With his hair-raising and enthralling true adventure story, the blockbuster The Perfect Storm, renowned investigative journalist Sebastian Junger chronicled a story of heroism and tragedy wrought by a tropical storm while single-handedly reviving a new genre: the true-life disaster tale. His latest, A Death in Belmont, investigates his family's eerie connection to the Boston Strangler murders.
Sebastian Junger considers himself a journalist first and an author second, which made his sudden appearance on bestseller lists in 1997 all the more remarkable.
Having decided to chronicle the 1991 tropical storm that swallowed the fishing boat Andrea Gail, Junger began working on the story without a book deal or even a magazine editor's interest. He spent years getting to know the locals in the fishing boat's home port of Gloucester, Massachusetts, figuring the account would be come part of a larger book about dangerous professions, or perhaps appear as a magazine article.
When the culmination of his work emerged as a book, the interest was overwhelming. Movie rights were swept up immediately; The Perfect Storm became the nonfiction book of the summer and stayed on bestseller lists for over two years.
Fortified with fishing history and meteorological information, The Perfect Storm tells the suspenseful and sympathetic story of a group of sailors caught in a deadly storm and the rescuers who went after them. Junger was negotiating a tricky course, as he admitted in the book's foreword: "Recreating the last days of six men who disappeared at sea presented some obvious problems for me ... I've written as complete an account as possible of something that can never be fully known."
Despite the story's inherent inconclusiveness, Junger provided compelling, chilling descriptions from survivors and first-person accounts about the horror of being batted about by violent seas and nearly drowning, as well as the difficulties of saving someone caught in a sea storm.
The success of the book made Junger fear he might become a complacent journalist: "What I was afraid of was that all this money would take away the incentive [to seek out stories]", he said in an interview with National Geographic later. Whether in spite of or because of this fear, Junger did indeed continue to seek adventure in the name of journalism. His exploits both before and after writing The Perfect Storm were chronicled in Fire, a similarly detailed and moving collection of his writings at the front of wars in Bosnia and Afghanistan, alongside smoke jumpers in the American West, amid the machinations of diamond trade in Sierra Leone, and in other perilous situations.
Junger is an increasingly rare practitioner of independent, entrepreneurial journalism. His skills are strengthened by his willingness to take personal risks and his ability to make complex stories both absorbing and understandable. It's an approach to reporting that might be considered an old-fashioned one: going out to get the story. For readers, the result is authentic, illuminating glimpses of worlds we might otherwise never be privileged (or cursed) to observe.
Good To Know
Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Junger:
"I'm terrified of spiders."
"My first job was at a restaurant called Garrett's, in Washington, D.C. I was a terrible waiter but I could handle a lot of tables."
"My mile time is 4:13. I ran 24:05 for five miles and 2:21 for a marathon (26.2 miles)."
"I'm an atheist. I don't own a Palm Pilot or an iPod. My car is nine years old."
Junger is a co-owner of a bar in the westernmost part of Manhattan's Chelsea, a homey pub named The Half King.
As late as 2000, Junger was still doing tree work, where he hurt his leg with a chainsaw. The injury prompted him to begin thinking about other dangerous lines of work, and eventually, to write The Perfect Storm.
Junger has established a foundation to provide opportunities for the children of fishermen like those whose lives and deaths he chronicled in The Perfect Storm.