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.
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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.
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In the spring of 2006, Sebastian Junger took some time to talk with us about his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire was tremendously helpful to me as I struggled with The Perfect Storm. Maclean is a beautiful writer, and he is obsessed with his topic. I liked the way he methodically broke down the tragedy of the mountain, the way he figured out what forces of nature killed those thirteen smokejumpers.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Well, it's hard to talk about favorite books and easier -- for me, at least -- to talk about favorite authors. Other than Norman Maclean, I was greatly influenced by John McPhee; I really liked his flat, clear, reportorial style -- the way he could make anything interesting. I love the fiction of Cormac McCarthy; he is the best American writer at work today. Ted Conover and Alec Wilkenson are both superb journalists whose work I read and studies and probably emulated as I was "discovering" my own style. Barry Lopez writes beautifully about nature. Hemingway's novels always kill me, and Graham Green is fantastic. Joan Didion is a longtime favorite. Reading her nonfiction was probably more helpful to me than going to journalism school might have been.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
The single most devastating movie I know is called Lilya 4-Ever. It's about trafficking in women in Russia -- a topic I have written about -- and it pretty much wrecked me for three or four days. When I watch a movie, I have to feel that I'm watching life, not actors. That eliminates almost everything coming out of Hollywood recently. Traffic was great. 5x2 was great. Lantana was great. I'm just naming movies I liked that I saw recently. I'm not sure I have an all-time great movie list in my head.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I love Tom Waits, The Pogues, Latin Playboys, Rachid Taha, Cheb Khaled, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Morphine, Queens of the Stone Age, R. L. Burnsides, a lot of blues, Dylan, Hendrix, and Zeppelin, of course – they started it all. Some classical, some Los Lobos, J. J. Cale is unbelievable, Steve Earl, Richard Thompson, Big Head Todd, The Black Keys. I usually listen to music when I write, and it will be anything.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
My book club would be reading what I'm reading at the moment, which is Gaudete by Ted Hughes.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I would have to say that I love giving books that I love to read -- see those mentioned above.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I have coffee on my desk when I write, music playing, at night I might have a tumbler of the harder stuff. I rarely smoke but sometimes I have a cigarette when I‘ve finished a section and I'm reading it over.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I started writing -- in a very limited way -- for local newspapers at age 22, and I finally landed my first assignment with a national magazine eight years later. In the meantime, I had waited tables, worked as a climber for tree companies, and freelanced in Bosnia during the war (radio and newspaper). After my first book, The Perfect Storm, came out, I was able to get as many national magazine assignments as I wanted, and that allowed me to cover wars in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Macedonia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.
If you could choose one new writer to be discovered, who would it be?
I'm not sure I could say; I've been so busy over the past two years writing my book, that I haven't done much reading -- particularly not of "new" writers. There are so many first-rate young journalists and writers it would be hard to pick, I think.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Read a lot. Travel. Put yourself in situations where you're not entirely in control and study your reaction to it.
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