Profile: Sebastian Junger

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sebastian Junger did something almost frivolous last week. With some writing pals, he opened a moody drinking-hole in the Chelsea neighbourhood of Manhattan. But this venture, like any he undertakes, is an ode to a personal passion. The bar is called the "Half King", named after a Seneca warrior famed for playing both sides against the middle in the Seven Years War, and it is meant for journalists.

Sebastian Junger did something almost frivolous last week. With some writing pals, he opened a moody drinking-hole in the Chelsea neighbourhood of Manhattan. But this venture, like any he undertakes, is an ode to a personal passion. The bar is called the "Half King", named after a Seneca warrior famed for playing both sides against the middle in the Seven Years War, and it is meant for journalists.

Call him an author if you like - his book, The Perfect Storm, became nothing short of a publishing sensation - but really he would prefer you to consider him a journalist. Because that is what Junger is - journalist first, then tree-surgeon, bar- owner, professional self-deprecator and reluctant hunk. Which brings us to his other occupation: disappointing the hordes of admirers begging to marry him.

Study the chiselled face that smoulders and broods on the back of the book, and you are likely to make a series of false assumptions about him. Clearly, he is very handsome. (Surprisingly short, though, when you meet him.) He has to be rich - Storm has sold 2.5 million copies worldwide since its May 1997 release. For the paperback rights, he received $1.2m, and made another $500,000 for the rights to the feature film (which opens in Britain this weekend). Moreover, he is entirely articulate while being unassuming at the same time. But not too unassuming.

With all that, and the added advantages of being 38 and single, Junger is a ready-minted superstar. Never mind the solitary toil of writing. Who wouldn't give him a film role tomorrow?

But Junger is absolutely not the sort to be dazzled by glitz or anything else Hollywood might offer him. So unfrivolous is this man, in fact, that he still lives in a $2,500-a-month, two-bedroom apartment in lower Manhattan that has bare wooden floors and no television. He only acquired a mirror recently on the urging of his girlfriend of several years. (Another surprise: Junger, despite his looks, is curiously insecure, to the extent that he would much rather not glimpse himself except when shaving.)

He does not buy clothes or accessories with his newfound wealth, nor much else besides. The only obvious exceptions are the broken-down sail-boat he bought for $4,000 and the 1820s farmhouse recently purchased in Truro, Cape Cod. He's still doing it up. Junger's idea of bliss, however, is to swing perilously from a treetop with a chainsaw roaring at 500 mph in his right hand and 100ft of air beneath him.

Thus the scary-looking machine, its links oozing WD40, that you are likely to spy in his abode is no macho affectation. Felling trees was the job that kept Junger in groceries before his book money flooded in, and when his aspirations of being a magazine writer seemed doomed.

More importantly, he still practises it today, routinely heading out of the city for jobs in Connecticut. When dispatched on seemingly endless book tours, both in 1997 and again in 1998, for the paperback version, he insisted that his publisher, WW Norton, leave him one day a week free, to allow him to pick up his chainsaw and get back to woodchips and sap. It is Junger's way, as it were, of keeping his feet on the ground.

He does allow himself one indulgence these days - helping out friends when they get behind on the rent or whatever. Tellingly, however, he makes a point of taking the funding of such gifts from his tree earnings only, and not from the money from Storm. Junger also financed the establishment of a charity, The Perfect Storm Foundation, dedicated to helping the children of America's commercial fishermen.

And there have been other such gestures, like when he offered himself as a dinner guest at a fund-raising auction organised by the North Shore AIDS Health Project in Massachusetts.

"What really motivates him are things that terrify him," his longtime agent, Stuart Krichevsky, explained last week. The tree-chopping answers his need for exhilaration that comes with physical risk. Other hobbies include surfing. Both these activities have brought him close to disaster. Atop one tree in 1991, he tried to swing the chainsaw round behind him to slice a particularly elusive bough. Instead, the whirling links of the saw sliced into his lower left calf, revealing an alarming display of muscle and bone. He barely missed bisecting his Achilles tendon.

Then, in 1994, shortly before receiving the contract from Norton for the book, he underestimated a giant wave while surfing in January off Cape Cod. The wave held him down so long that his lungs were on the edge of convulsing before he miraculously popped to the surface.

That brush with death at sea surely informed Junger when he came to write The Perfect Storm. The book, as most of the planet now knows, describes the hurricane that churned the Atlantic Ocean off the Massachusetts coast in October 1991, producing winds and waves that eventually consumed the shark-fishing vessel, the Andrea Gail, and its crew of six on board. But in so many ways, this man - or rather this journalist - and this hurricane, as a story waiting to be written, were made for each other.

With blood in his veins that is Austrian, Russian, Spanish and Italian in equal parts, Junger grew up in rather comfortable climes, in the Boston suburb of Belmont. He is the son of Miguel Junger, a physicist, who came to America after the Second World War from Cascais, a fishing village that is now a holiday resort on the Portugal coast, and his artist wife, Ellen.

