PORT TOWNSEND — Our heroine Abby has built herself a complicated life: She’s a marine biologist passionate about her profession, but can’t find work in the field due to her choice to stay in her hometown. Husband Dennis has his own construction company there, and hopes Abby will adjust to her land-bound job in a bank.
Then she meets Eli, the photographer who travels to places such as Cuba. A married man with a young daughter, he returns home to display his dazzling work in local galleries — and have deep conversations with his new friend Abby.
Thus begins the saga of “Keep Me Afloat,” the brand-new novel from Jennifer Gold. That’s the pen name of Port Townsend’s Nicole Persun, whose 2019 debut, “The Ingredients of Us,” also explored marriage, life choices and forgiveness.
Persun starts her Western Washington book tour with a 3:30 p.m. reading and signing Saturday at Velocity, the cafe inside the Northwest Maritime Center at 431 Water St.
“Keep Me Afloat” unfolds in and around Port Townsend, where Persun grew up; she sends Abby to drink and think in a cafe very like Velocity, to spend a Saturday evening walking the galleries along Water Street, and to help with the horses on her parents’ farm in Chimacum.
After Abby quits the bank — and leaves town for California — a series of events bring her back to Port Townsend. She runs into people from her past around every corner, and she finds unexpectedly challenging work on a whale-watching tour boat.
Abby’s road is a twisting one. And she’s “not a super-likable character,” said Persun.
“She’s kind of the villain, the one who causes the problems,” yet she’s also a woman caught in a quandary: Settle down with your loving spouse or keep pursuing your career dreams?
Persun/Gold’s 412-page novel is, the author hopes, prime inspiration for book-club discussions. It’s a personal-journey book about one woman — and it is not, the author said, a disguised autobiography.
“Keep Me Afloat” is, however, driven by Persun’s keen interest in marine science. A 2011 graduate of the Jefferson Community School in Port Townsend, she discovered the field in biology teacher David Miller’s class — and on his field trips.
Persun, daughter of author and poet Terry Persun and equine therapist Cathy Persun, studied at Whidbey Island’s Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, earning a master’s in creative writing and instruction. Now living in rural Jefferson County with her husband, she has a day job as a horse caretaker — and a variety of interests beyond that.
“I was itching to learn more about the southern resident whales and the Puget Sound as a whole,” Persun writes in the novel’s acknowledgements. She adds that she was on the edge of changing careers to go deeper into marine science when her mother said: “Why don’t you just write a book about whales?”
“Thanks, Mom,” Persun writes.
Many small-town spots in “Keep Me Afloat” are vivid and recognizable. But the author said she didn’t so much want readers to fixate on the businesses as much as on the roles they play in our lives. Zack’s, the cafe where Abby discovers spicy coffee drinks, smells just like Velocity. To Abby and to Persun, it equals community, a place where the coffee and the people buoy the mood.
The author seeks to support her local marine science centers too: During the first three months after the book’s release, she’ll donate 30 percent of net royalties to nonprofit environmental organizations. Her acknowledgements tout a couple of places close to her heart: San Juan County’s Center for Whale Research and the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.
“Researching this book inspired me to ask questions and alter my habits — and I continue to change as I learn more about the natural world,” Persun adds in her author’s note.
“For an incomplete list of ways we can all live more sustainably,” visit www.jennifergoldauthor.com/oceans.
With “The Ingredients of Us” and “Keep Me Afloat,” Persun has completed her contract for now with Lake Union Publishing; she plans readings and signings of “Afloat” at independent bookstores in Bellingham, Bremerton, Seattle, Poulsbo, Lake Forest Park and West Seattle. Next up will be sending her agent what she hopes will become her next Jennifer Gold book.
“I just finished a solid second draft,” she said, adding that like “Keep Me Afloat,” it has a dual timeline: the story toggles between past and present, memories and fresh starts.
This can be “mind-bending,” Persun said, but “it’s just kind of my thing.”
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.