Geoffrey Wolff's nonfiction books include Black Sun (Random House, 1976), on the short-lived avant-garde poet Harry Crosby; The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O’Hara (Knopf, 2003), a literary biography of the American fiction writer; The Duke of Deception (Random House, 1979), a memoir that was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize; The Edge of Maine (National Geographic, 2005), a rich portrayal of the salty, sea-pounded, and seasonally gentrified Maine coast; and The Hard Way Around: The Passages of Joshua Slocum (Knopf 2010), a biography of the legendary icon of adventure.
From a Q & A at his publisher's website:
Q: What drew you to Joshua Slocum as a subject?See Geoffrey Wolff's list of the five best books on fury and terror on the high seas.
A: The personal history that led Capt. Slocum to be the first to sail alone around the world was fascinating on its face. Why around and why alone were not questions that he directly answered in Sailing Alone Around the World, his extraordinary book about the adventure. To explore his life I hoped to understand what prepared him to succeed and what might have drawn him to endure more than three years of solitude. (In fact, while I say “endure”—thinking of solitary confinement—he might well have said “enjoy.”) And while Slocum had written about two other adventures—the self-rescue of his family after a shipwreck in Brazil by building and sailing 5,500 miles in a canoe (the Liberdade) and bringing a warship (the Destroyer) from New York to Brazil during one of its comic-opera civil wars—he never had the leisure to write about the many other extraordinary feats and perils he experienced afloat and ashore during the second half of the 19th century. He ran away to sea from Nova Scotia to Liverpool at sixteen, and rocketed through the ranks to become a very young master of a majestic bark in the San Francisco-Sydney trade. He sailed everywhere, and experienced astonishing trials: mutinous murders, shipwrecks, piracy, the eruption of Krakatoa, deadly shipboard epidemics, the capricious booms and busts of the shipping trade, the deaths of his beloved wife and three of their children.
Q: Did his wife join him at sea?
A: Virginia Walker was a young American beauty when she and Slocum met in Sydney, where her father had brought her during the Australian gold rush. After a whirlwind courtship they married, Joshua twenty-six and Virginia young enough to require the consent of her parents. A crack shot, an adventurer always eager for a new escapade, she was Slocum’s full partner at sea, from San Francisco to Alaska to Manila to Hong Kong to the Okhotsk Sea to Portland to Honolulu to Liverpool to New York, around Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope. That is, until...[read on]