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Drawing on 14 Generations of Inspiration

A Bay Weekly ­conversation with local author Mick Blackistone

I want people to understand Bay watermen and their past and future. People don’t understand what’s happening to watermen as an important subculture of our society on the Bay.

Mick Blackistone has a name in Chesapeake Country.
    Part of it came to him effortlessly, by the grace of inheritance.
    Blackistone is a name of reckoning in Maryland history. Mick, 66, his twin brother, two older sisters and scads of cousins are the 14th generation to descend from Nathaniel Blackistone, colonist under Lord Baltimore’s land grant, who arrived in Maryland in the party of the Arc and Dove in 1634.
    Mick’s own part of it, he made on eight-plus books and behind dozens of pieces of county, state and national legislation on behalf of people whose livelihood and pleasure are linked to the water.
    His books all have water links, too, to the Chesapeake through watermen or the creatures of the Bay. The newest, Just Passing Through, is poetry; it updates his first and only self-published book. Two books document the lives of watermen: Sunup to Sundown: Watermen of the Chesapeake (1998) and Dancing with the Tide (2001). Three more are children’s books, The Day They Left the Bay (1988), The River and the Buffalo (1990) and Broken Wings Will Fly (1992). One, published in 2008, is a book of short reflections: Remembering You.
    With his new book in hand, we talked about making books and making laws.

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Bay Weekly How did this book-making habit of yours get started?
Blackistone I wrote poetry and songs as a college student at University of Maryland. I did one song as a record and got poetry in magazines, but I was never successful getting a publisher. Like everyone else, I’d mail it out, get it back, mail it out, get it back. You live with rejection. So Whitey Schmidt, the crab guru and one of the only people I know who’s made a success of self-publishing, talked me into self-publishing my first poetry book.

Bay Weekly Until this year, when Schiffer Publishing issued a new edition of Just Passing Through, that book has been a well-kept secret. How did you get from obscurity to The Day They Left the Bay, the book that made your name?
Blackistone I was writing two more books at about the same time. For a contest, I wrote an article to involve kids in the environment. I decided that, instead, I’d turn it into a book for kids. That became The Day They Left the Bay.
    Simultaneously, I was running the Maryland Marine Trades Association and doing a lot of work with the Maryland Watermen’s Association. I concluded that people didn’t understand what’s happening to watermen as an important subculture of our society on the Bay. So I decided to do a book about a year in the life of the watermen. That became Sunup to Sundown: Watermen of the Chesapeake.

Bay Weekly Where does the inspiration come from?
Blackistone I don’t write just to write. I don’t do three hours a day or whatever. I write for a reason, to get it done and get it out. I’m not interested in cranking books out like Nora Roberts or John Grisham.
    I want people to understand Bay watermen and their past and future. I want kids to understand the environment and care for it. I get a notion, then I come up with my idea. It goes back to writing songs. You come just with your hook — and mine are always my titles. Then I know where I’m going.

Bay Weekly So why have you switched to reflections and poetry in your last two books?
Blackistone It’s another way for me to express my feelings about where we live and the people who live here.

Bay Weekly Your books have always looked good.
Blackistone All are illustrated with art or photos by local people. I pick my own photographers and illustrators.

Bay Weekly How do your publishers take to that?
Blackistone I put it together before I give it to publishers. Acropolis wanted to assign me an artist. I didn’t like any of the work they showed me, so I went to Maryland Hall, and I looked at a lot of other illustrators. When I saw Lee Boynton’s work, I said That’s the guy. He illustrated The Day They Left the Bay.
    Editor’s note: Boynton is a top-rated Maryland impressionist.
    The photos in Sunup are by James Parker from Severna Park.
    The other two children’s books are by Jennifer Heyd Wharton, who’s gone on to make a name for herself as an illustrator and web designer.
    I paid the illustrators, and the story went as a package with art or photos.

Bay Weekly How did you get Marion Warren’s photographs for Just Passing Through, since that great photographer of Chesapeake Country died in 2006?
Blackistone I worked with Marion on the first edition way back when. For this new edition, I got permission from Mame Warren, Marion’s daughter and executor, and worked with Joanie Surette, his artistic representative. She went to the Maryland Archives, where all Marion’s work now resides, for the photos.
    My interest was to set a level of emotion to where we live, and you can’t do any better than with Marion’s photos.

Bay Weekly All authors know that getting a book published doesn’t get it sold. You’ve always been very active in publicizing your books.
Blackistone I’ve been more selective in the last decade. I don’t do big bookstores any more; I’ve never enjoyed them. I like doing small bookshops, school sales, festivals like Tilghman Island Day or Patuxent River Appreciation Day where you meet and greet people.

Bay Weekly Do your publishers promote your books?
Blackistone I’ve not got a lot of faith because of my experience with three or four. This is my first real experience with Schiffer, who also got Dancing with the Tide and Broken Wings when they bought the Tidewater-Cornell Maritime Press operation.

Bay Weekly All this time you’ve worked a regular job.
Blackistone There’s not enough money in publishing or writing to make a living. It’s like musicians or poets or authors. Unless you’re a rock star, you’re not going to make money. You’ve got to be creative in your own mind. What do you like to do? Find your passion, and emulate good people.

Bay Weekly What’s the key skill you’ve depended on?
Blackistone Being able to explain an issue and what it meant to people’s lives. I was good at communicating. If you’re talking the maritime or fishing industries, the general population, legislators included, knew very little from the business standpoint. Once they understood, for the most part, people said I’m with you.
    For example, in the 1990s, the federal 10 percent luxury tax on the sale of boats over $100,000 was killing our marine industry. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who’s been very supportive of Maryland maritime industries, voted for it. I was at the Maryland Marine Trades Industry at the time, and I went to Mikulski’s office in Baltimore and told her about the businesses, people and jobs and that we were going down the tubes. In six months to a year, we’d lost a vast majority of our boat dealers and manufacturers in the state, and a lot of dealerships dealt with big boats. She reversed her position and helped get the tax repealed.

Bay Weekly In your books and in your work, you’ve always looked beyond the industry to the Bay. Where do we stand on that score today?
Blackistone The biggest threat to our fisheries is water quality, just as it’s been all of my lifetime. I think the [new, federally mandated] Total Daily Maximum Loads approach could get us momentum. I also think it’s going to take money to improve sewage treatment plants in town after town, and they’re all the bridges to water quality. All the counties and states are crying this is going to cost so much money, when money is what it’s going to take. People have to put money where their mouths are.

Find Blackistone’s eight books at www.mickblackistone.com. Meet him Sunday, June 24, when he signs books at The Eastport Gallery, 419 Fourth St., Annapolis, from 2-5pm.