His parents remember him being a child with extraordinary focus. When he went through his cowboys and Indians phase, he made his own Indian arrows, with carefully sharpened heads. As a teenager, while enrolled at a private school in Cambridge, the home of Harvard across the Charles river from Boston, he found almost daily sanctuary in a nearby wood, where he built a lean-to home.

"I was obsessed with the idea that I needed to be able to survive with nothing," he once said. "To walk into the woods with a knife and matches and be OK."

As a student at Wesleyan College in Connecticut, studying cultural anthropology, Junger did not immediately shine. That came, however, when he discovered long-distance running. Clocking times of 2:21, 2:22 and 2:24, he briefly had hopes of becoming an Olympic-level marathon runner. It was only a short leap from his sporting accomplishments to selecting long-distance Navajo runners as the subject for his final thesis. He travelled to the American South-west to witness their running rituals and even to train with them in the desert. "I was just on fire writing that thing. I would race back after dinner and work on it," he later recalled. Junger, the chronicler of physical prowess, of man amid the elements, was born.

Journalism, thenceforward, was his craving. But after graduating from Wesleyan in 1984, he found that the road to some degree of financial stability as a writer, let alone stardom, was long and very hard. Wandering the United States, he landed a few stories with The Boston Phoenix, an alternative weekly, and another street sheet in Washington, DC. But after six years of trying, he was ready to give up. "The writing thing was going nowhere," he told the Boston Globe last month. "And I wanted it so bad." It was then that someone in a bar offered him the tree-felling job, which he gleefully accepted.

Two things then happened. At about the time he cut his leg, Junger hit upon writing a book about people with dangerous jobs. He had in his mind a whole conceit about people risking the odds with their physical endeavours but how, as a human phenomenon, it was divided by class. The prosperous - his peers, in reality - would risk life and limb practising outdoor sports like skiing, subaqua diving, mountain climbing or mountain biking. But there was a whole other group, the group he preferred to place himself in - those without money or free time - for whom such activities were not sport but their livelihoods.

At that time, Junger was living in Gloucester, a Massachusetts fishing port on hard times. On that fateful October morning, meteorologists warned of peril at sea due to the imminent arrival of a mighty storm, that was really the confluence of three already powerful disturbances. Somewhere in the middle of the maelstrom was a 72ft steel-hulled fishing vessel from Gloucester, the Andrea Gail.

When it was over, Junger saw a newspaper article reporting the disappearance of the boat and its crew. Responding to his journalistic instincts, he clipped it and put it in a drawer. He decided then that those who brave the oceans to bring home fish for America's dinner tables should get a chapter in his book.

Over the next few years, the original idea for the book withered and died. What survived from it was a 20-page article on what Junger believed had been the fate of the Andrea Gail and its six seafarers. Outside, a periodical about the pursuit of the great outdoors, bought it. A proposal for a whole book on the episode quickly followed.

Junger was in Bosnia in mid-1994, trying to build his credentials as a hard-news reporter, when world came from his agent, Krichevsky, that after six rejections, it had been accepted by Norton, with a $35,000 advance. They wanted the finished product in one year. They had to wait two.

When Krichevsky talks about those motivating moments of terror for Junger, he counts starting out on the book among them. "It's also about the fear of failure. He has told me that he needs to be absolutely terrified that he can't possibly do what's asked of him. And the idea of telling a story about six people who were dead on a ship that was never found, that was absolutely terrifying."

Most difficult of all was finding a way to honour his commitment to keeping to the facts when some just weren't available. There were no witnesses to this story, or at least, not to those moments after the last radio transmission from Captain Billy Tyne: "She's comin' on boys, and she's comin' on strong." In a technique that he has dubbed "journalism of equivalency", Junger tried to give readers the scenario as it most likely would have been on board at the end, without attempting to pretend he was giving them the gospel truth.

Explanations for the book's extraordinary success are varied. They range from the quality of the writing to happy timing - with Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air coming out at roughly the same time, books about braving the elements were in vogue - to the masterly exploitation of Junger's rugged looks by Norton in the marketing campaign. It was the publisher that found itself handling the avalanche of letters to Junger with proposals of marriage.

"Honestly, it didn't hurt that he was very good looking," comments Daisy Maryles, executive director of Publishers' Weekly. Junger, who obliged by posing shirtless for one magazine, professes to have hated the process, which has had to be cranked up all over again with the release of the film. "I feel like I've gotten here now, but I don't know how long I can stay," he told the Globe amid the movie-opening brouhaha. "I don't know how long I can do this."

But the man should not complain too loudly. His career is surely now set. But to his credit, he is not resting on any laurels. In May, he won a prize at the National Magazine Awards for a story for Vanity Fair - where he is now a contributing editor - about the aftermath of the war in Kosovo. Also this spring, he found himself in Sierra Leone, again for Vanity Fair, when rebels took 500 UN peacekeepers hostage. He plans to return to Sierra Leone later this year, in a van that he will drive over there from Brussels.

He has also confirmed the rumour that there is another book in the pipeline. He will say nothing more about it, except this: "One thing's for sure, I will never write about the sea again."