July 14, 1997 12:00 PM

From the wreckage, a whale of a tale

HE FELT CERTAIN HE WAS WRITING a book no one would read. Sure, his topic—the 1991 sinking of a Gloucester, Mass., fishing boat in one of the worst storms on record—had drama aplenty, but he kept getting sidetracked by esoterica: the history of Gloucester, the physics of wave formation. “I wanted to learn about what happens when you drown, about meteorology, so I wrote about them,” Sebastian Junger says. “I didn’t care if anyone else got into it, but I thought, ‘This is doomed.’ ”

He thought wrong. The Perfect Storm, which tells the stories of the six men who went down with the Andrea Gail, sailed onto The New York Times bestseller list and has been sold to Warner Bros. Its blend of suspense and erudition has earned critical plaudits (“Reportage like Sebastian Junger’s…could have graced William Shawn’s New Yorker,” Newsweek’s reviewer declared), leaving Junger, 35, who lives alone on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, feeling like he’s been hit by one of Storm’s 100-foot waves. “At every other point in my life when I was doing something idiosyncratic,” he marvels, “nobody related.”

He has rarely done the expected. Before writing Storm, his first book, Junger wrote articles for magazines such as Outside on topics like wilderness wildfires. (“My agent once said, ‘Sebastian likes to write about things that are too big and way too loud,’ ” he says.) He made extra cash as a high-climbing tree cutter, a job he says he adored because “it’s dangerous, it’s hard, and you make a ton of money.”

Even growing up in genteel Belmont, Mass., the son of physicist Miguel and his artist wife, Ellen, Junger forged his own path. “I spent a lot of time on my own in the woods,” he says. “I was obsessed with the idea that I needed to be able to survive with nothing, to walk into the woods with a knife and matches and be okay.”

After graduating from Wesleyan University with a degree in cultural anthropology in 1984, Junger drifted from job to odd job and honed his writing. He was living in Gloucester and thinking about doing a book on dangerous work—inspired by a chain-saw gash he had suffered while cutting trees—when the big storm of ’91 hit. The Andrea Gail tragedy, at first just a chapter in his planned book, evolved into Storm, and Junger researched it thoroughly. “The biggest challenge was to write without fictionalizing,” he says. “I had to piece the crew members together from their friends and family.”

The Gloucester fishing community’s approval of the finished product (“He did a fine job,” says Ethel Shatford, mother of one of the lost men) means more to Junger than the current acclaim. (“It’s harder to impress a fisherman than a New York editor,” he says.) Still, he’s pleased with his newfound wealth and has purchased a 25-foot sloop. “Writing the book,” he says, “whetted my appetite for the sea.”


TOM DUFFY in Gloucester

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