Charlestown rec director draws on youthful stories for ‘Swim That Rock’

Charlestown rec director draws on youthful stories for ‘Swim That Rock’


CHARLESTOWN — It’s not surprising that Jay Primiano’s new book, “Swim That Rock,” centers on Rhode Island quahog fishermen. Primiano, the town’s parks and recreation director, put himself through college by clamming.

The book, which Primiano co-wrote with a close friend, the prominent children’s writer and illustrator John Rocco, is published by Candlewick Press and is intended for children and young adults.

This is Primiano’s first published novel, and he happily worked on it every morning, starting at 4.

“That’s when I used to fish, so it was natural for me,” he said. “When I was a fisherman, that’s when we started our workday, so when you’re writing about fishing, it makes sense to write about it from 4 in the morning to 7 in the morning.”

The main character is Jake Cole, an awkward, 14-year-old loner who is still mourning his father who was lost at sea. His mother is about to lose their family business, a diner, because of a $10,000 debt she owes to a Providence loan shark. Jake embarks on an all-out effort to earn enough money to pay off the debt so the family can keep the diner.

The title, a metaphor for Jake’s personal journey, comes from a rite of passage requiring that a young quahogger swim in a strong current, carrying a heavy rock, from one boat to another.

Primiano and Rocco have been collaborating since 1979, when Rocco helped Primiano work on his boat and then began quahogging with him at the age of 11.

“We had a lot of experiences together, so there were a lot of stories to tell,” Primiano said. “When I sat down to write them, the stuff just started flowing out. I would sometimes go to 4,000 words in a morning, 20 pages of material. It was easy. The characters were speaking to me and I was able to put out a lot of material. Now, John works more methodically than that and labors over every sentence, so I would send him volumes of stuff and he would send back a story of his own. I’d work on his and he’d work on my stuff.”

Armed with their collection of stories, the authors got together in 2008, and using rather unconventional methods, turned it into a novel.

“John lived in New York City at the time and I live in Jamestown, so we met in the middle in Mystic, Conn. We rented a house and we put these Post-it notes all over the house with short summations of each of these stories, and we actually had strings, and we strung the strings between each of these pieces and created a thread that ran through and ultimately, we created the story,” Primiano said, adding that the collaboration was an effortless one.

“When you’re working on a 19-foot boat, when you grow up together, almost like brothers there’s an understanding. And when you’re working in a genre that you’re very familiar with, and a setting you’re very familiar with, it was easy for us to maintain the voice throughout. We didn’t really have many arguments. If we did have a conflict, it was about the naming of a character once in a while,” he said.

Primiano and Rocco sent their novel to several publishing houses, listened to the feedback they received with the rejections, and produced what Primiano says was “a better book.”

Then, in 2012, Candlewick President Karen Lotz read the new version of the book, loved it, and the novel was on its way.

Critics seem to like the book, too. A review published April 4 in The New York Times describes the book as “an affable coming of age novel.”

Publishers Weekly says, “Steeped in atmosphere and rich in detail, this adventure captures the salt in the air as well as the omnipresent ticking deadline.”

Primiano and Rocco — whose “Blackout,” published by Disney, was a 2012 Caldecott Honor Book — have already begun working on a sequel.

“While Jake, the principal character in book one, has to solve his problems largely on his own, now he has two friends to help deal with issues that might come up in book two” Primiano said.

Primiano still fishes and quahogs as much as he can, when he isn’t busy writing, coaching soccer, doing his day job, and spending time with his wife, Lisa, and two children.

“I don’t buy any shellfish,” he said. “I make my time here in Jamestown productive. I have a spot for lobsters, I have a spot for blue crabs, I know where the striped bass are at certain times of the year, and I can find a fluke when I need to catch a fluke.”

Primiano is optimistic that even in this digital age, children will keep reading.

“I think there’s always going to be a need for stories that have an impact on young people, and they’re going to find a way to understand those stories,” he said. “I’m hoping that one says, ‘You have to read this book,’ and the next one reads it. That’s the type of promotion that we’re seeking. I want adults to read it too, because it’s a solid book, particularly for this region.”


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