate of the Star King School of Ministry in Berkeley, California, he was also a strong advocate for peace and social justice. According to his obituary in the Pasadena Weekly, he had been incarcerated “some sixty times during protests against the death penalty, nuclear power and the war in Vietnam.” His jail companions included singer Jackson Brown and “Pentagon Papers” author Daniel Ellsberg.

But “he had so many spheres—jazz, politics, history,” Susan, his wife of 25 years, said, describing his fifty years of ministry in Seattle, Oregon, Berkley, Pittsburg, New Jersey and Pasadena. His sister Charlotte, wife of retired Gloucester pediatrician, Dr. Hamer Lacey, told a story about how Sawyer, though gravely ill, attended a reunion at Andover with old classmates, many of whom occupied positions of power in the world.

“He didn’t want to talk about old times,” she said. “He didn’t want to discuss his illness. What he wanted to talk about was the war in Afghanistan and how to end it.” His wife added that Sawyer reminded his former classmates, “Your values aren’t worth anything unless you are ready to go to jail for them.”

Shortly before his death, Sawyer completed a memoir, “Untold Story: A Short Narrative History of Our Time,” in which he told his own story in the context of the turbulent years during which he preached, wrote, taught and made of himself an example of the “examined life,” so important to Emerson, Thoreau and the New England Transcendentalists he spent a lifetime studying and emulating.