Jase Kovacs - Writing From a Yacht
Jase Kovacs enjoys writing his novels from a sailing yacht. His latest novel, Ebb Tide, was written and posted online while delivering a yacht from Micronesia to New Zealand. As our author of the day, Kovacs revealed how his own adventures made their way into his books and talks about what it takes to write novels from a yacht.
Please give us a short introduction to what Ebb Tide is about?
Ebb Tide is my attempt to take a clichéd scenario (the post apocalyptic zombie plague) and write it with a fresh angle: the protagonist is a young woman named Matai, exploring the ruined world in her family's yacht.
Battling the elements and vicious survivors, she struggles to keep the failing systems of her boat – her home – going. She has become a scavenger and a warrior by necessity; searching deadly shipwrecks for anything that can keep her alive – or that she can trade with other survivors.
However her own personal struggles take on a greater dimension when she discovers a terrible threat hidden in a wrecked cargo ship - a threat that could spell the end for the human race.
What inspired you to write about a teenager sailing through the world?
About four years ago I used my life savings to buy an old yacht and embark on my own sailing adventure. In that time, I've met many other long term cruisers (or yachties) who live full time on their boats - boats that are their homes and, indeed, often their entire worlds. This includes families - Mum, Dad, kids - sailing around the world, the children homeschooled but receiving an education in life and the world greater than any they would ever find in a textbook.
A lot of these kids are extremely impressive young individuals - mentally robust free thinkers, who are learning practical skills but also growing up exposed to other cultures and nationalities. When I was sketching out the timeline of my own story, it seemed natural that the protagonist should be one of these kids, grown up, using the skills she's learned from her parents to survive in a world none of them ever conceived could be possible.
You live on an old sailing yacht. How often do your own adventures end up in your book?
I'd be lying if I didn't say that Ebb Tide didn't draw from many episodes of my own life - not so much the plague stricken zombies! But little aspects, the frustrations found with maintenance and supply and the awe you feel when confronted with a wonder of the natural world, those are very real and very true to me.
You have to be pretty self sufficient as a long distance sailor: you can't just call the local garage when your engine doesn't start when you're anchored in a remote atoll! So you learn a whole range of esoteric skills - everything from the obvious sailing and seamanship knowledge to little things like how to keep eggs fresh for three months, how to service and maintain all manner of gadgets and doodads and how best to cope when those gadgets fail (as they inevitably do, often at the worst time!)
So, often with Ebb Tide, I'm taking those situations to their logical extreme... and mixing a healthy dose of zombie plague in there as well.
Why did you set your story in an post-apocalyptic world?
I enjoy the post-apoc setting when it's done right. For example, Mad Max Fury Road was a revelation - I went in expecting car crashes and got it - but also got an incredibly realised story of female emancipation. That's what I look for in stories - deep thematic resonances beneath the surface gloss.
Also as a writer, post-apocalypse gives you an incredible amount of freedom. You can make up the rules of the apocalypse: what works, what doesn't and you can define the characters freedom of movement to allow your story to carry the themes you want.
Plus, every sailor I know is aware of the fragile relationship humanity has with the natural world and has considered how they would survive if everything fell apart. It was while thinking on this subject during a long night watch in the Pacific that I first conceived Ebb Tide.
How is Ebb Tide different from the two previous books you wrote?
All three of my books are very much a child of my circumstances at the time of their writing. My first novel, The Silent Circus opens in a WW2 city devastated by firebombing. This came out of my own experiences in the Australian Army after the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, which killed almost two hundred people in rural Victoria. Likewise, my second book, A Dirty Peace drew from my experiences as a peacekeeper in East Timor.
The other major difference was that I had no pressure on me while writing my first two books. I wrote when the muse struck me and we can all appreciate how fickle the wait for inspiration can be. But I wrote Ebb Tide within very strict constraints of both time and opportunity - I set myself a word limit a day, I could only write at certain times and I was publishing chapters on a blog as they were written. This pressure forced me to write whether the muse was visiting or not!
How do you manage to keep your readers hooked throughout the book?
I - perhaps unwisely - decided to write this book as Nanowrimo (a challenge to write 50000 words in the month of November) while delivering a yacht from Micronesia to New Zealand. So I was not only skippering a yacht at sea, but trying to write a novel at the same time. Not only that, I decided, to keep me motivated, to publish the chapters as I was writing them to a blog, so friends could read and respond as the book was going up! Not exactly the most low-pressure undertaking I've ever embarked upon!
I would only get maybe an hour or two each day to write - and I set myself a daily quote of 2000 words - so I had to keep the writing lean and to the point. But also, I had to keep everyone coming back to the blog each day - as well as keep myself interested and motivated!
So we go from cliffhanger to cliffhanger in the story, as I needed to make sure that not only did a reader come back each day - I had to make sure I had to keep writing! I think it's worked - I've received emails from readers complaining that its 3am and they can't stop reading until the story is finished!
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
I knew I would have a lot of sailors - with a great deal more experience than me - looking for technical mistakes in the book, so I made sure I had everything there right. But you asked about secret skills... I guess my cooking is the one people are surprised to discover. I love good food but, when you're a thousand miles from land, you need a bit of ingenuity to satisfy a craving for a good chicken paprikash or enchiladas!
