The Perfect Storm still offers up some perfect lessons for writers

#19: The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger (1997)

I never read The Perfect Storm until I saw the trailer for the 2000 movie. There, on the big screen, a fishing boat tried to bull its way straight up—literally straight up—a gigantic wall of water. “Did you see that?” I said to my wife, smacking her lightly on the shoulder. “Did you see that? Straight up a wall of water!”

That same image would appear on movie posters when the film finally came out a couple months later.

I had to get the book.

By then, The Perfect Storm had been released in paperback, and I was able to find a copy whose cover had not yet been co-opted by the movie studio. The edition did benefit from a new afterward by the author, Sebastian Junger, which has proven to be one of the most useful “case studies” on literary journalism that I’ve ever read.

When Junger chose to write about the loss of the swordboat Andrea Gail out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, he was, in effect, choosing to write about something unknowable. Andrea Gail, lost at sea in October 1991 during a storm of cataclysmic proportions, left no final trace. Junger had a few final radio conversations to draw on, but what happened to the boat and the five men aboard in its last hours was a mystery.

“I’ve written as complete an account as possible of something that can never be fully known,” Junger said in his afterward. “It is exactly that unknowable element, however, that has made it an interesting book to write and, I hope, to read.”

Along with the challenge of piecing together the story of the boat and crew, Junger had to explain the way of life aboard a swordboat. He had to recreate the way of life in a Massachusetts fishing village. He had to delve into the meteorological facts that explained “the perfect storm.”

“On one hand, I wanted to write a completely factual book that would stand on its own as a piece of journalism,” he said in his introduction. “On the other hand, I didn’t want the narrative to asphyxiate under a mass of technical detail and conjecture.”

And here’s why I’ve come to admire the book so much: Junger immerses himself in the story (much the way Tony Horwitz did for Confederates in the Attic). He spent a lot of time hanging out in The Crow’s Nest, the Gloucester bar where the Andrea Gail’s crew hung out. “By and large it’s a bar of people who know each other; people who aren’t known are invited over for a drink,” Junger wrote. “It’s hard to buy your own beer at the Crow’s Nest, and it’s hard to leave after just one….”

While there, Junger spent time soaking up the atmosphere. His presence there over weeks allowed him to eventually earn the trust of locals so they’d open up to him and talk about their lives, their jobs, and their experiences at sea. “Look, I don’t know a thing about fishing,” he’d say. “So if you don’t tell me about it, I’m going to get it all wrong.”

Sometimes they’d talk to him; sometimes not. Sometimes he’d have his pen and notepad out; sometimes he’d have to excuse himself, run the men’s room, and scribble a few notes there in private. Some people, like Ricky Shatford, the older brother of crewmember Bobby Shatford, didn’t take kindly at all to what they saw as the intrusion. “I told people I was going to kill you,” Shatford eventually told Junger when they’d made piece with each other.

By that point, the book had come out and become a bestseller. Shatford had finally been able to see for himself that Junger treated the story—and his younger brother—with respect.

“Had they not lived the lives they did, and agreed to talk with me about them, the book would not exist,” Junger conceded in his afterword.

He constructed his narrative by gathering everything he could through interviews and research. In instances when he couldn’t answer a question directly—like, what must it have been like for guys on the boat to be caught in the storm—he interviewed people who’d been in similar situations. He never takes that information and projects it onto the crew of the Andrea Gail, but he does suggest parallels and lets readers draw their own conclusions.

In the end, Junger sticks to facts “in as wide-ranging a way as possible,” he said. As a result, there are “varying kinds of information in the book.”

For instance, he uses direct quotes for anything he recorded in a formal interview, but dialogue, based on people’s recollections, appear without quotation marks. “No dialogue was made up,” he emphasized. For radio conversations, he uses italics. He incorporates a lot of research from reading, although he typically doesn’t cite any of his sources, an attempt on his part to keep the narrative lean and readable. In fact, it reads much like a novel, and he uses present tense to keep the story immediate.

Except for the first-person introduction and afterward, Junger keeps himself entirely out of the book. By some definitions, that means The Perfect Storm doesn’t qualify as “creative nonfiction.” By other definitions, Junger’s style of “literary journalism” does qualify. (I realize that’s a question more germane to my own reading at present than it is for most readers, who probably don’t give a rat’s ass how to categorize it!)

In the context of “place,” which is the lens I’m using to look at these books, The Perfect Storm certainly captures a good sense of Gloucester and, even better, of the sea. However, it’s most useful to me now as a model of how a writer interacts within place as he attempts to capture it.

When I first read it, The Perfect Storm was a watershed book for me. It helped show me what else nonfiction could be. It showed me how to tackle some of the ethical questions that arise from being a writer in pursuit of a story. Those are lessons I still reflect on, and pass along to my students, to this day.

“Writers often don’t know much about the world they’re trying to describe, but they don’t necessarily need to,” Junger concluded. “They just need to ask a lot of questions. And then they need to step back and let the story speak for itself.”

1 reply »

  1. It was a good book, well writen and to the point and a good story. I fail to see why it was a NYT best-seller however.