Alex Haley … Down to the Sea Again
Alex Haley was an American writer best known as the author of Roots, a novel based on his family’s history, which won him a special Pulitzer Prize in 1977. It was adapted as a popular television miniseries of the same name by ABC and reached a record-breaking 130 million viewers.
A former member of the Coast Guard for 20 years, he found his greatest creative inspiration when he was sailing at sea and often while writing, he would book passage on a freighter or cargo vessel.
His work on Roots involved twelve years of research, travel, and writing. In an article called Down to the Sea Again, published in 1990, he described his writing whilst at sea.
“Going to sea is my salvation. It’s the one place I know of where I can be reasonably isolated and have uninterrupted time to write. I always travel by freighter, staying out for a month or two at a time. The staterooms on freighters are very comfortable—some are really lavish—the food is great, and every trip is an adventure because cargo, not a set schedule, dictates a freighter’s movements.
If I could spend one month at sea and one on shore, I’d be in hog heaven. I’m not too far short of that. Right now I spend three or four months a year on freighters. I tend to repeat trips I’ve done before, taking the same cruise from Houston to Rio, then on to other ports in South America. Or I cross the Atlantic to Europe or take a run from California through the Pacific to Australia and New Zealand.
It was while I was at sea, during my 20 years in the Coast Guard, that I taught myself to write. It started with letters to lots of people back home, dramatizing my travels. My shipmates began to notice that I was sending and receiving more mail than anybody else, so they asked me to help them write letters to their girls. Pretty soon I was the Cyrano of the ship, composing love letters for all these guys. That was the first notion I had that writing was something I might pursue as a career.
I still like to write on the water. You get this almost triumphant feeling from standing on the deck of a big ship as the lines are loosed. You look down at all those people on the pier, and they all have envy on their faces, wishing they could go too. Then the big ship moves away from the pier. There’s something about that movement. Slow power. She eases away, and the next thing you know, you’re at sea again.
The first days are always the same for me. I worry about what I didn’t get done before leaving. But around the third day I get to the point where I stop caring about that. There’s nothing to see but water, and it’s a wonder. Another medium, a different world. That vast expanse takes you out of yourself.
All of a sudden I’ll realize that I’m actually out there, and I can start working on that critically important writing I’ve brought with me. I’m like somebody who’s starving. I’m ravenous to get at this work, this writing I love so much.
At sea I work 14 to 16 hours a day, starting about 10:30 every night and writing until daybreak, then sleeping till lunchtime. In the afternoons I do whatever I feel like. Maybe fiddle with my notes, pick, peck over what I wrote. At dinner I socialize with the other passengers. After dinner I take another nap, then by 10 or 10:30 I’m back at work.
Usually about 1:30 in the morning I take a break and go out on deck. At that hour it’s quiet, with everybody asleep. I always go and do that time-honored thing of putting my hands on the ship’s rail and staring up at the moon …”
He had plenty more to say about his writing-life on board freighters and other cargo carrying vessels. In a 1987 interview he said :
“I seem to write my very best out on the oceans, anywhere that’s distant from appointments, telephones and the myriad other things that clutter our lives. I’d guess that about 80 percent of Roots was written on board various freighters. Where perennial enthusiasm is concerned, I’ll say I’m in the front ranks of freighter buffs. I try to sail at least two voyages yearly. I block out four to six weeks during summers and again during winters, usually helped by the holidays. Christmas for me, I like to say, is when I get a book finished.”
In October 1991, Alex Haley gave a speech to the employees of Reader’s Digest that included information about the writing of Roots while travelling on freight ships.
“There’s something about when you go out on a ship and usually, I go out on freight ships, cargo ships; I wouldn’t get caught on a liner. How can you write with 800 people dancing? But on the freight ships, not many of them carry passengers, but those which do carry passengers carry a total of twelve, a maximum of twelve people. The law is that if a ship carries more than twelve, it must have a doctor on board. So the people who go out there tend to be very quiet people. It is said, not too far amiss, that excitement on a cargo ship is when someone finishes a jigsaw puzzle.
But what I do is I go and work my principal work hours from about 10:30 at night until daybreak. The world is yours at that point. Most of all the passengers are asleep. Sometimes there are only three other people awake on the ship. On the bridge, the officer of the day and the helmsman, and the guy who makes the rounds punching clocks every hour, and you.
“The thing I particularly love is when you get in there and you’ve got all your notes and your research and stuff literally in the one room with you. It’s sometimes up on your bunk, and you sleep with it all by your feet. It’s a lovely feeling—like being in the womb with what you are trying to do.”