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A Voyage for Madmen
Peter Nichols
298 pp.

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The Wag Chats with
Peter Nichols

Peter Nichols, the author of A Voyage for Madmen, discusses the complexities of writing the story of the 1969 Golden Globe race and tells us why the sea appeals to him as a literary subject.

Why did so many men who were clearly unprepared step forward to compete in the 1969 Golden Globe race?

Nichols: A few were prepared, and waited until they were; others, hearing news of everybody else getting ready to do the same thing, departed before they were ready. And there were those who would never have been ready no matter what their preparations. All were gripped by the idea to do it, and they took off when they felt they had to, ready or not.

WAG: If you had been of age to compete in the 1969 Golden Globe race, would you have answered the call for competitors?

Nichols: I thought at one time I would have. I wouldn't now, but if I'd had a boat then I might have started. I don't think I would have finished.

WAG: Could such a race be held today with so many novices competing in such dangerous conditions?

Nichols: Probably not. Certainly, the history of this race would suggest that no organizing body would back such an ill-prepared group. But the London Sunday Times didn't instigate the race in 1968; rather, they offered prizes to the men who were already preparing. The race was already underway, and there was no stopping it.

WAG: As you observe in the book, the sea has a way of nullifying even an experienced sailor's best efforts, and a sailor's psychological state comes to bear heavily on his chances of surviving. What psychological factors distinguished the eventual winner from his fellow competitors?

Nichols: That's exactly right. The outcome was not determined by the sea or weather or boats but by the nature and psychological makeup of each man. Success and failure depended on who they were. The winner made it back despite everything imaginable. He won due to astounding determination, ingenuity, sheer physical and mental toughness, but most of all, an almost inhuman lack of self-doubt.

WAG: Of the nine competitors, to whom did you feel closest while writing?

Nichols: Donald Crowhurst. The epic tragedy of the race. The farthest fall. For the great distance between his aspiration and his fallibility. I can relate to imagination-driven failure.

WAG: This is your second nonfiction book about the sea, and your novel, Voyage to the North Star, was about a sea voyage. What do you find so appealing about the sea? With a slight twist of fate, could you write minimalist short stories or comic novels?

Nichols: I find the sea to be a perfect crucible. It's a place where people are stripped of all the pretence they normally use or rely on in life ashore, and without it, in that spare and elemental place, they find themselves face to face with who and what they really are. This happened to me, and it seems to happen to the people I write about, real or imaginary.

There are so many books I admire and love to read—Richard Ford's Independence Day, James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime—but I seem to be able to write only my own thing my own way. Although I'm writing some quite different fiction and nonfiction now, but it still feels unalterably mine, as in what I'm burdened with and must write.... I could go on at length with this tack....

I'm also writing a bit of journalism—e.g., a solo kayaking trip down some swollen rivers in wintertime France, navigating by Michelin Guide, which I believe GQ is bringing out next November—which allows me to use a different voice, and some humor, and I enjoy this outlet very much and will do more.

WAG: You mention in the Acknowledgements that Jonathan Raban "urged me to dig deeper in certain areas, advice that had an incalculable effect of improving the whole book." How, exactly, did the text change?

Nichols: Raban, who knows parts of this story well, felt I was skimping a bit in places when he looked at an early draft, and he was right, and when I went back to look into some details further, it made me look everywhere, and I raised the level of the whole book. He's a great writer, whose work I have long admired, and he has high standards; he applied those to me and it was somewhat withering. He's a bit of an old bugger with it, but in the end I was glad of it and grateful for his interest.

WAG: There's a strong story arc to your book—this is a race, after all, with a beginning, middle and an end. But the ending has such touching, profoundly moving elements that I imagine the final chapters required a more delicate touch. How moved were you, personally, by the race's aftermath, and how did it affect your writing the final pages?

Nichols: Thanks for the comments and observation.

The ending did require the flexing of different muscles. I was extremely moved by the ending—not, after all, something I made up but the way it really turned out. I find the whole story an extraordinary human drama and tragedy—it's not about the sea at all really, in that sense, but about these nine very different men. While I was writing and composing the end, finding out how to put it as sparely as possible, trying to distill it down to its essential emotion, I became very moved.

But as a writer, it was a wonderful feeling, kind of like being an actor and having a great scene on stage that really touches you, but afterward you feel exhilarated by how well you feel it worked. If that doesn't sound too immodest. It was great material to work with.

—Interview conducted by Doug Childers

Posted August 1, 2001


Photo Credit: Anne Look

Peter Nichols spent ten years at sea working as a professional yacht captain before turning to writing full time. In addition to A Voyage for Madmen, he is the author of a memoir, Sea Change: Alone Across the Atlantic in a Wooden Boat, and a novel, A Voyage to the North Star. He has taught creative writing at Georgetown University and lives in northern California.



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