Q&A WITH CO-AUTHORS JOHN ROCCO AND JAY PRIMIANO
Q. How long have you known each other, and how did that connection serve as inspiration for Swim That Rock?
John: I met Jay when he was rebuilding his boat at my neighbor’s house. I asked if I could help. I must have worked hard enough to impress Jay, because he offered me a job on his quahogging boat. I was eleven at the time.
Jay: We’ve been friends for thirty-five years. I also started working when I was eleven years old on my neighbor’s lobster boat. I recall how that chance opportunity came my way when a huge winter storm brought the tides up high enough to float some wooden lobster pots onto the salt marsh at the end of the street where I lived. I hauled the pots back to my house, read the name that was burned into the wooden frames, grabbed the phone book, and called the owner. He offered me a job on the spot and said I was “an honest kid.” I saw that same character in John years later when I met him.
John: So about four years ago we decided to start writing down our stories; all the things we experienced as kids. This led to the development of Swim That Rock.
Q. What was the actual writing process like between the two of you?
John: It’s interesting because at first it went very much the same way as when we worked on the boat. Jay would dig up all the stuff from the bottom, and my job as a picker was to sort it all out. Put all the quahogs in the right buckets and throw the rest away.
Jay: And that’s how we started writing. I would write about four thousand words every morning and e-mail it off to John, and he would cull through it to pick out the literary pearls.
John: Yes, we started remotely because we lived about 150 miles apart. Once we had a bunch of stories written down, we would get together somewhere for about a week and look at what we had.
Jay: When we weren’t writing together, most of our writing took place between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., before our wives and children woke. Interestingly, that is the same time we used to wake up to go fishing back in the 1980s. The early hours were appropriately inspirational for a couple of fishermen-turned-storytellers.
John: Toward the end of the writing process, when we were really honing in on our story, we would get together and alternate on the keyboard. One of us would type while the other would pace the room, and together we would talk out every word.
Jay: Talking out the words, phrases, and use of colloquial language helped us recall some hilarious experiences that would leave us laughing until our sides hurt. We have a very unique friendship through the experience of fishing, and by sharing it through writing we have become even closer friends. We are very lucky.
Q. What is the significance of community and family in this novel, and was it inspired by firsthand experience?
John: Jay and I both grew up around fishermen. The men in this book serve as the male elders for Jake.
Jay: And there were the women who worked in the diner where we ate breakfast every morning. They could be very maternal, sitting in the booth with us while taking our order just to make us feel good about ourselves.
John: When you’re eleven years old and you spend ten to twelve hours a day with a bunch of fishermen, the time, work, and scars become a right of passage. In our culture, this sort of experience began to decline during the Industrial Revolution. Before the factories sprung up, boys would go to work with their dads and learn their crafts. This no longer happens, and as a result there has been a shift in our culture.
Jay: In the beginning of the book, Jake starts out as a boy, and by the end he becomes a man. This can only happen with community and family. The people we knew on the water were, in many ways, much like our family.
Q. What are the origins of the book’s title, Swim That Rock?
John: When I first started working on Jay’s boat, he pulled up a giant rock in the bullrake. He handed the rock to me and told me to swim it over to Billy McCagney’s boat about 200 yards away. He said that Billy was building a rock wall in front of his house and needed the rocks. It was another opportunity for Jay to challenge me.
Jay: Sorry about that, John. Actually, it’s true, that’s how we came up with the title, but it goes beyond that. It’s about Jake’s personal challenge in dealing with his feelings and beliefs, even when he thinks no one else believes in him. It’s not unlike swimming with a big rock. I think we all have our own rock to swim.
Q. All fishermen have their “big fish” story. What is your proudest moment on the water?
John: It was two days before Christmas. I had my own boat, and I was eighteen years old. Jay was at home because he had lost his anchor, and he was generally in a bad mood. I was working in Barrington River, and I dug up the lost anchor. Later that day, I found a great clamming spot to dig. That night I wrapped his anchor in Christmas paper, brought it to his house, and told him about the spot I had found. On the day before Christmas, Jay and I went out to my spot and had an amazing haul of quahogs. We spent all the money we made that night on steak dinners and Christmas presents for our family members.
Jay: That may have been my best day too, because it was such a great gift! Another day of fishing that I remember was when I was with my dad, who was in his late sixties at the time, and we were fishing for striped bass. We were out in the middle of a pack of boats, and we were catching stripers like crazy. No one else around us caught anything. We caught seventeen striped bass, all more than twenty pounds! There was a two-fish limit on striped bass at the time, so we kept the two biggest fish and gave all the other fishermen two fish each. It felt great.