An Interview with Sebastian Junger. October 2000
Republished with the permission of Page One Lit
Sebastian Junger, grew up in suburban Massachusetts, not far from the town of Gloucester, the fishing port depicted in The Perfect Storm that was home to the Andrea Gail and its crew. He graduated from Wesleyan University with a degree in cultural anthropology in 1984 and has been a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in such magazines as Outside, Men's Journal, American Heritage, and The New York Times Magazine. Drawn to stories of adventure, Junger has delivered radio reports from the war in Bosnia, covered smoke jumpers in Idaho's wilderness wildfires, and written about the smallest border town in Texas. In addition he has for many years worked as a high climber and trimmer for tree removal companies. He currently lives in New York City and Cape Cod. The Perfect Storm is his first book.
Why do you think The Perfect Storm captured the imaginations of millions across the country?
I think my book captured peoples' imaginations because I didn't resort to fiction to tell a story that, ultimately, could never be fully known. Instead, I resorted to a kind of journalism-by-analogy to tell what probably happened on the Andrea Gail. And I treated the loss of the boat as a kind of detective story where I tried to figure out exactly why she sank. Only, in this case the killers weren't people but the forces of history and nature: The fishing tradition in Gloucester, how storms form, how waves work, etc. Had someone survived off the Andrea Gail it would, in some ways, been a much less interesting book, because I wouldn't have been forced to go into all those tangents to tell the story. The readers - not to mention the author - wouldn't have learned as much.
How does it feel to be a NYT bestselling author for 2 years... and running with your first book?
When I wrote the book I had no idea it would even get any attention, much less be on the bestseller's list for two years. I wanted to call attention to how difficult and dangerous offshore fishing can be, but I figured that only offshore fishermen, and maybe their friends and families, would actually read it. The fact that the book is so popular is tremendously gratifying, and makes me feel that my instincts were right when I got to know the fishermen of Gloucester. We live in a time when athletes in so-called "extreme sports' get heaped with a huge amount of glory, while people who are doing jobs that are actually much more dangerous - not to mention necessary - get virtually ignored. I love the idea that I was able to change that a little bit.
How did you come to write The Perfect Storm?
I was living in Gloucester in 1991. I was working as a climber for a tree company, taking trees down. This massive storm hit the coast and really destroyed a lot of the Massachusetts coast. What I saw in Gloucester was overwhelming... the violence of the storm was just overwhelming. I later found out that a Gloucester swordfishing boat had gone down. The Andrea Gail had gone down five hundred miles off shore. They were coming back from a one month trip to the Grand Banks. I was thinking about writing a book on dangerous jobs. I had hurt myself pretty badly doing tree work and it got me thinking that people don't pay much attention to jobs that are really dangerous... it would be interesting to write a book about that. So, originally I was going to write a chapter on the Andrea Gail. She went down in an area of one hundred foot seas. It was one of the biggest storms ever recorded off the east coast. Eventually that chapter turned into a whole book.
You dedicated your book to your father who first introduced you to the sea?
My father first brought the family to Cape Cod, and kept bringing us there over and over again when I was very young. So, early on, I just grew to absolutely love the sea. I learned to surf when I was a kid... he would take me sailing. He also taught, in a more general way... he's a scientist, he's a physicist... and he would talk to me about science and how the natural world works, and he would talk to me about histories. He grew up in Europe, so, he's a very learned man. I feel like, not only did I get a love of the sea from him... he introduced me to the sea... but also, he has a way of asking questions about the world, and explaining about how the world works. That deeply influenced how I tackled the story of the Andrea Gail.
There is a tremendous amount of technical information in this book. Surprisingly though, you somehow managed to keep things moving along. Given all the research involved, how long did it take you to write this book?
The book took me probably three years of work, sort of interspersed throughout about five years, I think. I did a huge amount of research... not only research in Gloucester, talking to the families and the friends of these fishermen who died, trying to figure out what they were like, who they were, how they spent their time... but also, as you said, the technical aspects... how waves work, how storms work, what happens when you drown, why ships roll over, the history of Gloucester. What I tried to do was interweave the story, such as it could be known, with these technical sections. And I thought if I did it skillfully enough, that people... in a way... wouldn't notice that they were reading something... not out of a textbook, but... something of that kind of density. I was hoping they wouldn't notice.... that they would read a few pages on meteorology and then move back into the story and think, "Oh, my God, that was painless... I just learned about how storms work and I didn't even notice." That was my hope. I just was skeptical that it would work... but, apparently it did.
What are you working on now?
I'm trying to go back to the life I was leading before the book, which was writing freelance for magazines... doing assignments overseas. Last March, I was in Kosovo in Serbia right at the beginning of the civil war. I'm going to Afghanistan. Those are the kinds of assignments I really love to do. The book has been wonderful and incredibly gratifying, but a real long haul. I really want to go back to the more short, exciting kind of assignments that I grew up doing.
Why do you write and who have been your influences?
I just loved it from the first moment. I loved it. It just took a long time to make a living out of it because I was freelancing. On the writers who have influenced me? To some extent, every American writer is influenced by Ernest Hemingway.The American journalists that I really admire are Joan Didion, who's a fabulous writer, and Norman MacLean. He wrote a book called Young Men & Fire which is tremendously good.There's also a wonderful South African writer named Rian Malan who wrote a book called My Traitor's Heart. He's one of the best writers I know. I don't read as much as I used to. It's troubling me.