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Following in the footsteps of Joseph Conrad


Joining the Merchant Marine
Peter Mayer Publisher
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When I chose not to go to Yale, which had accepted me, I recall writing to whoever it was at Yale, Director of Admissions, or whatever the proper person was, asking for a one-year delay in their acceptance, could I come a year later.  And I think they said yes, I can't even remember now, but I went into the Merchant Marine.  What actually had happened was… well, of course that, but I had decided I wanted to be a writer.  I didn't know much about what that would entail, I wrote always in college, short stories and poems, but I didn't know what kind of a life one would have, but I thought that's what I would like to have as a life. 

I didn't ask myself, why would one at 20, how do I finance this and so on.  But I knew in the short term I couldn't do it, so I joined the Merchant Marine, which meant hanging around the Brooklyn waterfront and trying to buy the right beer for the right guy, because you had to have a promise of employment to get seamen's papers.  So I got a promise of employment on a ship, and I was told the ship was going to the North Atlantic.  So I… with this piece of paper saying if I had my seamen's papers, could board the ship, and work on the ship, I got my seamen's papers and then went and bought used clothing for the North Atlantic. 

And as we sailed out of, I think it was on the HMS Gibbons, or not HMS, it wouldn't have been, it would have been USS Gibbons or something like that, past the Statue of Liberty, I leaned over the rail and saw the Statue of Liberty and said in my most proletarian voice that I could imagine to a big guy who was standing next to me, 'Sure is going to be cold up there', or something like that.  I don't know what I said any more.  He was a white guy and he said, 'What you talking about? We're going to Panama!' and all this clothing that I'd bought for the North Atlantic was useless.  But fortunately you could either throw it away, I don't know what I did with it, just take it off, you didn't need much clothing in Panama. There I suddenly was, in Panama. 

Peter Mayer (1936-2018) was an American independent publisher who was president of The Overlook Press/Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc, a New York-based publishing company he founded with his father in 1971. At the time of Overlook's founding, Mayer was head of Avon Books, a large New York-based paperback publisher. There, he successfully launched the trade paperback as a viable alternative to mass market and hardcover formats. From 1978 to 1996 he was CEO of Penguin Books, where he introduced a flexible style in editorial, marketing, and production. More recently, Mayer had financially revived both Ardis, a publisher of Russian literature in English, and Duckworth, an independent publishing house in the UK.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: North Atlantic, Panama

Duration: 2 minutes, 49 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2014-January 2015

Date story went live: 12 November 2015