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Seeking a world without women, Tabitha Lasley lost herself — and found a better book
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Seeking a world without women, Tabitha Lasley lost herself — and found a better book

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"Sea State," by Tabitha Lasley.

"Sea State," by Tabitha Lasley. (HarperCollins Publishers/TNS)

On her second night in Scotland, Tabitha Lasley slept with one of her sources.

He was, in fact, the first person she'd interviewed on her self-fashioned journalistic assignment. She'd traveled to Aberdeen in hopes of talking to offshore oil riggers like him — men who made their living on platforms in the North Sea, working for three months at a time hundreds of miles from land. She was hoping her research would get to some essential truth about gender: Without women around, how do men behave?

But then she met Caden. He was married, the father of twins, and stranded in the port city until the weather cleared enough for a chopper to drop him off on his rig. He invited Lasley out to a pub with some of his mates, stroked her hand and defended her when a drunk at the bar called her "a whore." Then she invited him back to her hotel.

It was a twist of fate that would shift the course of "Sea State," the book Lasley ended up writing about her six-month stay in Aberdeen. What she'd intended to be a purely journalistic endeavor became something else — an investigation-memoir hybrid, infused with the details of an affair that threatened to derail her both personally and professionally.

"I wasn't trained as a proper journalist, as you can probably tell," says Lasley, now 40. "The second agent I went to see said: 'You can't write this book if you want a career as a writer. You won't be taken seriously.'"

But ultimately, falling for one of the prototypical males she had sought to observe was what lifted her book beyond helicopter-journalist sociology and into the realm of a singular and refreshingly candid travel memoir. Not only did Lasley sign with the third agent she met with but when "Sea State" — out this week in the U.S. — was released nearly a year ago in the U.K., it received glowing notices. It was shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize, and the London Review of Books compared Lasley to Joan Didion, remarking on her skill for "inflecting non-fiction material subjectively" and her "habit of assessing situations via her nervous system."

Some early reviews did take note of the author's untraditional reporting methods: taking drugs and drinking with her subjects, sometimes introducing herself under a fake name. They're approaches Lasley says she "can't pretend not to know aren't right" by the standards of professional journalism. But she's never been morally conflicted about it. The only real ethical responsibility she felt bound by, she says, was protecting her sources. (Caden's name and identifying details were changed.)

"They look very, very dimly on people talking to journalists in the oil industry," Lasley says from her home in Wirral, the English peninsula where she was raised and now lives. The sun is setting, and Lasley keeps picking up her laptop and moving to different spots, trying to find lighting that doesn't make her look "hideous" on video chat. She grew up here, her mother a teacher and her father working in government pensions, in this town just across the Mersey from Liverpool.

Lasley moved to London in her 20s, getting a job first in advertising and then at a magazine that was distributed on a budget airline. The latter job allowed her to travel around Europe — Finland, Ibiza, Budapest — but the assignments weren't serious. "It was, like, 'The Five Best Hotels in Accra,' that sort of stuff," she recalls.

But she couldn't really write then anyway, she says.

"Becoming a writer was really an effort of will," she explains. "But I was so sure I was going to become a writer that I just made myself one. I've always been someone who pays a lot of account to signs and signals and magical thinking. I'm a bit like a child. I think I can control the outcomes of things by wishing really hard for them."

During her travels, one particular sign wouldn't let Lasley go. When she was 25, she'd crossed paths with a couple of sailors on shore leave. They became friends, and their stories proved so interesting that she promised herself she would one day write a book about their lifestyle.

It would take a perverse sort of divine intervention for her to pursue the idea. In 2015, a burglar broke into Lasley's flat and stole her laptop. The computer contained a novel she'd been working on for four years, and the draft had no other digital footprint. Taking it as another sign, she left her verbally abusive boyfriend of five years and decamped to Aberdeen to work on the nonfiction project she'd mentally bookmarked.

