BROOKLIN — Though fewer than 1,000 people live here, Brooklin is known worldwide for its wooden boat building heritage. WoodenBoat magazine is based here, as is the 57-year-old Brooklin Boat Yard.
When Peter Behrens moved to Brooklin in 2000 to write his first novel, he found a lot in common between his work and that of the boat builders.
“They started with an idea, an idea of a boat,” said the Montreal native, who grew up visiting Maine in the summer. “They had plans and blueprints, but it was really an idea, and they had to make it manifest.”
As the boat builders made their boats plank by plank, Behrens wrote his novel sentence by sentence.
“You do these millions of tasks that need to be done to put the whole thing together,” he said. “And then you launch it to see if it floats or not.”
In between rounds of writing, Behrens sailed the waters of the Eggemoggin Reach, where he met his wife, an art director named Basha Burwell.
“This is the most precious part of the world for me,” Behrens said, watching from the dock of the Center Harbor Yacht Club as Burwell guided in Scout, their 25-foot Cape Dory, earlier this summer.
It was a clear, sunny day and the water sparkled as Behrens pointed out how Burwell steered Scout back to the club with the boat’s sails rather than its engine, “which shows what a good sailor she is,” he said.
After being turned down by 25 publishers, Behrens’ first novel, “Law of Dreams,” went on to win Canada’s top literary prize, the Governor General’s Award. Ten years and two novels later, Behrens still writes and sails in Brooklin in the summer.
“Sailing is meditative,” he said. “It’s everything writing isn’t.”
Behrens said that writing books is an “arduous, crazy task, and you don’t exactly get well-rewarded for it.” At the same time, it’s something he always knew he wanted to do.
The 62-year-old recalled a memory of washing dishes with his older sister when he was in elementary school.
“She said to me, ‘What do you like at school?’ and I said, ‘Composition,’ and she said, ‘Wait until you get to grade four; then it gets hard.’ But it never did,” he said. “I never felt I had any wisdom or awareness or anything, I just always wanted to be a writer.”
But first, the young Behrens wanted to travel west, to be a cattle rancher in Alberta and a whitewater canoeist on the Rio Grande. Part of the reason he went west was because of the stories his father read about it while growing up in Frankfurt, Germany, after World War I.
“Like a lot of Germans, he read the Winnetou novels by Karl May,” said Behrens, who added that May was the favorite writer of both Albert Einstein and Adolf Hitler.
“They presented an intensely romantic vision of the wide open West and the noble Indians,” Behrens said. “To people like my father, it was a complete escape from Germany, as it was going down a really dark hole.”
During the years before World War II, Behrens’ father, Billy, emigrated to Montreal, but he returned to Frankfurt in 1939 to try to convince his parents to leave before war broke out.
Since the prospects of receiving a visa looked slim, and out of fear of being treated like German spies in Canada, Behrens’ grandparents would not leave Germany. Great Britain declared war on Sept. 3, 1939, and Billy had to dash to the train station that day to leave before the borders closed.
Behrens’ grandparents survived the war, but the war stayed with Billy until his final days.
“On his deathbed my father kept sitting up and telling me to get his suitcase out of his closet so we could get across that border again,” Behrens said.
Billy’s story was the inspiration for his son’s latest book, “Carry Me.” Published last year, it tells the story of a German-Irish boy named Billy and his childhood friend Karin, the daughter of a German-Jewish baron. The friends become lovers amidst Germany’s slide into hatred and fascism in the years leading up to World War II.
Published on both sides of the Atlantic, “Carry Me” was lauded by critics. National Public Radio named it one of the best books of 2016, The New York Times Book Review wrote it was “as true an observation about human nature as there is,” while the Washington Post wrote that Behrens’ prose “thrills.”
Though Behrens writes thrilling fiction, his family history is the yarn from which his novels are spun. His first novel, “Law of Dreams,” was inspired by his ancestor fleeing to America during the Irish potato famine of the 1840s. His second novel, “The O’Briens,” sprang from the life of his bootstrap-pulling maternal grandfather. “Carry Me,” of course, was inspired by Billy.
“I’m not interested in writing historical fiction, which sounds odd because my books are all set in the past” Behrens said. “I’m really writing psychological novels about people who happen to be dead for a while…I want to know more about the worlds that people lived in, and the big, larger forces that shaped them.”
For Behrens, writing about his family’s past is also a way of understanding its reverberations in the present.
“The family I grew up in had been profoundly influenced and shaped in complicated ways by this historical event 150 years earlier,” Behrens said, about the potato famine. “Knowing history’s just like knowing another dimension of the present, it’s like stuff we’re dragging behind us, always.”
Behrens’ current project imagines the life of his late sister, who died in a car accident many years ago. It’s about living with a transgender identity in the 1960s, a time “where people hardly knew what it was, and felt that they were the only people in the world like that,” Behrens said.
When asked for writing advice, Behrens had a few simple guidelines. One was about writing sentences.
“Writing books is simple,” he said. “It’s just one great sentence after another. It’s like laying bricks, but it’s hard to lay those bricks sometimes.”
The other guideline was about reading sentences.
“I don’t know any good writer who doesn’t live in books,” he said. “Read the good writers. Decide for yourself who the good writers are, but read them, read them, read them.”