For your own reading, do you prefer ebooks or traditional paper/hard back books?
I love traditional books - one of the hardest parts about living onto a boat full time was downsizing my library to a dozen volumes that I couldn't do without! However, because I now live out of a backpack, I've embraced ereaders. They may lack the texture and tactile pleasures of reading a book, but that's outweighed by the convenience of having hundreds of titles at my fingertips. Plus, standing long night watches at sea is far more bearable with a reader set to nightmode.
What is an aspect of being a writer that you didn't know about going in?
The amount of marketing and administration needed. Like many naive first timers, I thought I'd just need to write a good book and everything else would fall into place! I released my first books and, despite good reviews, they didn't sell well. I found the same thing when approaching traditional publishers - I got a lot of positive feedback and encouragement, but ultimately the response was they didn't feel the market was calling for my work. I also suffered from the prejudice against independent publishing that saw it as a vanity project, rather than an increasingly legitimate way of sharing your work.
With Ebb Tide, I did it all around the other way. I was effectively marketing the book from the first chapter by promoting the blog - effectively giving the book away to those readers who came on board when Ebb Tide was little more than a cover, a blurb and Chapter 1.
Again, I think writing under public pressure helped the writing. A brief blurb helped me keep the story on track and seeing my cover from the beginning kept me inspired that I was writing a book that would see the light of day. And having readers following along, excited as the story developed, helped keep me motivated, knowing that there was an audience there.
Talk to us about your writing routine; what’s a typical writing day for you?
When we're sailing, myself and the crew alternate three hour watches. However, when we are in harbour, I usually am busy all day conducting maintenance and repairs. From long habit, I rise before dawn - giving me a few hours before I have enough light to work on boat tasks. I breakfast on deck, composing my thoughts while watching the sunrise and waiting for my coffee to kick in, and then I sit down and write. I set myself a limit of two thousand words - but don't beat myself up if I don't get there.
I then work on the boat for the rest of the day. Often, these are tasks that keep my hands busy while letting my mind wander. So, I usually am thinking about how the characters will get out of whatever predicament I've left them in that morning.
What was the toughest thing you had to go through while writing Ebb Tide?
We were having massive issues while crossing the Solomon Sea. A bad batch of fuel we bought in New Ireland had contaminated the fuel tanks with an amoebic "bug" which clogged our filters and choked the engine, leaving us drifting in a rolling sea while I conducted repairs on a hot diesel engine and tried to clean the fuel tanks. Morale was low, I was physically exhausted and was facing problem after problem. So, it was cathartic in a way to allow my frustrations to be expressed by Matty as she dealt with her own issues in the story.
As far as the story went, I had to continually avoid painting myself into a corner. I had no plan for the story when I started writing, other than "protagonist explores wrecked ship, bad things happen." So, when Matty faced a problem, I had to work out a solution as well, one that was both realistic, could work and supported the overall themes of the story. I had to deal with both the real world limits she would face (i.e. diesel engines wouldn't work after thirteen years) with the self imposed creative limits (the antagonist can do x and y, so how would he use those abilities to defeat the protagonist, and how could the protagonist respond in a realistic manner.) It was enjoyable to troubleshoot the challenges Matty faced on the Black Harvest, and I probably lost more sleep than I should've thinking, "ahh, how is she going to get out of this one!?"
Tell us more about the title. Why “Ebb Tide”?
As a sailor, you become closely linked to the natural environment in a way I never considered possible before I put to sea. Annual weather systems, seasonal changes, monsoons: all are key factors in deciding how and where you go each year. One of the most important cycles is the daily progression of tides - from Ebb Tide (when the tide is going out) to Slack Water (when there is no movement of water) and Flood Tide (when the tide is coming in). It follows that tides can be good or bad, depending on what you want to do. If you are embarking on a long anticipated voyage, then an Ebb Tide is good as it will carry you out to sea. But if you are a swimmer trying to reach land, an ebb tide is bad as you will have to fight it to reach safety.
So the title Ebb Tide works on a thematic level in the story. You could say that humanity is on an ebb tide, as it is facing extinction. But on the other hand, the lowering water of the ebb tide uncovers hidden rocks and hazards you might otherwise run upon. The cyclic nature of the natural world, and the way that good and bad is a matter of perspective, is a key theme in the story and the title reflects this.
What are you working on right now?
I'm working on the sequel to Ebb Tide, called (predictably enough) Slack Water. This will follow the protagonist as she returns to her home island and the reaction to her story as it happened in Ebb Tide. Then, even more predictably, we will go onto the third book, called Flood Tide.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
Most of the action happens on my Facebook where I post interesting or humorous episodes from what we're getting up to. I also have two blogs, my writing blog at jasekovacs.info as well as teamlabyrinth.com where I promote my team's conservation and film making efforts. And of course all my books are available on Amazon.
Facebook Author Page: https://www.facebook.com/jasekovacsauthor/
Amazon Author Page: https://amazon.com/author/jasekovacs
Team Labyrinth: http://www.teamlabyrinth.com/