Lasley didn't have much of a plan. "When I get there, the book will suddenly present itself to me," she remembers thinking. She considered trying to actually work on a rig — where, she says, just 3% of the population is female — and took a safety induction and emergency training course to qualify for a job offshore. But when her affair started with Caden, she decided to get a six-month lease in Aberdeen instead.

Their relationship was fast and furious. They met up at odd hours to have sex in hotel rooms and spent hours texting on WhatsApp when he was at work. Lasley and the rigger had met up only six times, she says, before he told her he was going to leave his wife for her. In retrospect, she can see why the "meager proffer" of being with a married man appealed to her.

"That's why they tell people who've come out of abusive relationships, 'Don't get into a relationship straight away.' Because you're still vulnerable, and your boundaries are going to be skewed," she says. "Your judgment is off, and you might end up getting into another s— relationship."

Lasley regained control by returning to what she'd meant to do all along. As soon as the relationship began to fall apart, she started writing about it. Obsessing over Caden's whereabouts with no friends or prospects, she repaired to a Starbucks and started typing. Writing a history of their relationship, at least, felt productive.

"And when I looked up at the clock, I was like, 'F—-: I've written 2,000 words,'" she recalls. "I was like, 'OK. This is it. This is the book.'"

Well, sort of. Though she understood Caden now had to become part of the narrative — "making a virtue out of a necessity," in her words — she also had to acknowledge the three months she had wasted "fiddling around, having this affair, going out, taking drugs with these young lads and just having a good time."

And she had to admit that the original project no longer interested her. While living on a transformer-esque structure in the middle of the ocean seemed fascinating, the day-to-day life was not. In their downtime, many of the men on the rigs spent hours scrolling mindlessly on their phones.

"Most people are garbage at being interviewed," she says now. "When I spoke to the men, I was like: 'This is boring,'" she adds with a slight smile. "They've had really interesting things happen to them but they can't seem to tell it in interesting ways. That's why I put more of myself in there, because I was like, 'This is more interesting.'"

Lasley says she spoke to 103 male rig workers, though in "Sea State" she used their interviews to create 10 composite characters. Most of the guys she spoke to fit into one of two camps. There were the North Sea Tigers — the original generation who got into the business in the 1980s when the job was more lucrative. "They were really old and cantankerous — the sorts that say, 'Hey, that's my seat in the TV room,'" Lasley says.

The other set consisted of young men from England's northeast, which Lasley compares to America's Rust Belt. "They're all young, buff, really into the gym, have lots of tats — sort of like some of the guys on 'Love Island,'" she says. "They come home, take loads of coke, drink loads, have weird online affairs conducted on the phone and are obsessed with their appearance."

That was Caden's camp, with a "stylized masculinity and peacocking that you would more associate with a woman." His day rate was around £700 — close to $1,000 — which Lasley says he spent on flashy things like a Range Rover and an expansive sneaker collection. For a while, his salary also caused Lasley to resent Caden's wife, a homemaker who took care of the couple's children.

"I looked at her and thought: 'God, she's got such an easy life compared to me, a childless woman in my 30s who works hard to pay my own bills. What's she moaning about?'" admits Lasley. "I thought she was a collaborator with this system of bondage. But looking back, it was more like I was, really. If you're consorting with a man who's treating his wife badly, it's a bit like crossing a picket line at a strike. I mean, go ahead and do it. But don't call yourself a feminist."

Lasley's perspective deepened after she returned home to the Wirral to write. Back in England, she observed her sister raising two young kids and came to see it as the "hard option." The experience strengthened her resolve not to "denigrate the choices of other women." (She finished "Sea State" in 2019 and has since revisited the stolen novel, set at a girls school on a marsh.)

But as for her grand takeaways about men? Suffice it to say that the whole experience contributed to her swearing off dating altogether — for now.

"I'm single, and I don't date," she says without hesitation. "Is that shocking? I'm 40 now, and I just sort of have no use for it anymore. I can't be bothered. They're not worth the effort."

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